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Pit Bull that Attacked LA 'Foster' Had Known History of Aggression - Can Shelters Escape Liability?

ANIMAL WATCH-On July 7, Los Angeles drummer/music instructor Noel Jasso and his wife responded to LA Animal Services GM Brenda Barnette’s media pleas to “foster” a homeless dog to relieve overcrowding after the 4th of July, and they opened their hearts and home to a two-year-old Pit Bull named Mugsy. 

Noel said the city shelter staff informed them that, after Mugsy -- identified only as a "mixed breed" at the shelter -- was first impounded in November 2018, he had been adopted and returned twice and that he "is a little aggressive with other animals but he is good with adults and children." Since he would be the only pet in their Valley home and was very friendly, Noel and Tori, both 30, were already discussing plans to adopt Mugsy permanently. 

However, a red flag came up when a friend brought his two daughters to visit two days later, and Mugsy barked, growled and lunged at the children. Noel and Tori were concerned but said they were relying on the shelter's assurance that Mugsy had not demonstrated human aggression, and they believed Mugsy may have needed a little more time to adjust.  

But Noel also noticed that Mugsy was becoming increasingly protective and possessive of him and fixated on anyone coming near him, to the point of even growling at Tori when she approached. So, he immediately enlisted a friend experienced in training Pit Bulls to evaluate and assist him in handling and correcting this behavior in a positive way. Mugsy was otherwise friendly toward Tori and seemed happy with them. 

Then, on the evening of July 11 -- the fifth day with his foster family -- Noel was sitting on the couch when Tori came in and sat down beside him. Mugsy became suddenly alert and tense and his eyes focused intently on Tori as he moved closer. Noel walked over to Mugsy, took his leash (which his friend advised leaving on at all times for initial training), and took him back to his doggy bed, telling him to lie down and "stay."  

After Noel walked back to the couch and sat down by his wife, Mugsy -- who was now totally fixated on Tori-- came toward her. Tori said he stopped and rested his head very briefly on the corner of the couch, which was normal and did not alarm her. But Mugsy suddenly jumped up onto the couch and lunged toward her, biting her head and ripping her scalp. He also bit her hand, leaving a deep puncture when she tried to protect herself. Blood gushed down her face as she screamed.  

Noel was fortunately strong enough to grab the 62-pound dog from the back and lift him away from Tori to stop the attack and allow her to escape. He secured Mugsy in another room and they attempted to stop the bleeding so she could be taken to the hospital. 

Noel drove Mugsy directly to the East Valley animal shelter and returned him, informing the staff what had just happened. He said he believed they may not have accurately informed about Mugsy's prior behavior record. (The full story may be read here.)  

DID LA ANIMAL SERVICES KNOW MUGSY WAS DANGEROUS?  

On July 16 at 10:07 p.m., (six days after the attack and Mugsy's return to the East Valley shelter) I pulled up his profile (Animal ID A1823355) on the LAAnimalServices.com  public search page and found him under DOGS AVAILABLE FOR ADOPTION:  

My name is Mugsy. I am a neutered male, brown brindle and white Mixed breed.

The shelter thinks I am about 2 years and 8 months old.

I have been at the shelter since Jul 11, 2019.

This information is less than 1 hour old.

(This was followed by complete information on how to adopt him and a form to email this information to a friend.) 

Noel said he was "worried that the dog will be adopted where there are children."  

CA PUBLIC RECORDS ACT REQUEST REVEALS MUGSY'S HISTORY  

On July 17, I submitted a CA Public Records Request for ALL records on Mugsy. 

GM Barnette stated recently to the LA Animal Services Commission that, upon adoption, all prior records and notes or posted observations on animals are shared with the new owners. If true, shouldn't that same transparency be extended to “fosters," who would be in equal jeopardy taking a strange dog into their home? 

LA Animal Service’s GM Trying to Hide Pit Bull History to Hype Adoptions? reveals that at the September 12, 2017, meeting of the Commission Barnette emphasized, "Information on file with LA Animal Services provided by the prior owner or notes of concern by shelter staff will NOT be shared with potential adopters choosing a canine companion or a family pet. However, it will be kept by LAAS for statistical reporting."  

Still, staff and volunteers are and have always been allowed, even encourages, to give positive descriptions that could embellish the animal’s potential and influence adoptions in the effort to reach the City’s and Best Friends Animal Society's “No Kill” goal.  

Barnette appears to be willing to provide any “positive” information about dogs in the shelters, but is she deliberately hiding anything negative that would warn people of the risk an animal might pose? 

‘PLAY GROUPS’ 

It is necessary to explain a contemporary (and costly) canine behavior-assessment/business model instituted at LA Animal Services shelters that is receiving mixed reviews from adopters and the public as to its safety and benefit but is getting raves from GM Brenda Barnette and Assistant General Manager MeLissa Webber. 

History and experience have indicated that dogs are highly selective in their associations. This stems from the primal need for survival and the pack instinct for protection of territory and resources. A layer of ambiguity has been added to obscure this natural reaction/behavior by shelter animals at LA Animal Services and elsewhere. It is called "play groups." 

(Note: A request for the amount being spent by LAAS for this service is pending. One volunteer stated he was told by the company's representative that the amount so far is $800,000, but this is not yet verified by official LAAS response.) 

Briefly, instead of evaluating how a dog reacts to human/animal contact in a one-on-one setting and providing a dignified opportunity for dogs (especially Pit Bulls, which constitute approximately 70% - 90% of the city's shelter population) to decide if they wish to comingle with a large group of strange dogs, this program of "dog play" forces groups of dogs (I have personally observed over a dozen Pit Bulls at a time) to be brought from their kennels to an enclosed yard/area where they must engage in cooperative or combative “socialization” to work out their issues or "co-exist" while a few employees/volunteers watch and break up "scuffles" -- the new term for serious fights. 

Enthusiasts call play groups "life-saving" and say that this increases adoptions. Some experienced animal control staff and professional trainers call it "animal cruelty." 

LA ANIMAL SERVICES ATTEMPTS TO MASK AGGRESSION 

It seems one of the goals of "play groups" is to mask the aggressive behavior of dogs behind words that the public won't understand (see below), but the employees still have to work with these dogs -- enter their kennels to clean and feed them and have to protect each other. In between descriptions such as "bouncy" play, "gentle and dainty" and "body bumping" are the telling notes that warn about "disinterest in humans and animals," lunging and barking, fights or "scuffles" and prior aggression indicated by adopters, which warn of danger and the need for caution. 

"Play groups" are extolled by Best Friends Animal Society, an organization which bewilderingly declares that Pit Bulls are not a breed and can't be identified, at the same time as it advocates and public records show it has paid lobbyists in cities across the nation to oppose "Breed Specific Legislation" (BSL) which would provide protections, regulation or special provisions/restrictions for owners to assure public/animal safety. No other breed of dog is mentioned -- let alone the basis of local and statewide legislation. Why is Best Friends preserving only this breed-type? 

MUGSY'S HISTORY AT LA ANIMAL SERVICES (in pertinent part) 

Here are the most pertinent notes received from a CA Public Records Act Request regarding Mugsy. (More are available upon request.) 

11-09-2018 STRAY PICKUP [Zip Code] 91342 (Estimated age: 2 years old, DOB 11/2016) 

11-11-2018   ADOPTION (FREE TO ADOPTER) 

LAAS shelter employee comment: "No Behavioral notes in Chameleon to read to potential adopter, however, I was in DPFL [Dogs Playing For Life] training this a.m. and had this dog out. Disclosed all observed behavior from yard. Recommend training. Young dog, very rambunctious, could get him in trouble with other dogs but no bad behavior this morning. Potential adopter chose to adopt." 

11-13-2018 RETURNED BY ADOPTER:  REASON: (AGG ANIMAL) -- "AFTER GETTING NEUTERED HIS TEMPERAMENT CHANGED, HE SNAPPED AT A DOG AT HOME, GROWLED AND SNAPPED AT SEVERAL PEOPLE IN OUR HOUSEHOLD AND WAS REALLY SCARY." 

MADE AVAILABLE FOR ADOPTION: (AVAILABLE DATE 11/17/18) 

12/04/18 (PLAY GROUP - BEHAVIORAL)

Employee Comment: "Had this dog in multiple play groups. Is tense/stiff on intros--loosens up and tries to solicit play from other dogs. Is "bouncy." Was out in the yard with 5 other dogs. Does best with a "soft" male that plays his same way." 

12-08-2018 (PLAY GROUP)

Employee Comment: "Engaged in greetings but then did kept to himself. Co-existed with the other dogs in the yard." 

12/19/18 (PLAY GROUP)

Employee Comment: "Had in playgroups, able to be left off leash. Dog did not engage in play, was uninterested in handlers and other dogs. Tense." 

1-12-19 (PLAY GROUP)

Employee Comment: "One on one play date with a male named Callejera. Gentle dainty." 

1-16-19 (PLAY GROUP) 

Employee Comment: "Had one-on-one play with Callejera today. Moved them into secondary yard, brought out Sammy so he could do intros through the fence. Mugsy didn't care about Sammy. Callejera was standing n the other side of volunteer, June, while Sammy was at the fence, when a fight broke out between Callejera and Mugsy, was able to break up. Several punctures on both dogs. Sammy ran in the opposite direction during fight." 

2/28/19 (PLAY GROUP)

Employee Comment: "Gentle dainty - Social selective (needs dogs that are going to stay out of his face)." 

3/03/19 (MUGSY ID #)

Employee Comment: "I went over ALL the behavioral memos with the adopter and they would still like to adopt the dog." 

3/03/19   ADOPTION (DISCOUNT)  

3/05/19   ADOPT RETURN - REASON (AGG ANIMAL) ADOPTER COMMENT: "PROTECTIVE OF GIRL FRIEND. WOULD NOT LET HIM AROUND. WHEN HE WAS ALONE DOG WAS JUST FIXATED ON HIM" 

3/07/19 (BEHAVIORAL - BAD BEHAV) 

Employee Comment: "Normally when I walk by he is fine and just watches me walk by. However, today he was barking at me and standing very stiff. When I placed my hand on the door he came really close to my hand and continued to bark while looking at me sideways. Eyes wide. Was lunging at the door at any dog I walked by him." 

4/2/19 (PLAY GROUP)

Employee Comment: "Gentle dainty - Shared yard." 

4/10/2019 (TYPE - BEHAVIORAL) 

Employee Comment: "I approached this dog's kennel. His body posture was stiff, his tail was stiff, he was barking at the front of the kennel door, showing teeth." 

7-07-2019 FOSTERED 

 7-11-2019 Type: BEHAVIORAL (Subtype - BAD BEHAV)

Employee Comment: "FOSTER RETURNED DOG TONIGHT SAYING HE HAD JUST BIT HIS WIFE IN THE HEAD AND SHE WAS ON HER WAY TO THE HOSPITAL. HE JUST WANTED TO DROP DOG OFF. HE SAID DOG IS HORRIBLY AGGRESSIVE WITH CHILDREN AND ADULTS. TRIED TO ATTACK ANOTHR DOG, WHICH HE WAS AWARE OF DOG AGGRESSION BUT HE FELT WE LIED TO HIM ABOUT PEOPLE AGGRESSIVE. HE WANTED TO MAKE A COMPLAINT AND I GAVE HIM A SERVICE FEED BACK FORM. SAID HE WOULD BE MAILING IT TO OUR GM. AND HE LEFT. 

"ON HIS WAY OUT I SAID WE MAY NEED MORE INFO. WE MAY BE CALLING HIM AND HE SAID OK." 

7-12-19 QUARANTINE 

Employee Comment: "ADDED TO ALERT LIST DUE TO SEVERITY OF BITE. DOG IS CURRENTLY UNDER QUARANTINE." 

7/17/2018 - (SEARCH SHOWED "AVAILABLE FOR ADOPTION 07/19/2019) HOLD? YES

AFTER 7/19/2018 -- SEARCH FOR ANIMAL ID A182335 -- NO RESULTS WERE FOUND.

(An informal verbal comment was later made by a volunteer that, "the man that brought this dog back had advised the shelter several days ago that the dog was being protective and aggressive, but he was talked into holding on to this dog.") 

LA ANIMAL SERVICES ADOPTION CONTRACT LET THE BUYER BEWARE! 

Ask yourself, would you buy a used car with this LAAS caveat/agreement? 

In its Limited Exchange Policy (second page), Los Angeles City Department of Animal Services, ends its adoption contract with the following wording [Emphasis added]: 

With my agreement to this adoption, signed adoption receipt, I hereby release the City of Los Angeles, its employees and agent from any liability and claim that I may have, whether known or unknown, now or in the future, in connection with my adoption, ownership and disposal of any animal adopted from the City of Los Angeles Department of Animal Services. 

Why would the Department attempt to protect itself from releasing an animal with "known [unexplained/undefined] liability"? Is this a deliberate cover/effort to allow and condone releasing dangerous animals without disclosing their history? Or, does the shelter count on adopters/fosters falling in love or having so much sympathy for homeless animals that they will not read the small print? 

Can government immunity include deliberate withholding of prior knowledge of danger/liability? 

CA legal experts with whom I spoke say "No, it can't." The government's chief responsibility is public safety and it cannot waive liability for deliberate acts of gross negligence or intentional misrepresentation or failure to disclose known faults/dangers, so that the consumer/adopter can make an informed decision. (Following comments were all quotes, but not by the same person and not necessarily in this order.) 

Residents are not making a voluntary donation to support government jobs when they pay taxes--they are entering a contract that the city, county or other agency to provide public safety and welfare," said one. "Government agencies can assert governmental immunityin some situations, but the LAAS shelter's waiver of liability is worthless. 

Qualified government immunity does not apply to acts over which the agency has discretion. Adoption of animals is discretionary. The agency can choose whether or not to make an animal available for adoption and they have the right to refuse adoption to a situation where they believe there is legal cause; such as protection of the animal from a known abuser. 

The fact that they are in competition with other shelters to appear to have a certain statistical "no kill" rate does not supersede or relieve their primary responsibility for public safety. 

They can be immune from liability for acts resulting from unknown behavior but they cannot waive liability for deliberate malfeasance or gross negligence. This is exemplified by the fact that, if the City fails to fix a pothole or provide adequate notice in advance and my car is damaged, I can file a claim. If it fails to fix a sidewalk where overgrown tree roots have created a crack or uneven surface in the sidewalk and I trip and fall, I can file a claim. 

It appears there is a manifest intent by LA Animal Services to deliberately try to absolve the agency from liability for knowingly placing the public at risk, including children and other animals. 

The City department is obligated to full disclosure. Any activity noted in the "play groups" should be included in the medical record, which must legally be provided to each adopter. This contract appears to be avoidance of responsibility for exposing the pubic to a known danger. It is trying to relieve itself of any responsibility for knowingly placing dangerous animals with the public. 

A humane society does not have governmental immunity and must therefore exercise even greater caution in releasing an animal. They also have a limited-entry policy, which allows them to accept only owned animals of their choosing--and reject any which could be a liability. 

An open-entry, unlimited-acceptance agency, which is the purpose of a public shelter, is obligated to protect public health and safety. They accept any dangerous or endangered animal, take in injured, ill or suffering animals and remove stray or unwanted animal from the streets as a public service, paid for by taxpayers. 

They have the legal option to euthanize any animal that has demonstrated behavior that they believe would endanger humans or animals. Therefore, they have the obligation to disclose any such known danger if they choose to release the animal. They have a duty of transparency and honesty to the public/adopters. Failure to do so could constitute deliberate malfeasance. 

If a "rescue" is taking known or suspected dangerous dogs from the shelter and making them available to the public merely to avoid euthanizing, they can both be held liable for any ensuing damages. The "rescue" does not have governmental immunity in any case. Adopters should determine that the organization is properly insured, since CA does not have any licensing, oversight, review, monitoring, requirements, standards or regulation and anyone can become an "animal rescue" merely by obtaining a 501(c)3 tax status. 

THE WHOLE TRUTH – ACCORDING TO LOS ANGELES ANIMAL SERVICES 

Noel Jasso could have lost his wife and/or had his successful musical career ended by injury on July 11, 2019 -- just because they wanted to save a shelter dog. 

They were responsible pet owners who hoped to give Mugsy a happy "forever" home. They trusted LA Animal Services to tell them the whole truth about Mugsy. Noel was advised only that he was "a little aggressive with other animals." 

It appears the notes on Mugsy were scattered over an eight-month period, with no continuing record in one location where employees could read it. Was that intentional or just poor management by highly paid GM Brenda Barnette and Assistant General Manager MeLissa Weber (who is in direct charge of the shelters)? 

Can pet owners and adopters in Los Angeles trust LA Animal Services and the City of Los Angeles to act in their best interest and the best interest of the pets in their care? 

If you live in Los Angeles, visit any of the City shelters, look at the conditions, ask to see records on available pets, and make a decision for yourself. 

(Phyllis M. Daugherty is a former City of Los Angeles employee and a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

                              

 

 
 

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