Culver City News
January 24, 2008
Poster Dog for Survival
"10 months later, an Alaskan Husky emerges from the Carson Shelter"
by Gary Walker
The Carson Animal Shelter has become the flashpoint of controversy since Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke opened an investigation of the facility in December after several comlplaints were lodged with her office about the conditions of the facility, which many animal rights activists have considered to be a shelter that has been managed in a negligent fashion for years. They tell stories of animals that are neglected for long periods of time and lost pets that are euthanized without their owners' knowledge.
While their pet survived his stay at the Carson shelter, one Culver City couple learned firsthand why there have been protests, complaints and even legal actions taken against the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control. Unwittingly, their Alaskan Husky, Mowai has become, as one local animal rescue advocate put it, "the poster dog for surviving the Carson shelter."
For Rick and Meg Shick, the ordeal began last March when county officials impounded Mowai after he and another dog escaped their fenced-in yard and was found next to a neighbor's dead cat. Mowai, a friendly, lively dog that his owners had rescued from an animal shelter, was impounded to the Carson facility along with the foster dog, pending an investigation into the cat's death.
That began a nearly year-long odyssey through the bureaucracy of the Department of Animal Care & Control that has morphed from a routine investigation into their neighbor's pet's death into a Kafkaesque experience that led them from temporarily losing custody of their pet to incurring thousands of dollars in legal fees and boarding expenses.
The Shicks, who have rescued various dogs from shelters, in an interview with the News, recounted in detail at their home in Sunkist Park how they are still amazed and angry at the way they were treated at the hands of county officials who are charged with the care of lost, abandoned and impounded airimals county-wide. "It was a nightmare," said Rick Shick, who works in the entertainment industry for Sony. "We thought that we would eventually get him hack, but it was so frustrating because it seemed like it was forever at times, and we couldn't understand why."
Five days after the dogs were impounded, an animal control officer came to the couple's home to inspect their property for safety. After completing his inspection, the Shicks say the officer told them that everything seemed fine and that Mowai. would be returned to them soon. "We thought that meant within a few days," said Shick. The following day, they were informed that while the foster dog was being released, Mowai would remain at the shelter as evidence, pending a further investigation, and his case was turned over to the department's Special Case Unit.
The Shicks began to grow more frustrated as the weeks_mounted, and as they visited Mowai in Carson, no one could tell them when or if their pet would be released to them. "The standard response that we would get was, 'We can't tell you anything,'" Shick recalled. "Marcia Mayeda (the director of the Department of Animal Care & Control) did not want to help either, because she was convinced that Mowai was responsible for the cat's death," added Meg Shick, Rick's wife.
During their visits to Carson, the Shicks witnessed the kind of conditions that animals that are being held there are subjected to on a daily basis. Mowai, accustomed to roaming in his large yard at home, was housed in a cage with another dog, as were most of the animals there, said Shick. He also noticed that often the animal's cages appeared to be unclean, and frequently Mowai was found standing in a filthy cage in his own waste. "I thought that was how the shelter was run, until I began hearing from different people," said Shick.
Due to the conditions at the facility and after hearing that some animals had been euthanized without their owner's knowledge and on the recommendation of a former Los Angeles Animal Services commissioner, after six months at the Carson facility, the Shicks petitioned to have Mowai transferred to the care of an animal behaviorist known to county officials, Bobby Doarfshar. The county consented and the Shicks agreed to pay $45 a day for their pet's boarding. "We weren't sure what would happen to him if we let him stay [in Carson]," said Shick.
Because he had spent so much time away from his family, Mowai quickly grew despondent and lethargic, say the Shicks. Doarfshar recommended sedating Mowai with the canine antidepressant Chlomacalm. Mowai, who was not allowed around other dogs and was given limited time with his owners, was given this drug for nearly four months. "Every time that I would leave after visiting him, I could hear him crying and wailing," Shick recalled.
In August, prosecutors filed two misdemeanor charges of community hazard and public nuisance against both Rick and Meg Schick for the death of their neighbor's cat. The charges came on the day that their attorney filed an action to force the county to release Mowai. One week before the trial in December, prosecutors dropped the charges against Rick Shick, but not against his wife. Meg Schick eventually pleaded no contest to one count of community hazard, received 36 months probation and paid a fine. Upon paying restitution to the cat's owner, the misdemeanor will be reduced to an infraction.
The county acknowledged during the trial that Mowai was not evidence in the case, and no necropsy of the cat was presented.
During this time, Mowai, now away from his family for nearly 10 months, remained sedated, and it was never determined that he was responsible for the death of the cats.
Then, without any warning, after more than 10 months since Mowai was taken from their home, the couple received a call from Doarfshar on January 13, who told them he was being released. "It came out of nowhere," said Meg Shick."It was quite a surprise to us, after all we went through."
The Shick's ordeal has caught the attention of Culver City animal rights activists, who have been re-energized in the wake of the death of a puppy retrieved in Culver City last October. Zephyr, a 10 month old mixed breed was taken to the shelter, where she was allegedly left alone for days on a cold concrete floor. A subsequent necropsy revealed that the puppy died of pneumoma.
Deborah Weinrauch, the director of the Friends of the Culver City Animals, was dismayed to learn of the Shicks plight "I think that it is absolutely shocking that they were forced to take such measures to keep their pet alive," said Weinrauch, who has spoken with the Shicks about their experience at the Carson shelter and with the county. "But unfortunately, it's not the first time that I've heard a story like theirs."
Weinrauch and others, including City Councilman Gary Silbiger, have lobbied for years for an animal control officer in Culver City. Since the county investigation into the Carson facility, they are hoping that a new council, which will elect three new memQers in April, will agree to reconsider the current council's refusal to authorize funding for an animal control officer.
Last weekend, Weinrauch, Silbigier and other Culver City residents attended a protest outside the Carson shelter. Carson City Councilman Mike Gipson spoke forcefully about the need for further investigation of the activities at the Carson shelter after hearing about the Shick's experience with Mowai.
Gipson is not surprised that families from Westside communities have begun to tell their stories about their experiences at the Carson shelter. He also believes that it is up to legislative bodies like his to take stronger action to alleviate the problems at the shelter.
"I believe that there is motivation on the part of the Carson City Council to terminate our contract with this shelter," Gipson said to loud applause. He also told the crowd that he would join one of the lawsuits that are being levied against the county. "I'm not ashamed of it, I stand by it, and we are going to make sure that taxpayers receive the service and justice that they deserve.
"We're the policymakers," the councilman continued. "We need to make sure that taxpayer dollars are not being misused, and right now, I'm convinced that they are being misused, and we're not getting what we're paying for."
Gipson said that Mayeda, who spoke before the Carson City Council on January 15, did not convince him that the allegations against the shelter were untrue. "I was unenthused by the comments that she made," he said. "She had to read from a script, which told me that she was unprepared for the questions that the council members asked her."
Ryan Olshan, an animal rights advocate who traveled from Orange County to participate in the protest, called for the Mayeda's resignation. "It's time to put the care back into Animal Control and Care," he said.
The protesters, after hearing about Mowai's stint in Carson were very sympathetic. "I truly feel for the Shicks," said Weinrauch. "What they went through is an animal lover's worst nightmare."
The County shelter and its beleaguered director, Mayeda, have come under fire from animals rights advocates throughout the county and more recently from the Carson City Council.
Among many animal activists who have been staging protests at the Carson shelter and what they call inhumane and unsanitary conditions at the county facility, Mowai has become somewhat of a canine celebrity, a survivor of an animal care center that has been hit by a barrage of bad publicity since last November.
In December, around the same time that the Shicks were preparing for court, an animal advocacy organization filed a lawsuit on behalf of volunteer animal rescue worker Cathy Nguyen against the shelter and Mayeda. The suit accuses county officials of operating an inhumane and unsanitary facility, breaking state laws pertaining to animal adoption shelters, and retaliating against Nguyen for speaking out publicly against what she alleges are conditions that are cruel and unsafe to the animals.
Since Nguyen filed her lawsuit in December, two other legal actions have been filed against the shelter, Mayeda, and also names the Board of Supervisors as defendants.
The Shicks greatest fear was that Mowai could be accidentally adopted or even euthanized during the time he was at the Carson shelter. They have heard stories about other dogs that have suffered that fate. "Had the shelter followed procedure, he would have not been adopted," said Meg Schick. "But it's hard to say, because no one seemed to know what they were doing."
Shick believes that his persistence in fighting to bring his dog home was instrumental in Mowai's survival. "I think that he could have very easily fallen through the cracks," he said soberly. "Because we visited so often, the employees were aware that there were people who cared about him and who worried about him. So, I think that kind of kept it at the forefront of their minds that he wasn't just another abandoned dog."
His wife agrees, especially after she says that she saw a photograph with a dead dog placed on top of a live dog's cage while the live dog was waiting to be processed into the facility. "I thought, holy cow, this could happen to anyone's pet," she said.
The Shicks commended the Carson shelter's employees, who were very friendly and showed compassion to their plight. "They were so nice, and they loved Mowai," said Meg Shick.
Like many Culver City animal rights activists who have spoken to the News recently, the Shicks feel that city officials should no longer transport lost and abandoned animals to the Carson shelter. "I'm distressed by the fact that Culver City renewed its contract with the county," said Meg Shick. "I don't know why we don't contract with the Los Angeles Animal Services on Pico Boulevard, because it's closer and so much nicer."
Asked if they also believe that Culver City should switch from the county shelter in Carson, Meg Shick replied, "Absolutely. No question."
During Mowai's time way from home, the Shicks adopted another dog, bringing their total to three. And now with Mowai back in the fold, it's one big, happy family again.
"He's so happy to be I home," said Meg Shick. "He's back running around with our other dogs. He seems like he's adapting very quickly to being back I home."
"He's happy to be alive," added Rick Shick. "He gets along well with our new dog, and the children love the fact that he's back home."
Attempting to explain to their three young children why their family pet could not come home was one of the most difficult aspects of the ordeal with the Carson shelter. The children were allowed to visit at him at the animal facility, but were not allowed to play with him.
"We told them that Mowai was in doggie jail," Meg Schick. "It was hard for us to understand why he was there."
"The complete lack of care was astonishing," said Rick Shick. "In our case, it was appauling to see how they actively pursued a destructive path as opposed to a constructive path in figuring out and solving a problem. I would like someone who actually cares about the animals and wants to work with responsible people to make it nicer for everyone, including the animals."
Dr. Dean Gebroe, a Culver City veterinarian, told the News that Chlomacalm was typically prescribed for dogs that suffer separation anxiety. "They need to be weaned off the drug if they have been sedated with it for a while," the doctor said. "Every dog is different, so one may not suffer the same effects that another dog might."
Gebroe feels that a dog that has been taking Chlomacalm should be seen by a medical professional. "The dog should probably see a veterinarian, just to see if there are any side effects," he recommended.
"It was horrific, insane," said Shick. "That's how I would describe our experience."
Their family pet suffered the most, he believes. "We can rationalize it, I could talk to my wife and friends, but our dog didn't know what was going on, just his family was gone," Shick said.
The couple is considering filing a legal action to recoup the thousands of dollars that they have spent on trying to rescue their pet from the county. "This whole experience has just been insane," said Rick Shick.
Calls to Mayeda were not returned as the News went to press.