×

Dakin animal shelter takes steps to right wrong after mistakenly euthanizing Northampton woman’s cat



Monday, February 17, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Elizabeth Nett of Northampton brought her cat Bella to the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society shelter in Springfield Dec. 12 because Bella wasn’t getting along with her other cats. She asked staff to call her if they couldn’t find a home for Bella, pledging that she would if they could not.

Two weeks later when she called the shelter to see if Bella had been adopted, she was told the cat had been euthanized because she was aggressive and not adoptable.

“I just kept saying, ‘What do you mean? Do you have the right cat?’ ” Nett recalled.

Like many, Nett had assumed Dakin was a “no-kill” shelter — and said nobody informed her it was possible Bella could be put down. In fact, while Dakin is widely thought of as a “no-kill” shelter, Executive Director Leslie Harris said there is no public consensus on what “no kill” really means.

Dakin shelters guarantee to adopt out animals that are healthy and sociable (which means adoptable) — but will euthanize in some other cases. Last year, 36 percent of dogs and 12 percent of cats at the shelters were euthanized because they were not adoptable.

Roughly 100 animals were returned to owners who asked to be called if euthanizing was in the cards. But Nett said she was not aware of any of this when she brought Bella to Dakin.

Harris said everyone who surrenders a pet is warned that it might be euthanized if it is deemed not adoptable — and signs paperwork to that effect.

Such flexibility is essential, she said, because a cat that is shy at home can become dangerously aggressive and antisocial when put in a new environment with different animals and people. They may adjust and calm down, she said, but some, like Bella, do not.

“The cat was dangerous for us to handle. We couldn’t agree to adopt her,” she said. “It becomes torture and inhumane to keep them long-term in those circumstances, and we’re exposing the staff, volunteers and the public to injury. We have a lot of animals coming here who need homes, and we have limited resources.”

That said, Harris acknowledeged that in Bella’s case something went wrong. She said the action was “devastating,” given that Nett was prepared to take the animal back if there were problems.

Harris said a change in shelter paperwork and miscommunication among staff led to the death. Since then, she said, steps have been taken to change the procedures at Dakin so such a mistake won’t happen again.

“To lose an animal like Bella that we could have sent back to her owner, it breaks my heart,” she said. “Our staff doesn’t want to euthanize animals. We love animals.”

Since the situation with Bella came to light, Harris said a question has been added to the paperwork all owners fill out asking if they would like to be contacted if their animal may be put down.

“That tells our staff that this person is a ‘call-before,’ ” she said. “It’s a warning system if we think that euthanasia is the only solution.”

Still, Nett is not entirely happy with the change. She said the added question is “better than nothing,” but she objects to a provision that allows the shelter to euthanize an animal without calling if staff believe it is a danger to the community. She feels this provision gives the shelter “the final word.”

“If they had said that to me, I would have said ‘no’ and taken her home with me,” she said.

Miscommunication

In the living room of her Laurel Park home with her cat Lola sitting on her lap, Nett described how she adopted Bella and an outdoor cat, Wesley, from Dakin’s barn cat program.

Nett, 63, and her husband, Dominic “Chuck” Nett, 62, lived in Huntington at the time. Last year, they moved to Northampton so that Dominic Nett could be closer to medical services he needed. Finding a place for Bella at the new home was difficult. She had been a barn cat, skittish around people, but had gradually become domesticated enough to live in the Huntington home.

But when she came to Northampton in November, she was fighting with Wesley when outdoors and with Lola when indoors. She was living in limbo on the porch, which led the Netts to decide she would be happier somewhere else. Nett said she considered an animal sanctuary in Greenfield and other shelters but, after three conversations with staff, decided to bring Bella to Dakin.

She gave staff written instructions that Bella needed to be an only cat and couldn’t be around children. She said she also made staff promise that if they couldn’t find Bella a home, they would call her to come back for her. Nett was told she could call and check to see if Bella had been adopted. When she called a few weeks later to learn Bella had been euthanized, she was beside herself. “I said, ‘Nobody called me, I would have come and gotten her,’ ” she said.

The staff member told her Bella was growling, scratching and fighting, making her not adoptable. Nett contacted Moon Wymore, manager of Dakin’s two adoption centers in Springfield and Leverett.

“She eventually said to me, ‘We were wrong. We shouldn’t have done that. We had a miscommunication,’ ” she said. “They’re terribly sorry, but we can’t bring Bella back.”

Harris agreed that the euthanasia was avoidable and said she feels horrible about Nett’s loss. “Here’s an animal we could have saved,” she said.

She said staff members discuss the possibility of euthanasia with everyone who surrenders an animal. But she believes some people don’t fully understand, in part because they may not have a realistic view of their animal’s behavior. “Sometimes, your brain doesn’t want to believe it could happen,” she said.

The barn cat adoption program for less social cats — which is how Nett got Bella in the first place — goes on hiatus in the winter, she said. But even so, she said, an aggressive cat would not be a candidate for that program either.

Nett understands that Bella was probably behaving badly at the shelter, “but they didn’t follow the instructions. They didn’t call me,” she said. “There needs to be some safety measure put in place so this doesn’t ever happen again.”

Now, Harris said, there is.

She said the miscommunication occurred because of a difference between paperwork people fill out when they surrender animals for the first time versus when they bring back an animal they adopted from Dakin.

For as long as anyone at the shelter can remember, Harris said, people who surrender animals fill out a document that asks if they would like to be called if the shelter determines that the animal will be euthanized due to behavioral or health problems.

If they indicate “no,” they won’t be called. If they say “yes,” they are asked to provide three numbers to be reached and promise to pick up the animal within 24 hours of being called. That provision also states that if the animal is deemed to be “a danger to the community,” the shelter retains the right to euthanize without calling the owner.

That provision has always been in the intake paperwork for first-time surrenders, Harris said, but about a year ago, a former staff member removed that option from the paperwork for animals that are returned to Dakin — as in Nett’s case.

Harris said no one knows why that change was made, or even knew that it had occurred.

With the question now added back into the form, she said this will ensure that there is an official record for people who want to be called before a pet is euthanized. She said miscommunications like the one that cost Bella her life will not happen again.

“We can guarantee placement for a friendly, sociable animal without serious health problems,” she said of the Dakin shelters. But staff there want to save as many animals as possible, even the non-adoptable ones, so they will carefully monitor the “call-before” paperwork.

“Hopefully this change in the way we admit returns will be Bella’s gift to the future animals being surrendered,” she said.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.