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United States v. Approximately 64 Dogs

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Rock Island Division

December 2, 2016

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
APPROXIMATELY 64 DOGS, Defendants.

          ORDER

          SARA DARROW DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is the United States of America's motion for an order of disposition of two pit-bull type dogs seized pursuant to federal search warrants by the United States Marshals in April 2016. Mot. Order Disposition 1, ECF No. 27. The United States seeks authorization to euthanize the dogs pursuant to 7 U.S.C. § 2156(f) of the Animal Welfare Act. For the following reasons, the motion is GRANTED.

         BACKGROUND

         On April 14, 2016, the United States Marshals seized sixty four pit-bull type dogs as a result of an investigation into a dog-fighting operation, including two identified as Brownie, IL11DG03 and Taz, IL10C01. Mot. Order Disposition (“Mot.”) 2, 3-7. Both dogs were seized from locations containing strong indicia of dog-fighting, including training devices, medications, documents, and conditions of confinement (i.e. kennels with lack of access to food and water) associated with dog-fighting, and both dogs had typical, if not conclusive, physical indicia that they had been subject to fighting. Mot. 3-7.[1] The dogs have remained in the custody of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (“ASPCA”), which has provided shelter and administered veterinary and rehabilitative care including medication and behavioral modification training. See Mot. 8-11.

         Terrill McDuffy, a resident where Brownie was seized, filed a claim on May 13, 2016 stating that he had not participated in any dog-fighting, and requesting that his “listed item[s], ” including nine pit-bull type dogs-one of which was Brownie-be returned to him. McDuffy's Claim, ECF No. 11. The claim was not verified by oath or affirmation, nor was it served on the appropriate attorney for the United States. Id. McDuffy filed an answer on June 7, 2016, McDuffy's Ans. 2-3, ECF No. 22, denying all allegations in the Verified Complaint relating to him, though his answer was not served on the appropriate attorney for the United States. Mot. 6.

         Demarlo McCoy, a resident where Taz was seized, filed a claim on May 17, 2016, requesting his “things back.” McCoy's Claim, ECF No. 14. Taz was one of two pit-bull type dogs seized at the location. Id. at 2; Mot. 7. The claim was not verified nor was it served on the appropriate attorney for the United States. See Id. McCoy did not file an answer.

         Once in custody, ASPCA veterinarians assessed Brownie and found physical signs that he had been forced to fight. Mot. 8. Over the course of several months, Brownie's disposition changed from fearfulness to aggression, and the ASPCA's Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team attempted to address his tendency to bite handlers through behavior modification, then medication for anxiety. Behaviorist Euthanasia Request 1-2, ECF No. 27-5. When these approaches did not work, Brownie's kennel was modified to limit his exposure to handlers for their safety. Id. at 2. Brownie has injured multiple ASPCA employees by biting their arms and legs. Id. ASPCA officials have determined that Brownie will continue to pose a threat, and that his health and wellness will deteriorate due to the necessity to keep him confined. Id.

         Taz has a similar history of aggression toward other dogs and humans, and the ASPCA Field Investigations and Response Manager found that Taz was hyper-stressed, could not safely interact with humans, could not be taken safely to the exercise area or outside, could not be pet or stroked, and otherwise showed signs of “kennel stress.” Ex. D 2-3, ECF No. 27-6. Taz has been confined to his cage with no exercise or human interaction since July 1, 2016, when he bit the arm of one of the handlers, resulting in a serious puncture wound. Behaviorist Euthanasia Request 1.

         Both dogs have bitten their human handlers to the point of injury, resulting in the ASPCA's decision to modify their cages to minimize human interaction. Id. An ASPCA official described the condition both dogs are being kept in as “essentially...solitary confinement.” Id. After several months in ASPCA's care, the United States reports that both Brownie and Taz have become aggressive and agitated, pose a danger to their handlers, and have little prospect of rehabilitation. Mot. 8-11.

         ANALYSIS

         Because of the safety concerns for human handlers and the determination that it would be inhumane to keep the dogs alive in their physical and psychological states, the United States moves for an order of disposition seeking permission to euthanize Brownie and Taz pursuant to the Animal Welfare Act. Mot. 8. The United States argues that the Act permits euthanasia when “an animal cannot be safely cared for and the animal's quality of life is so poor that maintaining the animal any longer would be inhumane.” Mot. 7-8. Lastly, the Government argues McDuffy and McCoy have not complied with Rule G(5)(a) of the Supplemental Rules of Civil Procedure applicable to forfeiture claims and therefore do not have standing to contest a forfeiture or order of disposition. Mot. 6-7.

         The Animal Welfare Act makes it illegal “to knowingly sell, buy, possess, train, transport, deliver, or receive any animal for purposes of having the animal participate in an animal fighting venture.” 7 U.S.C. § 2156(b). “[A]ny animal which there is probable cause to believe was involved in any violation of this section” may be seized by the United States and “shall be liable to be proceeded against and forfeited to the United States.” Id. § 2156(f). The Act provides that “[n]ecessary care including veterinary treatment shall be provided while the animals are . . .held in custody.” Id.

         The Court finds that the dogs are living in wretched conditions without any hope for a brighter future. Accordingly, it would be inhumane to allow the dogs to continue suffering. Based on the clear psychological distress and physical discomfort experienced by these two dogs, the Court finds that euthanasia falls within the “necessary care” that a veterinarian-such as one of the many who have examined and attempted to treat these two dogs-may provide.

         Further, neither of the claims made on each of the two dogs-McDuffy's on Brownie nor McCoy's on Taz-comply with Supplemental Admiralty and Maritime Rule G, which delineates the procedure governing forfeiture actions in rem. Supplemental Admiralty and Maritime Claims Rule G(5). A party asserting an interest in seized property must file a verified claim, identifying the property and the claimant's interest, and serve it on the United States. Id. at G(5)(a)(i). A claimant who fails to meet the aforementioned requirements lacks standing to contest the forfeiture. United States v. Commodity Account No. 549 54930 at Saul Stone & Co., 219 F.3d 595, 598 (7th Cir. 2000). Claimaints must ...


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