Program director charged in service dog’s death

mschultz@newsobserver.comJuly 15, 2013 

Worthy was being trained to be a service dog when he was left in a car with the windows rolled up and later died.

PICASA — Courtesy of Charlene Hayes

— Police charged the manager of a service-dog training program with animal cruelty Monday after a dog she left in a car with the windows closed later died.

Debra Cunningham, 42, the program manager for Eyes Ears Nose and Paws was charged with one count of misdemeanor animal cruelty after she left Worthy, a golden retriever, in a car for about two hours in the middle of the day June 10. The dog died the next day.

Cunningham, who could not be reached for comment, is due in court Aug. 8 in Hillsborough.

“Absolutely I wanted a charge to be brought so it would bring awareness, obviously to Deb Cunningham, that you can’t put a dog in a car and leave it unattended,” Charlene Hayes, the woman who raised Worthy, said Monday afternoon.

The agency said Cunningham put the dog in the car so he wouldn’t see Hayes, who was coming to their office for a meeting. Worthy was graduating soon, and before service dogs go home with clients, Hayes said they are rotated in and out of the home they are raised in to ease the transition.

EENP executive director Maria Ikenberry declined to comment on the misdemeanor charge, because it’s a pending case and concerns personnel matters. The board has made some policy changes, she said.

The board has taken disciplinary action against Cunningham, board Chairwoman Mary Justice said. She declined to specify what action was taken but said Cunningham is good at her job and will remain an active EENP staff member.

“It was a very tragic mistake, and we are trying to learn from it,” Justice said.

June 10 started out rainy, but by afternoon, it was sunny and 77 degrees, according to Hayes.

In a previous interview Justice said Worthy was found panting and unconscious in the car. Ikenberry and Cunningham rushed him to The Animal Hospital in Carrboro.

Medical records show Worthy’s temperature was more than 109 degrees. A dog’s normal temperature is between 101 and 102.5 degrees. He was vomiting blood and had severe bloody diarrhea by evening. He was moved to Triangle Veterinary Referral Hospital in Durham and died of cardiac arrest the next morning.

Hayes, who has raised five dogs for EENP, said she hopes Worthy’s death raises awareness. She has started a Facebook page, “The Worthy Project” about the dangers of confining animals.

Carrboro already prohibits leaving an animal in a car if it is 70 degree or more outside. A first offense carries a $25 fine.

The state animal cruelty statute makes it a class 1 misdemeanor to carry or convey an animal in a cruel or inhuman manner. State Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, unsuccessfully sponsored legislation to make it a class 2 misdemeanor to leave an animal in a vehicle under dangerous conditions even if the animal does not suffer serious injury or die.

Ironically, Harrison said her sister, who died of a brain tumor, got a golden retriever from Eyes Ears Nose and Paws. Her sister had lost vision on her right side, and the dog helped her navigate.

“I just don’t even know what was going on in (Cunningham’s) mind,” Harrison said. “It really is a good organization. I’m sure she’s just heartbroken about it.”

Correspondent Lauren Grady contributed to this story.

Schultz: 919-932-2003

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