Seven puppies that died in the care of Palo Alto animal services operator Pets in Need on Aug. 2 likely succumbed from heat stroke and/or asphyxiation, three final necropsy reports on the animals concluded.
The bodies of three of the puppies were sent for necropsy analyses to multiple board certified veterinary anatomic pathologists at the University of California, Davis in early August. Their conclusions, but not the full reports, appear in Palo Alto police investigators' 37-page redacted report.
The pathologists could not determine a specific cause of death because the natural process of decay had begun, they wrote. But heat stroke and/or traumatic asphyxiation (in which the nose and mouth are covered) were the top considerations for the cause of death, the pathologists stated.
The puppies had no evidence of known disease or sickness, the necropsies found. The animals were happy, healthy and active when they were given to Pets in Need staff members Patricia Santana Valencia, Margaret Evans and Ingrid Hartmann, according to the police report. A video made by the Chowchilla Animal Control volunteer who gave the puppies to Pets in Need also supports that observation, according to the police report.
Happy, healthy puppies
The police report, which redacted the last names of the witnesses and others interviewed by the investigators, sheds additional light on the hours before the puppies died during transport from the Central Valley, with temperatures in the 90s, and what occurred once they and 21 other animals arrived at the Palo Alto Animal Shelter.
The puppies, a mix of black Labrador retriever and pit bull, had been born to the dogs of Chowchilla residents, the police report states. Wanting to surrender them for adoption, the residents called a Chowchilla Animal Control officer, who is named Michelle in the report, and she in turn reached out to an experienced volunteer, Sandy, for help locating shelters that could take the puppies.
Pets in Need said they could and that Shelter Operations Manager Patricia Santana would be coming to the area to pick up other dogs on Aug. 2. Michelle arranged to pick up the puppies from the owner that morning at around 11 a.m. and to deliver them to Sandy, who would keep them until it was time to hand them off to Pets in Need.
Michelle told a police investigator the puppies were kept indoors in the garage and house and were in an empty kiddie pool and pen. They were happy and healthy. Michelle brought the puppies to Sandy's home and the two women vaccinated the dogs and placed them in a large, shaded kennel area of the backyard, she told police.
A video taken of the black-and-white pups, which this news organization viewed, shows them wagging their tails and bounding and jumping up against the kennel to lick a person's hand. Their eyes look bright.
Sandy told police she noticed the puppies had large bellies, indicative of worms, which is not unusual for puppies of their age. They happily ate treats and food, she told police.
Planning to meet Pets in Need staff at a truck stop at 4 p.m., she placed the puppies in four kennels with plenty of room for them to stand up and lay down, she told police. Her car was air-conditioned.
When she arrived at the truck stop, she checked on the puppies. Two had been carsick. One had vomited and another had defecated. She was cleaning up the animals when the Pets in Need crew arrived. Santana, Evans and Hartmann each took one or two puppies and placed them in the Pets in Need van. Sandy said she didn't see how many crates the puppies were placed in.
A long, hot journey crammed into a single, covered crate
Santana, Evans and Hartmann placed all of the puppies into a single crate with internal dimensions of approximately 29 inches long, 19 inches wide and 23 inches tall, the police report stated. The kennel was covered with a towel or cloth to prevent any possible disease transmission, the report noted. The van had air conditioning sufficient to cool the front of the van where the staff was located, but it didn't have a system capable of adequately cooling the back.
The trip, which can last more than four to six hours depending on traffic, took place during a hot day. The recorded temperature for Madera County on Aug. 2 at about 4 p.m. when Pets in Need picked up the puppies was 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The recorded temperature at Los Banos at 5:45 p.m. when the van made a stop for gas was 95 degrees, according to the police report.
During the trip and their Los Banos stop for gas, the Pets in Need crew didn't remove any of the animals to let them go to the bathroom. They didn't provide the animals with any water, although they did check on them, they told police. One staff member said the puppies became quiet during the one-and-a-half-hour trip from Los Banos to Palo Alto.
Shortly after the van arrived at the Palo Alto shelter, staff heard the three women screaming. They pulled the puppies out of the van and placed them on the shelter floor. The animals were stiff and hot to the touch. Staff tried to resuscitate them, poured water and placed cold, wet towels on them to bring their temperatures down, but the puppies could not be revived, according to the police report. The single kennel the puppies had been in was full of vomit and diarrhea, a witness told police.
Other witnesses who work at the shelter helped bring in the 20 remaining dogs and a guinea pig, which were still in the van. The inside of the van was still extremely hot even though the doors had been open for 15 to 20 minutes, multiple witnesses told police.
One of the witnesses said she remarked to Santana how hot the back of the van seemed.
"Yeah, I know, there's no vents back there," she said Santana had replied.
Almost every kennel had vomit in it and a number had excrement inside, this witness said. There were no water bowls in any of the cages.
All of the remaining dogs were panting heavily and appeared to be in distress. They were hot to the touch, multiple witnesses told police. Staff began treating these dogs for heat stroke by cooling them down with water and giving them water bowls, they said.
That evening was "the most horrible site in my whole life," a witness told police.
A lack of protocol and alleged errors
The police report doesn't indicate that any of the acts leading to the puppies' deaths were intentional.
The Second Chance Animal Shelter in Selma, California, where the 20 dogs were picked up, told police they have never had any issues dealing with Santana, who has been in charge of the transport runs, and Pets in Need. Witness reports also describe the emotional distress of the three staff members who were on the trip when they discovered the dead puppies.
But the incident raises many questions about how the transport of the puppies by a 55-year-old animal advocacy agency could have gone so wrong and the need to change protocols — something that at least one staff member told police he was already starting to implement a day after the incident.
With the exception of Hartmann, the human resources manager, the other two employees had experience with animals and transporting them. Hartmann had only been hired about three months before and was on the trip to learn about how the transport operation worked. Evans, the behavior manager, had worked for Pets in Need for two years and had been on other transport runs with Santana. Santana, the shelter operations manager, had worked for Pets in Need for 20 years at the organization's Redwood City shelter, the police report noted.
Santana has recently been put in charge of operations at both the Palo Alto and Redwood City shelters. Executive Director Al Mollica terminated the prior Palo Alto operations manager. The termination was not related to the puppy incident, according to the police report.
Cody Macartney, the city's lead animal control officer, who is employed by the police department, filed the initial complaint to police for investigation of animal cruelty on Aug. 3 after learning about the puppy deaths. Macartney, an animal control officer for 19 years, told police he would never have transported seven large puppies in a single crate of that size.
Pets in Need didn't have any specific protocol or checklists for their transporters, employees told police. The organization supposedly followed national guidelines for pet shelters and transportation from the Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters. According to those guidelines, animals should not be lying on top of each other and should have enough room to sit and stand independently.
The transport vehicle should have adequate ventilation and a thermometer placed at the level of the animals. The van should have a minimum ambient temperature above 60 degrees Fahrenheit and a maximum temperature of 80 degrees. Extra food and water are recommended since animals in transport are usually stressed, but if water cannot be provided, the animals should be given water no more than every four hours, according to the guidelines.
The standards specifically address the transport of puppies and kittens: "Due to increased vulnerability, extra care must be provided when transporting puppies and kittens including: prevention of exposure to temperature extremes; maintenance of adequate hydration and nutrition; and protection from infectious disease exposure during the transport process."
The transportation methods employed on Aug. 2 were standard for Pets in Need, however, including not providing water, employees told police. Although Santana, Evans and Hartmann knew the van had inadequate ventilation, they took the van — the smaller of two — because it could accommodate Hartmann on the trip, they told police. The van had air conditioning in the front but no vents or air conditioning in the animal compartment, the police report noted.
The witnesses said Pets in Need didn't as a rule give animals water during transport trips; Santana had said it was because the animals would vomit. But one person interviewed by police said she has suggested in the past they could give the animals water in suspended drip bottles and therefore take in the water more slowly. The suggestion was never implemented.
Certain measures that other staff members had implemented with potential to help in transport situations were not often, if ever, used. One staff member who went on a transport run recalled that during a trip they had taken a kitten that wasn't doing well. They knew there was a possibility the kitten wouldn't survive but the kitten seemed stable enough to make the trip. There was no kitten food nor a warm blanket to make it more comfortable. The kitten didn't survive the trip, she told police.
She later created emergency kits with food, warm blankets and other supplies to be taken on the trips. Only one employee was known to have taken a kit along on a trip, staff told police.
Multiple staff members wrote the Pets in Need board of directors a letter after the puppy deaths criticizing the incident and alleging the transport trip was riddled with failures.
Staff on the Aug. 2 trip allegedly violated established protocol for transporting potentially sick animals, they said. About six months ago, Pets in Need began requiring that transporters call either of two veterinary doctors at the clinic if an animal is vomiting or sick before bringing them to the shelter. The veterinarians must give their approval. Because one of the puppies had vomited and another defecated, staff should have called one of the veterinarians before transporting them, an employee said.
Staff also said they didn't know whether there had been similar incidents in the past. The transport staff often returned late at night after all other staff had gone home.
Pets in Need has provided only limited statements and answers to multiple questions about the allegations. Asked to comment on the police report and necropsy findings, Pets in Need reiterated its frustrations with the city in an email it provided this news organization on Tuesday evening.
The city's shortcomings led the shelter operator to announce on Monday that it would terminate its contract with Palo Alto and would no longer provide services after 2022.
"Earlier this week, Pets In Need announced its intention to terminate its current contract with the City of Palo Alto to operate animal shelter services. We said then, and repeat, that this decision was driven by the city's unresponsiveness and delay on important issues that would enable us to fulfill our responsibilities under the contract.
"That unresponsiveness has continued throughout the investigation into the events of Aug. 2. Pets in Need did not receive the Sept. 14 police report until Nov. 3, and even now the full results of the necropsy reports have not been shared with us. We need this information to fully understand what happened and how we can make changes and improvements necessary so that a tragedy like this is never repeated. We remain at a disadvantage when certain aspects of these reports are shared selectively — but not with us."
The city did not respond to this latest assertion. It refuted Pets in Need's characterization after the contract termination was announced.