Dog fights: Fluvanna SPCA sued for aggressive dog incident

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Animal rights activist Rose Lemaster has been critical of the Fluvanna SPCA and of some of the dogs it’s allowed to be adopted.
Photo by Ron Rammelkamp Animal rights activist Rose Lemaster has been critical of the Fluvanna SPCA and of some of the dogs it’s allowed to be adopted. Photo by Ron Rammelkamp

Following a string of less-than-perfect adoption incidents, a family has filed a lawsuit against the Fluvanna SPCA alleging gross negligence after a dog bit their 5-year-old child’s face, just days after they adopted the dog from the shelter.

“He had a bite wound to his right eye with puncture wounds encompassing the entire orbit,” says a May 5 bite report filed with Albemarle County Police that details the incident and injuries to the child. “There was bruising and swelling to the area.”

The dog in question, originally named Happy and later renamed Max, was adopted from the Fluvanna SPCA May 2, and, according to the parents of Noah Viemeister, had not shown “any indication of aggression” until the incident.

However, the report notes that the dog had been returned to the FSPCA twice before the Viemeisters adopted him, and the animal custody records for those adoptions say the dog was aggressive toward other animals, although in the first case this was crossed out and replaced with a different reason for the return.

According to the FSPCA, neither of the earlier families thought Happy was an aggressive dog and Happy played with elementary-aged children without showing aggression. The FSPCA euthanized Happy May 19.

Kelly Crawford, operations manager at the Fluvanna SPCA from 2012 to 2013, says that dog aggression is a common issue at shelters, but she believes the FSPCA is not handling these situations effectively.

“It’s all in how it’s managed, and I don’t think the people running the shelter at this point have the training or the knowledge to make this a better situation,” Crawford says, calling some of these incidents “borderline unethical.”

Tony Borash, president of the Fluvanna SPCA Board of Directors, does not believe training is an issue, and says the shelter has volunteers who have helped with difficult evaluations and with staff training. Over the past few months, the staff has learned to listen for particular types of behaviors and identify those that signify pain, aggression or play, he says. Borash says these incidents have been “generally unfortunate circumstances.”

The child biting is one of several incidents that have plagued the Fluvanna SPCA in the past year. In March, the shelter advertised through the Metro Richmond Pet Savers Facebook page seven pit bulls in need of behavioral training. The dogs had been at the shelter for roughly a year when the post was made, and most of the dogs were described positively aside from their aggressive behavior. Eva, a 6-year-old pit bull, was described as “great with all people…sweet and calm” but very dog-aggressive.

Shortly after a commenter said the animals needed to be “reevaluated with someone who knows what they’re doing,” the post was removed, not because the descriptions were inaccurate but because “the way in which it was worded made it sound like we were trying to find homes for them,” says Borash, who notes the shelter was aware that the dogs were not adoptable in their current state. “We were looking for rehab centers for them,” he says.

He also mentions that six of the 10 pit bulls the shelter took in for the Brendan Mathis dog fighting court case were euthanized because of their poor behavioral evaluations and the inability of other shelters to take them in for training, while two of the remaining have since been transferred to an out-of-state rescue facility.

Cheryl Faulkenbury, an animal behaviorist and former office employee at the FSPCA in 2010, found two of these pit bulls jumping at their cages and barking when she visited the shelter in July, a situation she thought should have been dealt with through euthanization.

“When you leave an animal in a cage for a year and a half, that’s not enrichment,” Faulkenbury says. “That’s just moving from one cage to another.”

Borash notes that it was not the shelter’s choice to keep the pit bulls locked in their kennels. Rather, the case required that the dogs be made available to the defense attorney when he needed to perform evaluations on them, allowing only staff members to interact with the dogs.

The most recent public outcry against the FSPCA came when Ollie, a Lab mix adopted from the shelter, pulled away from his owner on a walk and attacked a 12-week-old cocker spaniel puppy, Max, in early October.

Florence Buchholz, who had adopted Ollie that same day, was pulled to the ground by Ollie’s sudden movement and required stitches in her mouth because of the incident. Despite her injury, Buchholz says the incident was not a case of aggression.

“He was shaking the little dog in his mouth like a toy,” Buchholz says, “but he wasn’t barking or growling. He didn’t bite him and he wasn’t aggressive. I think he was just exuberant and needed a stronger person walking with him.”

Lynette Lauer, Buchholz’s neighbor, was present when Ollie was adopted and described him as a friendly, goofy dog. “He was romping around the neighborhood like a little pony,” she adds.

Lauer, who also works at an animal shelter for small dogs, says that incidents like this happen frequently and are not always cases of aggression. She explains that if small dogs are lifted off the ground, as Max was by his owner, larger animals will often try to grab the dog out of curiosity.

“[Ollie] weighs about 70 pounds and [Max] weighs about 5 pounds,” Lauer says, “I think if [Ollie] had really wanted to hurt the dog, he would have hurt him.”

Rose Lemaster, an animal rights activist and animal rescue volunteer, disagrees that Ollie was trying to play, and says it was “absolutely a case of aggression.” Noting that Ollie pulled his owner to the ground, Lemaster questions why the FSPCA chose to adopt out such a young dog to an older client like Buchholz.

“I’m not saying he needs to be euthanized, but he does need to be treated as a dangerous dog,” Lemaster says.

Borash says the shelter goes through a long questionnaire with potential adopters to match dogs with their new owner’s lifestyle. He says it was not the pairing that was a problem.

“While Ollie had a lot of energy, once Florence had returned Ollie, she had gone to adopt another dog,” Borash says. “What I was told is that the beagle she adopted pulled her down again.”

FSPCA Manager Meaghan Szwejkowski, who began her role as manager in July, was also surprised by Ollie’s attack, calling it an “out of the blue” scenario not indicated by Ollie’s behavioral testing both before and after the attack.

“Even when he was returned to the shelter, we wanted to do as much data collection as we could,” Szwejkowski says. “We tested him with another adult dog, four puppies and four kittens, all of which he was very playful with.”

Following a June Fluvanna County inspection report that recorded “significant findings of noncompliance” at the shelter, many believe changes need to be made.

The concerns raised in the inspection report, namely that dogs were found in an outdoor pen during the rain and that certain floors and walls could not be adequately cleaned, have already been dealt with, says Borash.

“[Dogs] do not get left out [in the pen]. They don’t live out there,” Borash says. “When the inspector had arrived, the dogs were outside while their pens were getting cleaned out.”

Faulkenbury raises a different concern and worries that the shelter’s no-kill status functions as a potential incentive to ignore warning signs in a dog and adopt out an aggressive animal. To maintain no-kill status, 90 percent of animals at the shelter must be adopted out or moved to a different shelter rather than euthanized, “so it becomes about the numbers,” Faulkenbury says.

The shelter is “not actively trying to keep dogs that would be a danger to our community so that we can reach some level of the no-kill line,” says Borash. “We’re at a point now where we can’t have people pointing fingers, we need people extending hands. Come together with us and help us because [finding dogs a good home] is all we’re trying to do.”