Animal Shelter Drops the Ball on Missing Dog
Was Reba the dog euthanized or stolen?
Where, oh where, has sweet, little Reba gone? That's what Gilbert and Mitzi Angelle of Cedar Park have been asking since July 20, when workers at the Williamson Co. Regional Animal Shelter told them that Reba, a frisky Labrador, had been put down. Yet a nagging question remains: Is Reba really dead?
Gilbert, for one, isn't convinced, for he was never allowed to see the dog's body. "They stole my dog," he insists. Last week, the Angelles hired Bill Aleshire, the go-to lawyer for WilCo animal advocates of late, to assist them in determining Reba's actual fate. Reba and the couple's other dog, Toby, had gone missing last month and ultimately ended up at the shelter. But only Toby was safely returned home.
"The Angelle family has been devastated, first by being told that the county killed their 2-year-old healthy Lab, Reba, and then by the inhumane refusal of the county to let them confirm that the dog they killed was, in fact, Reba," Aleshire said.
County officials at first dug in their heels on the matter. In televised reports that aired the week of the dog's alleged death, and in a subsequent e-mail to the Chronicle, WilCo spokeswoman Connie Watson explained that the dog had been 8 or 9 years old and was euthanized because she was an "anti-social" stray with a bald spot. "The black Lab that was brought in from Brushy Creek Lake Park was humanely euthanized to prevent further suffering," Watson wrote. "She was distressed and harming herself. She was trying to dig out from her kennel and hurting her feet in the process as well as losing hair. She was acting in an unsocialized manner with the other animals." Watson went on to explain that the shelter follows a formal review process before euthanizing an animal. "These decisions are not made lightly," she said. (Since then, however, Aleshire said he met Monday with Sheriff James Wilson, who told him he "personally" would look into the case.)
Gilbert, a professional Lab trainer and breeder, said the dog Watson described "ain't my dog" and that Reba was a happy, healthy, well-trained "big baby" -- nowhere near a candidate for speedy disposal, in other words. "She was beautiful," Mitzi added.
The family's saga began Monday, July 16, when Reba and Toby, a blue heeler mix, went missing at a Williamson Co. park. It wasn't the first time the dogs had set out on their own, but they had always returned home in short order, the Angelles said. Two days later, the family posted a sign, and, within an hour, Cedar Park Animal Control Officer Charles Partridge notified the Angelles that the two dogs had been taken to the regional shelter. Partridge told them he would call in a "found-owner" report -- standard procedure for halting euthanization -- and provided them control numbers for both animals.
Since the shelter is usually closed on Thursdays, the family waited until Friday to call, but shelter personnel "never answered the phone," Mitzi said. A little after noon, Gilbert and daughter Sarah, 15, arrived at the shelter to retrieve their dogs but encountered "mass chaos."
Shelter workers initially told them they didn't have the dogs, Gilbert said. Then they were told the dogs were there but that he'd have to pay $220 in cash to reclaim them. When Gilbert returned that afternoon with the money, shelter personnel acted as though they'd never seen him before, he said.
Then, when a shelter employee punched in Reba's control number, the digits pulled up an aging Lab matching Watson's subsequent description of the deceased dog, Gilbert said. Finally, at about 5:30pm, a shelter worker informed the Angelles that Reba had been euthanized but that they couldn't view their dog's body for legal reasons, Gilbert recalled. "I think they told me Reba was euthanized to get rid of me," he said. "My daughter then fell to the floor and just cried and cried." With only one of the Angelles' dogs returned, the shelter also refunded the family the $110 that they would have paid for Reba's retrieval. "But what puzzles me is that they collected it with the full intention of giving us the dog," Gilbert said. "They had no idea [at the time] that she was dead either. They never indicated this the whole day."
Meanwhile, Gilbert called the Williamson Co. Sheriff's Office, hoping for assistance in retrieving Reba's body. The three deputies who showed up seemed helpful at first, he said, but they eventually told him the shelter had followed policy and no crime had been committed. Angelle, understandably distraught, called his wife from the shelter to tell her that Reba was dead. The deputies, apparently taken aback by Gilbert's display of emotion, gave him five minutes to leave the shelter. There are conflicting reports about whether Gilbert complied and left the premises without incident.
Nearly a month later, the Angelles remain unconvinced that Reba was euthanized. And, they say, until they see Reba's body or incontrovertible documentation of her demise, they will continue to hope she is alive. Moreover, the family recently obtained documents that cast serious doubt on the county's initial report of what happened, Aleshire said. "They show that the dog they killed had mange and calloused joints. That is not Reba."
As it happens, Aleshire is also representing a group of shelter volunteers and advocates who say the sheriff's office is dragging its feet on investigating allegations of animal cruelty and neglect at the shelter. The allegations ultimately led to the firing of whistle-blower and former vet tech Kathy (Lopez) Abdella. She in turn filed a grievance against the county and last week won a $27,000 settlement (which includes $6,000 for attorney's fees). Aleshire, like a lot of other people, is befuddled by the county's seemingly endless string of missteps: "When the hell is some WilCo official going to step up, insist that the truth be told, and put a stop to the inhumanity to people and pets at the county's shelter?"