If it weren’t for the kindness of a stranger, Michael Cunningham might still be in the dark about what happened to his dog.
Mocha, a Labrador retriever-beagle mix, lived with the Cunninghams and had grown up with their children for almost 10 years. But on New Year’s Eve, while the family was out of town, the dog escaped from their home on Sloan Drive and was struck by a car.
What happened next left the family confused, angry and considering legal action against York County Animal Control.
Cunningham says Mocha was euthanized before the family even knew she was gone, cremated with other animal remains before the family had a chance to claim her body. If the family hadn’t been contacted by the man who saw the dog get hit, Cunningham doesn’t know if he ever would have learned Mocha’s fate.
“If he hadn’t called me and said, ‘I saw your dog get hit by a car,’ I might still be out looking for my dog right now,” he said.
Animal Control Supervisor Steve Stuber said the holiday might have led to miscommunication among members of his staff and between his office and the family – and that all the proper steps to get Mocha back to her family weren’t taken.
“In this case,” he said, “we may have failed the owner.”
Cunningham’s wife, Laurie, adopted Mocha from a rescue shelter when the pup was only 6 months old. The dog grew up with the couple’s three young children, appearing in family photos so often alongside their 6-year-old twins that she was nicknamed “the triplet.”
“She was very loving and sweet,” Michael Cunningham said. “She liked to chase squirrels and rabbits, and in her younger days she hunted some down.”
On New Year’s Eve, the family went out of town like they often do, leaving Mocha and their three other dogs at home in the care of a pet sitter. But sometime Wednesday, Mocha dug her way through a porch screen and got through the home’s electric fence.
It wasn’t the first time Mocha had gotten loose, Cunningham said, and when the pet sitter called New Year’s Day to say she was gone, the Cunninghams expected to find her waiting in the driveway or a neighbor’s yard when they got back.
But – apparently spooked by the evening’s fireworks – Mocha ended up a few hundred yards from home, on West Main Street near Rawlinson Road Middle School. At about 7 p.m., she was struck by a car, said Charles Ansell, who spotted the dog in the road.
“She just looked like she was laying down in the road,” Ansell said. “I carried her out of the road and (another) man brought over a pair of pants out of his truck and a woman brought an old coat and put it on her.”
Mocha was still breathing and conscious when an Animal Control officer arrived at the scene. She moved her head slightly in apparent pain when someone touched her injured hip, Ansell said, but he didn’t see any blood on the dog or on the road.
The animal control officer called a veterinarian the agency normally uses to evaluate injured animals, Stuber said, and after describing Mocha’s injuries to the vet over the phone decided the best thing to do was to euthanize the dog. This is standard procedure when animals are too severely injured to be saved, Stuber said.
“Given the condition the dog was in at the scene and what was said over the phone,” Stuber said, “the officer decided the best treatment would be to humanely euthanize the animal.”
When he called Animal Control on New Year’s Day, Cunningham said, the same officer told them she couldn’t release any information over the phone. Stuber said that policy prevents confusion when callers try to identify a dog by breed or description when the shelter might be dealing with several similar strays.
“You don’t want to tell someone their dog has been euthanized when you don’t really know,” he said, but in this case the Cunninghams should at least have been told a dog was picked up and euthanized in the area.
The animal shelter was closed for the holiday, but Cunningham’s sister drove down from Gastonia to check the shelter for Mocha on Friday.
Even then, shelter workers weren’t able to tell them what happened – either because the workers were unaware of the incident two nights earlier, Stuber said, or because the injured dog was originally called in as a “pitbull,” while the family was looking for a Labrador mix.
It wasn’t until Friday night that Ansell made contact with Cunningham after hearing about the missing dog and told him what he saw. By then, the family didn’t even have the option of recovering Mocha’s remains; she had been cremated along with other animal carcasses that morning.
Cunningham believes the agency could have made more of an effort to reunite them with Mocha, if only for a proper burial. The dog had a microchip implanted between her shoulder blades that would have identified her.
Animal Control has the equipment to read such chips, Stuber said, but Mocha wasn’t checked for one. She also was wearing an electric fence collar with a serial number identifying the manufacturer, Cunningham said, and the company would have notified them if they were told a dog had gotten loose.
But it isn’t common for Animal Control to contact such companies, Stuber said, and they weren’t reached until Monday.
What Mocha didn’t have was a state-issued rabies tag, Stuber said, which would have enabled officers to identify her more quickly.
“If there’s one thing I want the public to know,” Stuber said, “it’s to keep their pets confined and make sure they wear that ID.”
After she was euthanized, Stuber said, the shelter could have set Mocha’s remains aside for if they had been able to contact her owner. But once she was placed in the freezer with other, potentially diseased carcasses, health regulations mandated that her remains be destroyed.
From what he saw that night, Ansell said, Mocha wasn’t that severely injured. He thought a vet would be able to help her.
“I carried the dog,” he said, “and if she had been squashed, I would have blood all over me.”
Stuber insists that, even if his agency had been able to contact the family, Mocha couldn’t have been saved, based on the officer’s assessment of her injuries after consulting with the vet.
Cunningham said he knew Mocha was getting old, and the family was prepared to lose her sometime soon.
“But I thought she would go lay down in the yard one day and not come back,” he said.
Since the family was never able to see Mocha’s body, Cunningham said, they can’t have the closure of being sure their dog is truly gone.
“All I have is a collar and a box of mixed ashes that might not even include my dog,” he said. “For all I know, my dog is recuperating at someone else’s house right now.”
Even though he knows he can’t get his dog back, Cunningham said Monday, he is considering taking the issue to an attorney.
He doesn’t want money, just a chance to ensure that “no one has to face this again.”
Bristow Marchant 803-329-4062