A lawsuit filed in New Castle County Chancery Court accuses Kent County SPCA of improperly euthanizing a dog.
The suit, filed Jan. 17 by Wilmington attorney Curtis Crowther and his wife Julia Gittman-Crowther, says they asked KCSPCA animal-control officers to remove a stray dog from the couple’s home because the dog didn’t get along with the Crowther’s other dogs.
Kent County SPCA holds the New Castle County and Sussex County dog control contracts.
The Crowthers later decided they wanted to adopt the pitbull mix, named Maggie, and contacted KCSPCA to find out where she had been taken.
Crowther said the couple initially called KCSPCA to report the stray dog and find out how to introduce Maggie to their other dogs.
After attempting to socialize Maggie with the other dogs, the Crowthers again called animal control, this time to surrender the dog.
In the suit, Crowther says the dog seemed friendly, ate food and was good around the couple’s 12-year-old son.
“There was never a single sign of any aggressive behavior. On the contrary, Maggie was quite well-behaved, social and friendly,” said Crowther in the suit.
On Dec. 8, Maggie was taken to KCSPCA. The KCSPCA explained to the Crowthers that Maggie would be held for five days to determine her temperament. According to the lawsuit, Maggie was listed as on hold for most of December. On Dec. 25, Crowther sent a second email to determine if Maggie was ready for adoption.
He later found out that Maggie was euthanized Dec. 26.
The Crowthers claim KCSPCA inappropriately euthanized Maggie. Crowther said when he visited the KCSPCA to look for Maggie, he saw empty cages. According to the state’s shelter standards law, animal shelters are not permitted to euthanize dogs when there are available empty cages.
At a November meeting of the state animal welfare task force, Kent County SPCA Executive Director Kevin Usilton questioned this provision of the shelter standards law.
According to task force minutes, “Usilton stated that there was no definition for adoptable, so KCSPCA performs a temperament test. He noted that KCSPCA euthanizes when the animal is unadoptable for either a medical or temperament reason. He had concerns about not being in compliance with empty cages.”
Usilton said KCSPCA owns a warehouse where cages are kept empty specifically to handle animal cruelty and hoarding cases. He said these cages need to remain open in case a large number of animals is rescued.
Usilton said if the shelter had to fill all of its cages before euthanizing any animals, then it would never be able to euthanize, which is sometimes deemed necessary for animals that are sick or unadoptable.
Steven Schwartz, Dover attorney and vice president of the KCSPCA Board of Directors, is defending KCSPCA in the suit.
Schwartz said he believes the suit will be dropped because the Crowthers surrendered the dog. Once a dog is surrendered, it is considered property of KCSPCA; the agency is not required to provide information about the dog to the person who found it.
“The Crowthers' accusations on which they ground their complaint against the SPCA are simply unfounded, and we are seeking a dismissal of the suit,” Schwartz said. “Kent County SPCA is a nonprofit charity which is dedicated to improving the lives of neglected and abused animals.”
A practicing attorney in Dover for 38 years, Schwartz said he occasionally represents KCSPCA in legal matters, but it is always pro-bono. He said most cases are dismissed or settled out of court.
“Much of my legal work involves legal advice and transactions, as opposed to litigation,” he said.
Usilton said when Maggie reached the KCSPCA she was given a temperament test, which she failed. He said this test is the way KCSPCA determines if a dog is ready for adoption. Dogs that fail the test can be euthanized.
“This lawsuit is a great example of difficulties the KCSPCA has with the shelter standard law as it is written,” Usilton said. “This law, which has no enforcement designee, has been used by no-kill movement folks to bash the KCSPCA and its mission to protect the public and animals.”
He said the KCSPCA handles more animals than many other shelters and rescues. Last year, KCSPCA found homes for 2,094 animals, including 1,301 dogs.
In the third quarter of 2012, 191 dogs were euthanized. All of KCSPCA’s reports are available online at www.kcspca.org.
By comparison, the Delaware SPCA, which has shelters in Stanton and Georgetown, euthanized 14 dogs during the third quarter of 2012.
Delaware SPCA found homes for 779 dogs in the first three-quarters of 2012. Fourth-quarter information was not available at www.delspca.org. Delaware SPCA does not hold any county animal control contracts.
The Kent County animal control contract is held by Safe Haven, which was awarded the contract in July. Safe Haven has not released the number of animals adopted in 2012.
“At this point the KCSPCA is in compliance with the shelter standard laws, and feels this lawsuit will be thrown out,” Usilton said. “If this lawsuit is allowed to stand, it will give the shelter standards law a test in the court to clarify and end this never-ending nightmare for Delaware animals.”
The Crowthers hope the lawsuit will compel the court and KCSPCA to follow shelter standard laws and not euthanize animals when empty cages or other options exist. Crowther also wants the court to stop allowing shelters to use temperament tests as a basis for euthanasia. The suit seeks an independent monitor who would enforce shelter standards at KCSPCA, as well as attorney’s fees.