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From the archives | One family grieves, another waits

Mornings aren't the same for the Brown family in Camden since the death of Lacy, their 6-year-old yellow Labrador retriever.

She died Dec. 12 from eating poison food from a bag of recalled Diamond Pet Foods, the first death in the state tied to a deadly fungus toxin.

Lacy spent most of her days outside on the Browns' back deck, or in their fenced yard. In the evenings, she slept behind a closed door in the laundry room.

Mornings brought on a family feeding ritual. Three-year-old Mary Scott would hold the laundry room door. Six-year-old Blake would hold the knob to the door leading from the house to screened porch. Scott would fill Lacy's bowl on the deck and grab the handle to the door leading to the deck.

"Let her out," Scott would say.

On his signal, all three would open their doors and Lacy would bound out of the laundry room, licking each hastily before diving into her food.

"It's a big giggling and screaming hoo-ha here every morning. She licks everyone on the way out, and she gobbles up her food," Scott Brown said.

A SMALL SURVIVOR

While the Browns are grieving for Lacy, the Tatums in Cayce are watching and waiting.

Joan and Alan Tatum of Cayce had noticed their dog, Lexi, was sick as Christmas approached. But they had no idea their 2-year-old cocker spaniel was eating Diamond pet food with a high level of aflatoxin.

The toxin can kill animals, but Lexi was the only one of the first five confirmed cases in South Carolina to survive after eating the poison.

The Tatums had no idea of the danger, even though Diamond Pet Foods had issued a recall notice Dec. 20.

On Christmas Eve, they and their daughters, Ashton, 17, and Lauren, 20, went to Joan's sister's home five miles away.

Her sister mentioned the Diamond Pet Foods recall. "You're not feeding Lexi the Diamond Pet Foods, are you?

Joan Tatum said she was.

Later, tests showed Lexi had been eating food with 129 parts aflatoxin per billion, six times the amount of aflatoxin allowed by the FDA.

That amount, however, was the lowest among the five dogs Clemson pathologists have confirmed as dying from aflatoxin.

So far, Lexi hasn't shown any signs of the liver failure that kills aflatoxin victims, but sometimes it can take as long as a month to show up.

"So we're just watching - and hoping," Joan Tatum said.

A GENTLE LAB

Scott Brown has lived with Labrador retrievers most of his 41 years. There were Lady, Rock, Bear, Pug, Buck and Knox. Then there was Lacy.

"Lacy is as gentle a Lab as we've ever owned," he said.

Brown bought Lacy in 1999, shortly after Knox died at age 11 and while his wife, Sharon, was pregnant with Blake.

Brown usually bought her 20-pound bags of food from a local farm supply store, but in late November he needed to redeem an in-store credit at Superpetz on Decker Boulevard in Columbia.

He drove the extra 40 miles, and bought a 40-pound bag.

Lacy's bag happened to be made Oct. 11, the day the company says it has found the highest levels of aflatoxin. Hers later tested at 433 parts aflatoxin per billion, 21 times the federal limit.

On Saturday, Dec. 10, Lacy took her last bite of Diamond Pet Food.

Brown noticed she wasn't finishing her food. On Sunday, she didn't eat at all. On Monday, she ambled out of the laundry room, bypassed her bowl and drank water. Brown knew something was wrong. He called the Wateree Animal Hospital in Camden, and had her there by 9 a.m.

Brown left Lacy at the clinic. "At the time, they weren't very concerned at all." But when he called to check on her at midday, he was told she was "fair."

"That's when you get this pale feeling, a sickness in your gut," he said.

He drove back to the clinic. Lacy's face was swollen, and the vets said her gut was enlarged and tender near her liver. "She would lift her head and look at us, and lick your hand if you put it in her face."

Blood tests didn't show liver failure, but that's not unusual with aflatoxin poisoning.

Brown went home. But 30 minutes later, as he was eating dinner with his family, veterinarian Eric Rundlett called. "He said he didn't have a good feeling about this." Rundlett said he would drive Lacy to the Palmetto Regional Emergency Hospital for Animals in Elgin.

"I'll meet you there," Brown replied.

Brown drove to Elgin, while his wife, Sharon, called Brown's father, Bill Brown, a 72-year-old Columbia resident and retired Clemson professor of animal science. The elder Brown also drove to Elgin.

His expertise would be critical. Aflatoxin poisoning, which is relatively rare in pets, occurs more frequently in livestock. But the signs are the same and Bill Brown spotted them quickly.

Lacy's swelling had increased and she was breathing with a labored gurgle.

"At that point, you couldn't hold back the tears," Scott Brown said.

Brown crawled into the cage with Lacy as his father stood behind him.

"I said, 'Dad, I can't let it go on like this.'" Scott Brown called to consult with Rundlett; then he told the vet, "I'm going to put her down."

Lacy died at 11:30 p.m.

At his dad's suggestion, Scott Brown asked for an autopsy. Maybe Lacy had a contagious disease that could threaten their other dog, Ginger. Maybe it was poisoning. Maybe something else.

But Scott's father insisted it was aflatoxin. "He was 100 percent positive."

Brown lifted Lacy's body into the bed of his GMC crew cab pickup truck, and covered it with a blanket. It was a cold night.

He wanted to tell the children Lacy was dead, but he knew he couldn't deliver the news and send them on their way to school Tuesday morning. Instead, he decided to wait until that evening.

On Tuesday, morning Scott Brown drove Blake to Camden Primary School and dropped off Mary Scott at her preschool at a nearby church. Lacy's body rode along in the back concealed by the blanket.

Brown then drove Lacy's body to Columbia. He had her dog food in a zip-lock plastic bag.

Blake, the family artist, had taken marker in hand to draw get-well cards after Lacy was taken to vet Dec. 12. He amended another the next day to acknowledge her death.

The first shows five figures of a smiling Lacy, one each to stand beside Blake, his dad, mom, sister and Ginger, the family's surviving dog. "I hope you fel bedr Lacy," Blake wrote.

Another shows a figure of Lacy below the words, "Dear Lacy: I hope you feel bedr. Lacy I wish You did not diye. / Love: Blake Brown."

Reach DuPlessis at (803) 771-8305 or jduplessis@thestate.com.

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