'Justice for Oscar': Arbutus dog's death sparks outrage, debate over animal cruelty

About 70 people gathered on Jan. 14 on a patch of grass in Arbutus next to the Interstate 695 sound barrier, their breath visible by the light of candles in the 20-degree air, to remember a dog named Oscar.

“It’s cold,” Michelle Guarino, an Arbutus resident who organized the vigil, said to the group. “But it’s nothing compared to what Oscar lived through.”

The vigil was held after a neighbor's Facebook post — since taken down — alleging that the dog had been left outside in the harsh cold overnight in late December, and then later online comments from neighbors that the dog had died, went viral the weekend of Dec. 30. The dog’s death sparked outrage in the Arbutus community and ignited a discussion about whether Baltimore County’s animal rights protections are adequate.

"Once again our neighbor across from us leaves their dog out all night,” Jessica Weckesser, who has since taken down her Facebook page or made it private, said in the viral post. “Poor guy has been moaning and basically crying for help since 2 AM this morning and the owner will not bring him in and it absolutely breaks my heart!! I called animal control like everyone else already has all year long because this is an ongoing thing and they basically say there is nothing they can do since the owner has a doggy door.”

Guarino, who along with Arbutus resident Chris Meyer started the Facebook group “Justice for Oscar,” which now has more than 600 likes, called Oscar’s death the result of “neglect” — a charge for which the county said Baltimore County Animal Services found no evidence.

"These allegations have been investigated by Baltimore County Animal Services and the Police Department and there was no evidence of animal mistreatment and no cause to charge anyone,” county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said in a Jan. 11 emailed statement. “It was determined that the 15-year-old chow chow died of natural causes and that a family member was caring for the dog when it died.”

Kobler, the county spokeswoman, declined a request for an interview with a representative of Animal Services.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said that his office has ordered a necropsy to determine the cause of the dog's death. Shellenberger said his office was informed of the case by either the police or Animal Services.

"Once that’s with us, we’ll put the case together to make a determination as to whether there’s a prosecution,” Shellenberger said. Necropsies are done on animals so rarely, however, that he said he had no point of reference to estimate how long it would take.

Oscar’s owner, Selvin Gnanakkan, denied in an interview the allegations that he neglected the dog, saying that the animal died of old age — the chow chow, husky and Labrador mix was almost 15 years old, he said, well beyond the life expectancy for his breed.

“I’m not an animal killer, or whatever they’re calling me,” Gnanakkan said. “Oscar’s my dog, my buddy. I’ve had him since he was a puppy. He just got old.”

Gnanakkan said that Oscar and his other dog were “outdoor dogs,” with access to a doggy door to go inside when it got cold. Oscar, he said, had a thick coat, so “what’s cold to you and me is not cold to him.”

According to a guide on the American Veterinary Medical Association website: “Like people, cats and dogs are susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia and should be kept inside. Longer-haired and thick-coated dog breeds, such as huskies and other dogs bred for colder climates, are more tolerant of cold weather; but no pet should be left outside for long periods of time in below-freezing weather.”

Very old pets, the guide said, have an especially difficult time regulating their body temperature.

Guarino blamed Oscar’s death on Baltimore County Animal Services, saying that although neighbors called them and the police multiple times to report Oscar’s being outside on the night of Dec. 29, during which the temperature hovered around 20 degrees, the department’s response was inadequate.

Gnanakkan, whose parents were watching his two dogs while he was out of town at the time of Oscar’s death, said he received a call from Animal Services the morning of Dec. 30, saying they had received complaints that the dog was outside yelping. Gnanakkan said he called his parents and asked them to check on the dog and to bring him indoors, which he said they did.

Neighbors said that Gnanakkan’s dogs were often left outside. Sarah Moeller, who said she lives two houses down from Gnanakkan, said that as long as she had lived in the neighborhood she saw the dogs outside every day, from 6 a.m. until the end of the day.

A county database of Animal Services complaints had 15 complaints to Gnanakkan’s address between 2014 and January 2018, all saying that dogs on the property were left outside. Two calls saying that one of the dogs had died were dated Jan. 1. The cases were all marked as “closed.”

Gnanakkan said that he had received multiple notes and calls from Animal Services over the years, advising him to bring his dogs inside. He said that he complied each time, “and then they go right outside again.”

Julia Hardgrove, a Baltimore County Police Department spokeswoman, said that an officer was dispatched to Gnanakkan’s home on Dec. 30, but "no police report was taken because Animal Services will be handling the case from here.” Without a written report, she said she did not know why the case was handed over. She referred questions about the case to Animal Services.

The Jan. 14 vigil included poetry readings and a moment of silence. “Angel,” the Sarah McLachlan song famous for accompanying advertisements for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, played on a set of speakers. Attendees brought flowers and stuffed animals to place on a wooden cross with “Rest in Peace Oscar” written on it, posted by the sidewalk outside Gnanakkan’s home.

Guarino created a petition that she said 70 people signed, calling for stronger laws to prevent animal cruelty in Baltimore County.

"I’m hoping for a change when animal control responds,” Guarino said. “I want stricter, tighter criteria when they respond to a call.” She said she wants more definitive guidelines as to what counts as adequate shelter.

“The laws just are not strong enough,” said Michelle Smith, an Arbutus resident who attended the vigil after learning about it on Facebook. “It’s very lenient for something like this. We worry about people being out in the cold, which we absolutely should, but animals are as important as people.”

Kobler said in a Jan. 11 follow-up email that Animal Services does have 24-hour coverage for emergencies. After-hours emergencies fall into four categories, she said: police requests for assistance with an animal; confined stray animals that finders cannot hold overnight; injured stray animals, or bats inside a home. Calls about Oscar, who was not a stray, would not have constituted an emergency under the criteria.

Baltimore County’s website states that “all animals must be provided shelter for protection from wind, snow, rain, cold and the sun.” The county code gives animal services officers the authority to “direct” an owner to fix shelter conditions that threaten the health of an animal.

“If there’s something we can do to tighten controls and help prevent that in the future, I’m definitely open to ideas,” said County Councilman Tom Quirk, who represents Arbutus.

At the vigil, Smith held a bouquet of roses alongside the candle in her hand, and wiped away tears. She remembered her own dog, whom she said she had to put down before Thanksgiving. Afterward, she walked to Oscar’s memorial and placed the flowers on it, kneeling with her head bowed.

"They don’t ask anything from you,” Smith said. “All they want is to be loved and taken care of.”

Story has been updated to clarify statistics from animal control.

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