A Heartworming Story

With two fox terriers already yapping away at home, Gisela McClelland wasn't looking to adopt a third when she visited Dade County Animal Services Division headquarters two weeks ago. On the contrary, the South Miami dog lover was there to drop off a stray German shepherd found roaming her neighborhood. But during a quick tour of the shelter's cramped living quarters, she spotted a young terrier mix with baby browns that turned her heart to mush.

"I fell in love with him," confesses McClelland, who moved to Miami four years ago from Nuremberg, Germany. "I couldn't wait to pick him up, and he, too, was going crazy in the cage, chasing his own tail and whimpering." Informed by a staffer that she would have to wait a week to claim the dog, McClelland visited the brown-and-white pooch, christened Baba, for the next four days straight.

When McClelland called back on Monday, March 30, to arrange the pick-up, however, an Animal Services veterinarian told her the dog suffered from heartworm and could not be released. Because of its condition, the vet said, Baba could very well die on the operating table if the dog were to be neutered. And Animal Services policy forbids emancipating a fertile canine. McClelland asked what would happen to the dog. The vet reiterated the agency's policy. "Yes," McClelland said, "but what about Baba?" An ominous silence followed, then a dial tone.

McClelland raced down to the shelter, where she was greeted with even more distressing news. Administrative officer Bill Ward told her that Animal Services does not release unhealthy animals at all. Instead, they are put to sleep. "He was like the Gestapo or something," the mother of two recalls, bristling with indignation. "He said, `You cannot do anything about it. Forget about this dog and choose another.'"

When she told her husband about the policy, Paul McClelland calmly proposed a solution. "I figured I could talk with officials and work something out. Sometimes my wife gets a little emotional," explains the machinist and furniture craftsman. The next day, Tuesday, he camped in front of the shelter, confident he could secure a stay of execution for Baba. Over the course of the day, he lobbied Ward, Animal Services director Zoraida Diaz-Albertini, and higher-ups in the county Department of Public Works - all to no avail.

The McClellands even enlisted the help of their own vet, Allen Riggs. "The folks over there told me the animal was a poor anesthesia risk and could die while being neutered. I was like, `Okay, that makes sense.' But then I realized, hey, they're going to kill it anyway." Touched by Baba's plight, the Kendall-based vet volunteered to visit the animal shelter in person to treat and neuter the dog.

Although he concedes that heartworm - a mosquito-borne parasite that sets up house in the canine ticker - is a serious condition, Riggs says the standard remedy, a month-long regimen of an intravenous arsenic solution, has a success rate exceeding 75 percent, if properly administered. Paul McClelland says his own mother, in fact, adopted a dog from Animal Services that later was infected with heartworm and cured. "It's a rather involved process," Riggs notes. "But I felt sure we could save this dog. Besides, we were offering to pay for the treatments. What did Animal Services have to lose?"

On Wednesday morning, April 1, Riggs called the shelter to lodge a last-ditch appeal to agency officials. The official he spoke to told him not to bother. Baba was no more.

Bill Ward admits the scenario casts the county as the heavies. But he stands by his agency's long-standing adoption policy. "They accuse us of wanting to put the dog to sleep and that just isn't true," he stresses. "The fact is, when people adopt a pet, it becomes like a member of the family. They get emotionally and financially involved with an animal and if it's sick and ends up dying, guess who they hold responsible? I realize that in this particular instance, we wouldn't have been blamed if the dog died, but it sets a precedent that undermines our policy.

"That woman was focusing so much attention on this one sick dog," adds Ward, whose job it is to oversee the extermination of an estimated 1600 unwanted dogs per month. "All I told her was that we have so many healthy ones that we have to put to sleep."

Paul McClelland says he understands the shelter's policy, but questions why its implementation is so murderously rigid. "Couldn't they issue a waiver for families who are willing to risk adopting a sick animal?" he suggests. "I mean, a policy isn't a law. Can't they look at a situation and use a little discretion?"

Gisela McClelland is less gracious. "They have hearts of stone," she snorts. "You know the disgusting thing is that the owner of this doggie, who left him to get sick in the first place, could march right into that place and take him home. They won't even let us save Baba's life.


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