Carrboro police investigating death of service dog

CorrespondentJune 29, 2013 

  • The danger

    Each year, dozens of children and untold numbers of pets left in parked vehicles die from hyperthermia.

    Hyperthermia occurs when the body absorbs more heat than it can handle. It can occur even on a mild day. Studies show the temperature inside a parked vehicle can rapidly rise to a dangerous level for children, pets and adults. Leaving the windows slightly open does not significantly decrease the heating rate.

    Here is how quickly a car can heat up in 80-degree weather:

    • 99 degrees in 10 minutes

    • 109 degrees in 20 minutes

    • 114 degrees in 30 minutes

    • 118 degrees in 40 minutes

    • 120 degrees in 50 minutes

    • 123 degrees in 60 minutes

    Source: National Weather Service

— Carrboro police are investigating after a golden retriever being trained as a service dog was left in a car with its windows rolled up and later died.

Worthy, in training at Eyes Ears Nose and Paws (EENP), died of a heatstroke after program director Deb Cunningham left him in a car for two hours June 10.

The incident was reported to police June 11. If police find grounds for animal cruelty, Cunningham could be charged with misdemeanor, Lt. Chris Atack said. “In a case where you have any death, you have to review medical records and you have to be able to prove each element of the charge,” he said.

Cunningham left Worthy in her car because his foster mother, Charlene Hayes, was coming in for an appointment with Cunningham at noon.

One of the steps toward moving an assistance dog from a foster home to a potential client is to separate the dog from its “puppy parent,” said Mary Justice, EENP board chairwoman. Therefore, Cunningham did not want any interaction between Hayes and Worthy to occur inside the office.

It had rained that morning. After Cunningham met with Hayes at noon, she returned to her car and found Worthy panting and unconsciousness. According to Hayes, it was 77 degrees and sunny.

Maria Ikenberry, executive director of EENP, and Cunningham rushed Worthy to The Animal Hospital on Main Street in Carrboro, where Dr. DeWana Anderson administered fluids to lower Worthy’s temperature to 109 degree. According to medical records, his eyes were fixed and dilated. The normal body temperature for a dog is between 101 and 102.5 degrees.

That evening, Worthy went to Triangle Veterinary Referral Hospital in Durham, according to Justice and Hayes. There, Dr. Laura Russel and Dr. Jeffrey Nunez cared for Worthy. According to medical records, he was vomiting blood and had severe bloody diarrhea. Worthy died of cardiac arrest at 7:30 a.m. the next day.

EENP trains and pairs dogs to assist people in need; for example, some dogs can steady an owner during a seizure or detect dangerous blood sugar levels in a person with diabetes.

Clients pay $20,000 to cover their dog’s raising, training and placement.

The nonprofit had scheduled a graduation ceremony for assistance dogs’ placement with owners Saturday at the Century Center in Carrboro. Instead, it decided to hold a smaller, private graduation ceremony.

“It’s a really tough time,” she said. “It’s the death of a family member. We’re going through the grieving process.”

EENP’s next steps are being determined.

“We are looking into disciplinary actions,” said Justice. “We want to make sure we are thorough and fair in our own investigation.”

Cunningham is one of three paid employees at EENP, which she helped found. She has been the program director since 2008.

Foster parents sad

After serving as foster parents to Worthy for two years, Charlene and Leigh Hayes, residents of Chapel Hill, are very sad.

“Worthy was a smart, friendly, and loving dog,” said Ms. Hayes. “He brought joy to our lives. We had high hopes for him.”

The Hayes, who have raised five dogs for EENP since 2010, say they still support its mission but are unsure of their future involvement.

They are starting “The Worthy Project” to raise awareness about the danger of pets confined in cars and have set up a Facebook page,

“I’d like people to go to our state representative and say that we need to educate people of the dangers of putting a dog in a car,” Charlene Hayes said. “If people would just be more proactive about thinking before taking their dog with them out of the house, it would be much easier to avoid these tragic misjudgments.”

EENP will strengthen its safety procedures, said Justice.

“It is a tragic event especially for us since our mission is to partner people with dogs to change lives,” she said. “We are taking this very seriously. We’re learning and we’ll be smarter and better as a result of the tragedy that just occurred.”


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