Sunday, November 21, 2010

Afghan Hero Dog Is Euthanized by Mistake in U.S./Federal officer gets probation in dog park shooting of Bear-Bear


The New York Times

November 18, 2010

Afghan Hero Dog Is Euthanized by Mistake in U.S.


FLORENCE, Ariz. — When a suicide bomber entered an American military barracks in Afghanistan in February, it was not American soldiers but Afghan stray dogs that confronted him. Target and two other dogs snarled, barked and snapped at the man, who detonated his bomb at the entrance to the facility but did not kill anyone.

The dogs were from the Dand Aw Patan district, in the eastern Paktia Province near the Pakistani border. One died of wounds suffered in the blast, and months later, Target and the other dog, Rufus, were flown to the United States by a charity and adopted by families. Target — who received a hero’s welcome, including an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” — went to live with the family of Sgt. Terry Young, 37, an Army medic who witnessed the animals’ bravery that night and helped treat the dogs and several American soldiers who were wounded.

The glory, though, was short-lived. Target, after learning to get along with the Young family’s other dog in Arizona, becoming accustomed to dog food and to using a doggie door to relieve herself, escaped from her yard. She was captured last week and euthanized by mistake.

“My 4-year-old keeps saying: ‘Daddy, bring Target home. Daddy, get the poison out,’ ” Sergeant Young, a father of three, said in a telephone interview, his voice choking with emotion. “Obviously, at first there was extreme anger and horror. Now that a couple of days have passed, the anger has been replaced by sorrow.”

To say that Target was a celebrated mutt would be an understatement. Beyond caresses from Oprah, the shepherd mix had appeared on all the major television news channels upon her move to the United States and had won a local Hero Award as dog of the year.

Target, not used to being confined, escaped Friday afternoon from Sergeant Young’s home in the San Tan Valley area in central Arizona. After being spotted on the loose, she was reported to Pinal County’s animal control. Target was brought to the county animal shelter in Florence, where she was held just like any other run-of-the-mill stray. Because she had no tag, microchip or license with the county, her photo went up on the shelter’s Web site on Friday in hopes that her owner might respond.

Sergeant Young spotted Target’s photo online on Friday and paid the fee by computer to recover her. He mistakenly thought the shelter was closed for the weekend.

By the time Sergeant Young arrived at the pound on Monday, the shelter employee in charge of euthanizing animals that day had apparently picked the wrong dog out of the pen and administered a lethal injection, performing what the shelter referred to as “P.T.S.,” or put to sleep.

“I am heartsick over this,” Ruth Stalter, the county’s animal care and control director, said in a statement. “I had to personally deliver the news to the dog’s owner, and he and his family are understandably distraught.”

Barraged with criticism, the county ordered an investigation and placed the unidentified woman who euthanized Target on administrative leave. “This is unacceptable,” Ms. Stalter said, “and no family should be deprived of their companion because procedures were not followed.”

The county offered the Young family the services of a grief counselor who specializes in pet issues and agreed to refund the recovery fee and waive any fines, said Heather Murphy, a county spokeswoman. “We are not shying away from this,” she said. “We screwed up, and we’re acknowledging that.”

But Target’s fate has mushroomed into more than a family tragedy. Because of the dog’s fame and her heroics in battle, there has been an outpouring of grief.

A candlelight vigil is planned for Dec. 3 to honor Target. Sergeant Young said he might spread the dog’s ashes, which were provided by the animal shelter, at a memorial service, perhaps at the park where Target used to frolic off leash.

A lawyer specializing in animal issues has also contacted Sergeant Young, who said a lawsuit was possible.

Recalling those difficult days in Afghanistan, Sergeant Young said that perhaps because he and the other soldiers were living like dogs themselves, they bonded with the strays that found their way onto the base. “Our rooms could be mistaken for kennels with the cement floors, smell of urine and feces, razor wire and chain-linked fence all around the compound,” he wrote for his hometown paper in Nebraska, The McCook Daily Gazette, just days after Target joined him in August.

Target had her own Facebook page for those who wanted to follow her new life in the United States. Since word of her death has spread, fans have written of their shock and outrage.

“Nooooooooooo!!! So so sad :-( Thank you for all you did Target! Amazing that you survived a war, but not an American shelter ... something is wrong here, baby,” read one posting.

The page has been used to organize a write-in campaign to Pinal County officials to express outrage at what happened. The No Kill Advocacy Center has used Target’s death to raise the profile of its campaign to end the euthanizing of millions of cats and dogs at shelters every year.

And the Puppy Rescue Mission, the organization that raised the several thousand dollars to bring Target to the United States, has expanded its mission to encourage pet owners to install microchips in their animals so they can be easily traced.

At the shelter where Target died, there is significant despair as well, county officials said. “On Monday, I spoke with the director and if she was not openly crying, she was fighting back tears,” Ms. Murphy said. “You don’t do this work if you don’t care about animals.”

“They love when someone adopts an animal or an animal is returned to its owner. That’s the best part of the job,” Ms. Murphy said. “But there is roadkill to pick up, and we recently had to pick up 154 cats from a trailer with no running water. These jobs are thankless even on a good day.”

The official investigation into what happened will go beyond one employee’s error and look into the policies of the shelter, officials said. Already, one former employee has come forward to say that he almost euthanized the wrong animal on several occasions.

“They said, ‘Ah, don’t worry about it, mistakes happen,’ and we went on,” the former employee, Jason Melroy, told local television station KTAR. “I sedated a dog that wasn’t supposed to be put to sleep. Thank God another officer found it.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: November 18, 2010

An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Pinal County as Pima County in one instance. A male pronoun was also used mistakenly to refer to Target in one instance.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: November 20, 2010

An article on Friday about an Afghan dog, Target, who was brought to the United States after she helped save the lives of American soldiers and was later mistakenly euthanized at an animal shelter misstated the location of the hometown newspaper of Target’s owner. The McCook Daily Gazette is published in Nebraska, not Oklahoma.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

Federal officer gets probation in dog park shooting of Bear-Bear

Man who shot husky in Severn dog park had been charged with animal cruelty

By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

10:21 PM EST, November 19, 2010

Federal police officer Keith Elgin Shepherd was fined and given probation before judgment Friday for shooting a Siberian husky he claimed attacked his pet and was threatening him and his wife at a community dog park in Severn in August.

"We are overjoyed that it's gotten this far," Rachel Rettaliata told Anne Arundel County District Judge Thomas J. Pryal. She and her husband, Ryan Rettaliata owned Bear-Bear, the dog shot in the Quail Run community dog park and injured so severely that it had to be euthanized. "Our lives have been turned upside down."

After a 31/2-hour trial, Pryal called the shooting of Bear-Bear "an overreaction" and said it was unreasonable, causing pain and suffering to the 3-year-old dog.

Pryal said he was ready to convict Shepherd, 32, on charges of misdemeanor animal cruelty and, with the nearest home about 66 yards away, discharging his personal handgun within 100 yards of homes in the Quail Run neighborhood. He offered Shepherd probation before judgment, allowing him to avoid a criminal record if he successfully completes probation.

Shepherd accepted the terms and, barring new criminal charges or not fulfilling the conditions of probation, he will have the opportunity to have his record expunged in three years. He cannot appeal.

Pryal fined Shepherd $500 for animal cruelty and gave him a suspended fine of $1,000 on the handgun charge. During his one-year unsupervised probation, he must complete 80 hours of community service.

During the trial, testimony from the two sides about what happened at the dog park was in conflict.

While on the stand, Shepherd said that Bear-Bear had bitten his dog around the neck, then bared its teeth at him. Seeing no rock or stick to use, he took a few steps back, pulled his personal Glock and shot the dog once, then called 911, telling the dispatcher to make sure animal control officers came to help the wounded dog.

Assistant State's Attorney Kimberly DiPietro argued that Shepherd had other options for handling what Shepherd perceived as a threatening situation for himself, his wife and his German shepherd.

"Did you kick Bear-Bear?" she asked Shepherd in cross-examination.

"No," he replied.

The verdict left the community that has rallied around the Rettaliatas — thousands locally and online — with mixed feelings. About 15 supporters attended part or all of the trial, some carrying "Justice for Bear-Bear" signs outside the courthouse before the trial, others wearing "Justice for Bear-Bear" T-shirts with Bear-Bear buttons pinned to their clothing. The Justice for Bear-Bear Facebook page has more than 15,600 members.

"I think the judge made the right decision," said Pamela Semies, a retiree who came from Halethorpe to attend the trial. "I would have liked to see the judge make the penalty stiffer."

She said she believed the judge made it clear that shooting the dog was the wrong way for Shepherd to handle the situation.

"I don't think Bear-Bear's death was in vain. A person will think a little more next time. Suppose [the bullet] would have ricocheted and hit a child, a person," she said.

Wendy Cozzone, who operates Cheryl's Rescue Ranch in Gambrills and heads the Anne Arundel County Animal Welfare Council, said it was important to see that Shepherd was held publicly accountable for a bad decision that proved fatal to someone's pet.

"I just wish one time, one of these cases, animal abuse cases, a statement would be made. And then someone says, 'Boy, I better not abuse animals or neglect animals. I might get that kind of a sentence,' because the judge says you're going to get the toughest fine you can get," she said. "I guess we take it one step at a time."

The Rettaliatas declined to comment as they left the courtroom. But their expressions were buoyant, a contrast to when they were listening to testimony, when Rachel Rettaliata appeared to sniffle and Ryan Rettaliata looked somberly down at the floor.

David Putzi, Shepherd's defense attorney, said he was not surprised but understood the rationale of the judge's decision.

Shepherd accepted the probation agreement, Putzi said, because "I think he wants to move on."

How this might affect Shepherd's work — he is a civilian police sergeant for the Army at Joint Command Myer-Henderson Hall in Northern Virginia and serves as a sergeant in the Army Reserves — is unclear.

"I think he's optimistic that it won't have too negative an impact," Putzi said. Shepherd, as a federal officer, was allowed to carry a personal weapon while off duty.

The prosecutor was pleased with the trial's outcome.

"I'm happy that he was held accountable for his actions," DiPietro said.

During her cross-examination of Shepherd, she noted that he did not get Bear-Bear's leash to hit him with, did not try to grab the dog's rear legs or take the leash of his German shepherd, Asia, from his wife. His wife did not drop Asia's leash, and neither Shepherd nor his wife retreated from the dog park through any of its three gates, she said.

Rachel Rettaliata's brother, Steven Ryan Kurinij, who lives with the couple, said he'd taken Bear-Bear to the private dog park about 6 p.m., as he often did. The Shepherds arrived later with Asia. The couple asked whether Bear-Bear was friendly, and after Kurinij said yes, the Shepherds said Asia was friendly, too, and entered.

Kurinij described two dogs playing, up on their hind legs making "little grunts," followed by Shepherd's wife screaming and Shepherd shouting.

"He told me, 'You'd better get your dog,' and he pulled out what I thought was a Taser and shot it — in the abdomen" in a sequence that took just seconds. Asked by DiPietro why he didn't jump in to get Bear-Bear, Kurinij replied, "I didn't have time to." Under cross-examination by Putzi, Kurinij said that at no time did it seem to him that the dogs were fighting.

In contrast, Shepherd said the dogs started out playing, but said that once his timid dog backed away, the husky attacked. He described a nearly minute-long sequence that included Bear-Bear's biting his dog around the neck, his wife "calling out hysterically" and him moving to grab Bear-Bear's collar, only to see the husky turn toward him.

He said he shouted a dozen times at Kurinij to get his dog but "he did absolutely nothing." Fearing for his wife as the husky bared its teeth, he shot the dog, he said.

Initially, county police closed the case, said Detective Tom Middleton. But the case was not really closed, he said, because his supervisor had not signed off on it.

Amid a public uproar, County Executive John R. Leopold ordered a full police investigation. Meanwhile, the state's attorney's office was reviewing the initial information and later solicited information from the state attorney general's office and federal officials. Charges were brought about two weeks after the shooting.

The Rettaliatas have adopted two huskies since Bear-Bear was shot. The Shepherd family has moved from the neighborhood.

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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