Humane society addresses uproar over Coco’s last day

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A couple gave up their dog to Juneau’s animal shelter on a Saturday morning in December. That same evening, they had a change of heart and wanted the dog back, but it was too late. The dog had already been euthanized.

Coco was a small, long-haired Chihuahua mix. (Photo courtesy of Gordon Garlock)
Coco was a small, long-haired Chihuahua mix. (Photo courtesy of Gordon Garlock)

Gastineau Humane Society called the dog aggressive and not a viable candidate for adoption. The Juneau couple wishes they’d been notified before the dog was put down.

“She was just our housedog. She stayed in the house all the time and she’d be sitting at the windowsill waiting for us to come home every day and be so excited. She was just a wonderful dog,” he said.

The 3-year-old small dog was great with their grandkids, Garlock said. They’d had Coco for two and a half years, but with Garlock and his wife retiring, moving to Nevada and planning to travel a lot, he said they made the decision to give the dog up. Garlock said he thought the shelter would find a nice home for Coco.

“Later that evening we got to thinking, ‘Boy, we’d just miss her too much.’ We talked it over and decided, ‘Well, heck, if it’s some place she can’t go with us, we just won’t go there,’” Garlock said.

When Garlock’s wife went back to the shelter Monday morning to bring Coco home, she was told the dog had been euthanized. Garlock wishes the shelter would notify former owners before an animal is put down.

“It seems like at least a courtesy call before you did something like that. You could at least called and asked if we wanted to make sure we didn’t want to get her back before you put her down,” Garlock said.

According to the shelter’s paperwork, Coco was dropped off around 9:45 a.m. on Dec. 12. Later that same day, the dog had been euthanized.

Gastineau Humane Society Executive Director Matt Musslewhite said what happened to Coco isn’t outside of normal operating procedures. Under certain circumstances, the nonprofit shelter will euthanize animals.

“Of course, if they pose a threat of safety to our staff, they’re obviously not going to be good candidates for potential adopters. We just can’t allow an animal that could possibly bite a child to be adopted out,” Musslewhite said.

Shelter records indicate Coco was growling upon entering the shelter. Staff members were unable to remove her leash or examine her because she was “snapping,” “lunging” and “charging.” A vet technician noted Coco “tried to bite her repeatedly.”

Garlock indicated in shelter paperwork Coco had exhibited aggressive behavior toward strangers. But he said Coco had never bitten anyone.

Animal control staff moved Coco to a dangerous dog kennel, according to shelter records. A vet tech originally wanted to give Coco “a few days to settle down.” But later that same day, the vet tech requested Coco be euthanized. The vet tech thought the risk of Coco biting someone was “too great” and didn’t think “she would ever be a candidate for adoption.”

Musslewhite was not involved in this particular case, but he said there’s no advantage to holding an aggressive dog in the shelter for multiple days in hopes of improvement.

“They get more and more aggressive as time goes on, so the longer that you hold them, the more they are a threat to animals around them, their own welfare. These animals can injure themselves in the kennels or they can injure staff members,” Musslewhite said.

A Juneau resident relayed part of Coco’s story on Facebook. She wrote, “I can’t believe they would kill a perfectly healthy dog.” Many people were outraged and there were hundreds of comments. Musslewhite said some shelter employees received death threats.

Gastineau Humane Society takes in animals from all over northern Southeast Alaska. There’s no time limit for how long an animal can stay in the shelter – some have stayed for as long as two years. Last year, 311 animals were adopted out.

Musslewhite said the vast majority of euthanasia cases involve animals who are at the end of their lives. The shelter euthanized 50 animals in 2015. This year so far, three animals have been put down. Most dogs that are relinquished to the shelter go through a medical exam and a behavior assessment before being put in the adoption program.

Musslewhite said senior staff members determine if dogs with behavior issues can be rehabilitated.

“The success of the animal and the welfare of the animal are our primary concern with this,” he said.

Musslewhite said it’s not uncommon for people to change their minds after relinquishing an animal. But once someone signs an owner release form, the animal becomes property of the humane society. That person loses the right to information about the animal. Musslewhite said if you were a new owner of an adopted pet, it would be unfair if the shelter gave your information to a previous owner.

“It’s important for us to draw a line there and say, ‘When you give up the rights to an animal, you give up the rights,’ and trust that we’re going to provide the care for the animal even if that means doing the humane thing and euthanizing it if it’s not a candidate for adoption,” Musslewhite said.

The owner release form that Coco’s owner signed did not explicitly lay out the possibility of euthanasia.

Musslewhite said the form was updated since then so that it does, though he said the change was not done in response to Coco’s case.

Lisa Phu is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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