Outcry as frozen dog rescued, but then euthanized by St. Louis County

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By Erin Achenbach
Staff Reporter
eachenbach@callnewspapers.com 

A dog that was rescued by a postal worker after being found nearly frozen to death was euthanized by St. Louis County last week after biting a veterinary technician, sparking an outcry among animal advocates led by the organization that rescued the dog.

As temperatures plunged below zero, Stray Rescue of St. Louis, an animal shelter in the city, posted a video on its Facebook page Feb. 8 showing Faust, a 6-year-old female pit bull, immobile and nearly frozen and being carried to a car to escape the freezing temperatures.

Stray Rescue took the dog to its trauma center, where she was put on oxygen and given fluids. Faust had a temperature “too low to read” and was essentially in a coma, the rescue group said. She was then sent to Veterinary Specialty Services in Manchester for further treatment.

In the meantime, members of the public raised $10,000 for her treatment.

Sometime after waking up from a coma, Faust on Feb. 11 bit a VSS vet tech, who reportedly had minor injuries but did visit a hospital. St. Louis County Animal Control picked up Faust and euthanized her within hours, despite state law that requires a 10-hour quarantine.

In a tearful video posted but since deleted from Stray Rescue’s Facebook account, the group’s founder Randy Grim said that when he heard that county animal control may have Faust, he personally contacted County Executive Steve Stenger, who tried to intervene. But it was already too late, and Faust was already dead.

Volunteers at the St. Louis County Pet Adoption Center have long been critical of the center’s management, but said problems at the shelter increased since Stenger appointed one of his staffers, Katrina Utz, as director after firing former director Beth Vesco-Mock last year.

Vesco-Mock dramatically brought down the shelter’s euthanasia rate for both dogs and cats, but she was fired after employees alleged she made a racist comment. She received $100,000 in a settlement late last year.

Volunteers have appeared at the County Council in the last few months to complain that they are no longer welcome in the shelter’s “hostile” environment and that the euthanasia rate has gone back up.

After a series of complaints at the Jan. 15 council meeting, 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, asked for the council to hold a Committee of the Whole meeting to figure out the problem.

“This is now beyond chronic. This has been going on a year and, frankly, I’m tired of hearing about it,” Trakas said. “So I think it’s time to hold a Committee of the Whole, get this acting director in here and start peeling some layers away with respect to a culture of retaliation, pushback on volunteers, or whatever the truth is. But simply ignoring it is not an option anymore.”

The council has not yet held the meeting.

“The culture at St. Louis (County) Animal Control is not one of compassion,” said Grim, who formerly served on the Advisory Board for county animal control, at a Feb. 12 press conference at Stray Rescue. “I left the Advisory Board… because of situations not so much different than what happened to Faust. I left because they were killing so many…. They’re always quick to kill.”

Missouri law and county ordinance require all dogs that bite a human and break skin to be quarantined for rabies observation for at least 10 days, unless the dog shows signs that indicate rabies, in which case the animal should be immediately euthanized, said the St. Louis County Department of Public Health, which oversees animal control.

Stray Rescue, which contracts as animal control in the city of St. Louis, said it has quarantined dogs in the past and could have picked up Faust to quarantine her at its own rescue if either VSS or the county had bothered to contact the group.

“We were going to pick her up, but VSS called county and they came to pick her up. This has never happened before. We’ve been working with VSS for 20 years,” Grim said. “We’ve had dogs that ended up at county that have bit before. They’ve always sent them back to Stray Rescue so they could have their 10-day quarantine. Faust wasn’t even allowed to have a six-hour quarantine or a four-hour quarantine.”

The interim co-health director, Spring Schmidt, appeared on television and issued a press release to defend the decision.

In a press release, the department noted that Faust was in “critical condition,” with difficulty standing or walking. The signs seen at VSS of problems included “being comatose and non-responsive to stimuli,” Schmidt said. The “veterinary staff” at animal control said that those were signs of rabies.

Faust was showing “multiple signs of neurological damage and other potential signs of rabies with no other presenting cause such as head trauma. Faust was stumbling, had difficult lifting herself up and expressed inappropriate neurological responses. We confirmed Faust was suffering and in obvious distress.”

The county consulted with the state veterinarian, Howard Pue of Jefferson City, who “agreed that the rabies protocol was required in this case.”

“While we regret the necessity of this outcome, it was clearly in the best interest of the animal and the public,” Schmidt said. “All applicable laws and protocol were followed in this case.”

The vet office said that staffers treated the bite “the same as any other and according to both policy and state law,” which requires them to report bites to the county health department.

Grim promised in the deleted video that Stray Rescue would never again use VSS and that the company would lose about $1 million annually from that decision.

He said if nothing else, the county should have contacted Stray Rescue, since Faust was microchipped with a tag that led back to Stray Rescue and had her rabies shot. He said the rescue group owned the dog and should have been treated as any other owner would have in that situation. The county said that state law prohibits transferring animals with potential rabies.

Several south county residents expressed their outrage over the situation at the Feb. 12 St. Louis County Council meeting.

“Last night when I heard the news about Faust being euthanized, I wasn’t proud to be a St. Louis County resident,” said Crestwood resident Tracy Kondla. “More than that, I was afraid for my dogs… All I could think about is what would happen to him if he jumped over our fence again. If he was taken to the county animal control, would he be safe?”

“It was a tragedy and it shouldn’t have happened. And I’m thinking that it showed a distinct failure of leadership,” said another Crestwood resident, Judith Schneider.

Grim said he spoke with Stenger on Feb. 11 and 12 about changing the culture of St. Louis Animal Control, and to improve communication and transparency.

But in a turnaround from Grim’s stance against VSS, on Feb. 14 Stray Rescue Executive Director Cassidy Caldwell posted an apology on the group’s Facebook page stating that they “give our total support to the entire veterinary community…Social media can be such a powerful tool, for good or for bad. Faust should be a symbol for positive change toward more humane animal care and compassion.”