Who Pooped on the Scoop?

A debate rages over a new corporate-sponsored animal-adoption program. As usual, the Arizona Republic prefers to be muzzled.

When a black Labrador named Moose lost his life last month after eating a bowl of antifreeze-laced cat food, the Arizona Republic was there. The front-page coverage--including a huge color photograph capturing Moose's last moments with his wheelchair-bound mistress--was so touching that Republic readers responded by the thousands.

But Republic readers haven't learned about Bear, another black Labrador that recently died under suspicious circumstances--this time, in the custody of the county dogcatcher.

Bear escaped from his Scottsdale home one morning in August. He was picked up by a Maricopa County Rabies/Animal Control officer, placed in a cage in a county truck and pronounced dead on arrival at the east-side pound in Mesa.

Sue Goodpasture, the dog's owner, suspects Bear was beaten.
The day of the death, kennel supervisor Debbie Nichols told Goodpasture's husband, Kim, that the dead dog had a tightening of the abdomen--a possible sign of internal bleeding. That could mean the dog was beaten, but it also could mean it was hit by a car. Or it could have been rigor mortis.

The county's official activity report says the dog suffered no obvious injuries. The truck's cooling system was functioning.

No physical evidence was taken. County Rabies/Animal Control officials refuse to comment.

But Goodpasture has witnesses.
Steve Williams, a neighbor, and his children watched as the dog was apprehended. Williams says the officer went berserk, hitting the dog repeatedly with a snare, then chasing it into an alley where Williams' kids, 8 and 10, watched the officer beat the dog until it was almost unconscious, then load it into the county truck.

Williams says, "The man lost his temper, and he lost it completely. My daughter said he had fire in his eyes. And my little girl is 10 years old, but she's very, very smart."

Goodpasture filed a claim with the county for $1,150, but all she really wants is for other animal owners to know how Bear might have died. She called Gail Tabor, an Arizona Republic reporter who often writes about animals.

Tabor interviewed Goodpasture during the first week of September, but no story ever appeared. Goodpasture says Tabor told her she wrote the story, but that her editors refused to run it.

Bear's demise wasn't the first story about Rabies/Animal Control that Tabor's editors had killed.

In August, after weeks of dogged reporting, Tabor wrote a story about allegations ranging from mismanagement to unsanitary conditions to inhumane euthanasia practices at Rabies/Animal Control, a department with 113 employees and a $5.4 million annual budget, run under the county's Department of Public Health Services.

Her story included criticism of a pilot program sponsored by PetsMart---the pet-supply superstore chain based here--to sterilize pound animals and adopt them out through PetsMart stores.

PetsMart, which has a contract with the county to provide adoption services, has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the sterilization/adoption project, which it hopes to replicate in other markets.

The program is a stroke of marketing genius for PetsMart. Who's going to walk out of a pet-supply store with a puppy and no merchandise? And, in a county with one of the highest pet-euthanasia rates in the country (70,000 animals killed each year), it could provide a much-needed service and make good public-relations sense--provided the state's largest daily paper doesn't print a story critical of the new program.

Here's how the program works: The county takes the animals in. A second organization under contract with the county, the Animal Foundation, sterilizes them. PetsMart offers them for adoption through its in-store "Luv-A-Pet" centers. Fees paid by people adopting pets go to the county and to the Animal Foundation to offset sterilization costs.

Any program as ambitious as this one is bound to have a few start-up kinks, and this one is no exception. Pound employees have been tremendously overworked by added responsibilities the program has foisted on them. The county is allowing animals to be sterilized before they have adopters, when the contract between the county and the Animal Foundation stipulates they'll be sterilized after adoption; at least 500 pound animals sterilized for the program have been put to death because of illness or lack of space. There are concerns about postsurgical care of sterilized animals.

Goodpasture claims Tabor told her that PetsMart might have played a role in suppressing her stories--that "PetsMart has this big program going on with Rabies/Animal Control, and PetsMart is a big advertiser with the Arizona Republic."

There are several species of animal lovers. You've got your dedicated old-school breeders and trainers, who might see their dog as man's best friend and source of income; your soft-hearted family dog or cat owner; your fur-eschewing, vivisection-denouncing animal-rights activist. Any and all are capable of making a politician's life miserable. They are frequently at odds with one another and are capable of astonishing obsession over their, er, pet issues.

Gail Tabor's euthanized stories have provided grist for the animal-kingdom mill. Although not a word has appeared in print, the tale of Tabor's nonstories has spread like parvovirus among Valley animal activists, county officials and Republic employees.

Except, apparently, for top Republic brass. Bill Shover, director of public affairs for Phoenix Newspapers Inc., insists he never heard the tale of Tabor's dead stories, and that executive editor John Oppedahl didn't, either.

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