Dogs drown as officers stand by

Just how far should one go in attempting to save the life of an animal in imminent danger of death? How much risk is too much? What resources, if any, are available in time of emergency?

Those are questions for which Shane and Carol Smith are still trying to find answers. Their two dogs, Hanya and Chief, drowned after a prolonged struggle in a quarry near Windsor Lake, while people from three agencies stood and watched.

As the Smiths recall, their tragic drama began about 3:45 a.m., Friday, Feb. 10. Shane had been putting a trailer hitch on Carol’s van and was out shoveling snow in their driveway. The dogs were outside and somehow got loose and ran out of the yard. Shane followed on foot, then called Carol on her cell phone after 4 a.m. and asked her to come and pick him up. She did, but then he asked her to drive back home so he could get the 4-wheeler ATV.

Shane found the trail in the fresh snow and saw that the tracks crossed Alpine Road. He shined a flashlight across the yards where the dogs had passed. He followed the tracks across Alpine just south of Huck’s gas station.

“There is a great big field right there, and luckily I know the area,” he said. Otherwise, he would have gone over the cliff. “I got off and looked with my light and saw the tracks go down the hill onto the ice. One went straight, and one went off to the side and came back around like a U-turn into a 20-foot watering hole. I’m assuming they [went] to get a drink, and the ice broke. I showed up at 4:52 and could hear them splashing and called Carol. She came and kept me from going after them. At 5:21, I called 911. About 10 minutes later, I called again and got a little more rough (in language). I said I might go in the water and was told not to do it. Then the cop showed up [from Loves Park Police].”

Carol recalled: “We tracked [the dogs] all the way to Huck’s gas station, next to a part of Windsor Lake. It is like an old quarry. We called 911 twice. About 15 minutes later, a police squad car showed up. Fifteen minutes after that, one Winnebago County Animal Services van showed up with a younger officer. About 20 minutes later, a Loves Park volunteer fire rescue van showed up. We were standing on the ledge, begging these people to help us get the dogs back… The volunteer fire rescue man said, ‘No, we’re not sending anyone out there.’ They deemed it too dangerous.”

In desperation, Shane proposed a possible solution. Approaching Loves Park Police Officer R. Czech, he said, “Get the helicopter—I’ll pay for it!”

“They didn’t say anything in response,” said Carol. “They didn’t even talk to us. They stood in a circle and talked to each other while they watched the dogs drown.”

The Smiths told The Rock River Times that after an hour and 22 minutes, first Hanya gave up the struggle and drowned, followed by Chief. “About 6:12,” said Shane, “I asked Animal Control to shut the light off. He didn’t hear me, so I repeated it. They were still in their little pow-wow not paying any attention to us. I said, ‘Could you please shut that light off? I just watched my last dog go underwater. He’s dead now.’”

Since the Register Star originally covered the story, Carol Smith sent the newspaper a letter in which she stated: “They left us, with our dogs still in that quarry, never telling us that they would get them out for us at another time or saying ‘I am sorry.’ WCAS only asked me what their names were so that they could take them out of their computer. Our dogs were our family, regardless if they were pitbulls or not, they were ours. Yes, our dogs shouldn’t have gotten away from us; that happens. We didn’t leave them for someone else to find. We tracked them, found them and asked for help, and got NOTHING except heartbreak… I have tried to contact WCAS and finally got a call from [Director] Gary Longanecker, who was absolutely unconcerned with the way that I was treated. What if that had been a child? I always see lots of rescues on TV, and these men had plenty of time to think of something while my dogs struggled for almost an hour and a half. They didn’t even talk to us. Just stood there and amused themselves while we were hysterical and in shock… I am so disappointed in the system. I basically watched my ‘children’ drown…”

Shane noted that before they left, the Loves Park Police officer came over and told them he was sorry. The Smiths have had no contact with any rescue personnel since.

Loves Park Police Officer R. Czech works night duty and was not available for comment. Calls to Loves Park Police Chief Patrick Carrigan for comment also were not returned.

The Rock River Times obtained comments from two animal welfare organizations on this incident.

Eric Rayvid, senior director of Communications for the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), said: “We are very, very sorry to hear about this tragedy. We very much empathize with the family. We are disheartened to see that the local animal control agency wasn’t prepared to deal with a tragedy of this magnitude. It is really up to local municipalities to ensure that their animal control organizations are well prepared and trained for these types of emergencies.”

Ripley Forbes, director of Government Affairs for the American Humane Association, Washington, D.C., area, said: “I’m really puzzled about putting a boat in the water, why that wasn’t done. What the ASPCA says is true—it’s not adequate responders. This tragic situation is evidence of the importance of assuring that every community have first responders adequately trained in technical animal rescue. The impact of Hurricane Katrina documented for all of us the powerful bond between companion animals like the Smiths’ dogs and their human family members. It also demonstrated the miracles that can be performed when trained volunteers and animal control professionals are put to the task of making a difference in the local animal rescues. Training is offered by a number of national organizations, including the American Humane Association and ASPCA. We hope from this tragedy will come a resolve within the community to make training available to citizen volunteers. Having the capacity to perform animal rescues should be a part of every community’s public safety preparation.”

From the March 29-April 4, 2006, issue

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