24 min read

Elderly Dog Gets Out Of Backyard And Ends Up Dead At The Pound

"We're not getting a dog," Martin Sullivan said to his 4-year-old daughter.

"Daddy, we have to have her. We want to get her so bad!" Kylie Sullivan pleaded.

The weeks-old puppies were in a cart being given away free by some children hanging outside a grocery story in Camp Verde, Arizona. Kylie and her mother, Corinne Stalter, had their eye on one puppy in particular. "She was teeny, tiny and her little paws were falling through the holes of the cart," Stalter told The Dodo.

Roxie was an adorable puppy.Corinne Stalter

Roxie was an adorable puppy. | Corinne Stalter

Sullivan went into the store and Stalter looked at her daughter and said, "Let's just do it," as she took the puppy and hid her under her shirt. But by the time they approached Martin in the store, the shirt was moving around and a paw was sticking out. At that moment, Martin fell for the pup and had to admit defeat. The barely 6-week-old puppy they would eventually name Roxie already had his heart. "He let us get the dog food and we started our life with her," Stalter said. "I have pictures of her teeny and tiny crawling all over Martin's face. He couldn't deny her."

A puppy to love

The puppy quickly became an integral part of their lives. "All she ever wanted was to be with the kids," Stalter said, referring to the Sullivan children, Aaron, 24; Kylie, now 21; Tyler, 12; Brynn, 10 and Jadyn, 3. "If the kids went out to play, Roxie would cry at the door," Stalter said. "She only wanted to lay in the front yard as long as she could see her kids all the time." Roxie never strayed; she was always at their side.

Roxie accompanied Kylie and her father to the school bus stop every morning.Corinne Stalter

Roxie accompanied Kylie and her father to the school bus stop every morning. | Corinne Stalter

From peeking into Tyler's newborn carrier and wagging her tail to watching over a kitten the family took in, Roxie was a happy dog who loved animals, people and life. The 60-pound mixed breed, who was part Queensland heeler and pit bull, went cliff diving and swimming with the children and walked a young Kylie to the school bus stop every day. Seven years ago, the family saw her through a bout of breast cancer and stuck by her side as she had always stuck by them.

Last year, the family found out that Roxie, then 17, had an inoperable growth on her neck. "I started crying," Stalter said. "I thought the vet meant we would have to put her down." The vet said eventually the growth would start to cut off her airway. However, surgery at Roxie's age was not recommended and the tumor wasn't causing discomfort. The vet instructed them on the warning signs for pain and how to watch her closely.

Kylie, her brother Aaron and Roxie pose for a photo. Corinne Stalter

Kylie, her brother Aaron and Roxie pose for a photo. | Corinne Stalter

"She would sleep with us or with the girls. We watched her every day. I made sure she wouldn't suffer," Stalter said. Roxie was eating regularly, happy and living her life.

Although Roxie was on borrowed time, it was not that time. Her family was still keeping her happy in her 18th year. So when they found out their beloved Roxie ended up dead at Maricopa County Animal Care and Control's (MCACC) eastside location within an hour of her intake as a stray on February 2, the emotional blow to the family was unbearable.

Roxie gets out of the backyard

Earlier that day, Roxie accidentally got out. The family fears the backyard gate was left open by a young boy who was trespassing on their property. The boy allegedly had come to steal their son Tyler's bicycle.

"When [Tyler] came home from school he said, 'Mom my bike is gone,'" Stalter said. It was around 1:15 p.m. "We went outside and the gate was open. I had just let Roxie out to go potty." The family and friends went up and down the neighborhood to look for Roxie, called neighbors and even called the local police to tell them about the stolen bike but the conversation turned to Roxie.

Kylie and her grandmother loved to snuggle with Roxie.Corinne Stalter

Kylie and her grandmother loved to snuggle with Roxie. | Corinne Stalter

"I didn't care about the bike; I just cared about Roxie," Stalter said. She then went to their local vet clinic and alerted the staff, who told Stalter to post Roxie on the Straydar Facebook page where lost dogs in the area are posted. After leaving the vet, Stalter jumped on Facebook from her car in the parking lot to post Roxie's photo. As she continued to search Facebook, she saw someone had posted MCACC's intake photo of Roxie: Somehow her elderly dog had ended up at the local pound.

Later, Stalter found out that Roxie had wandered down the street and onto a neighbor's front lawn. The neighbor, an animal lover herself, was just about to run some errands when she saw Roxie.

"She pees and stands there and looks at me, so I walked up to her," the woman, who asked not to be named, told The Dodo. She noticed the dog was gentle, loving and old. "At that moment I had a choice of what to do."

Since the dog had no collar, the woman, who was running out to do errands, brought Roxie to MCACC east, as she had been told to take found dogs there. "She was with me in my truck maybe 20 minutes, having the time of her life back there." The woman took video so she could post to Petfinder and similar sites. "I was concerned as she had a thing on her neck. She did not seem in distress to me at all."

Video taken by the woman in her car shows Roxie sitting in the backseat, looking calm and alert.

Intake at the county shelter

After arriving at MCACC, the woman and Roxie waited in line for about 10 minutes. The woman took another video so she could post it along with her first. She used a black leash she kept in her car and said the dog seemed fine when she put the leash around her. She answered the intake questions as best she could and told the shelter employee, "She's just a sweetie." She was given papers for intake and an employee circled the ID number to note if anybody contacted her about the dog.

Shelter staff scanned for a microchip and did not find one. They offered the woman a "found dog" sign to post on her front lawn, which included basic information. They gave the leash back to her and slipped a county one around Roxie's neck.

After asking how long they would hold the dog, the woman was told it would be 72 hours. "In my head I thought, 'I'll post the stuff tomorrow and the day after I will call and see what's going on,'" she said. If Roxie hadn't been claimed at that time, the woman said, she would pick her up, pay the fees and take her to a no-kill shelter or possibly keep her. She said if her dog were lost, the pound would be the first place she would go to search. She thought she was doing the right thing.

A sickening discovery

The next day, the Sullivan children saw the sign the woman had posted in her yard and took it to their parents.

By the time Stalter and and her husband knocked on the woman's door, Roxie was already dead.

Stalter described putting together a timeline of the events, noting that on the Straydar Facebook page, Roxie's photo listed an MCACC intake time of 1:51 p.m. on February 2. Stalter said she started her phone calls at 2:30 p.m., by the time she arrived back at her house after her trip to the local vet clinic. By 2:49, she called MCACC, finally got through and was told, "Oh poor dear, your dog has been euthanized."

Roxie loved to pose for pictures.Corinne Stalter

Roxie loved to pose for pictures. | Corinne Stalter

Stalter was inconsolable. "How dare you? You killed my dog," she screamed into the phone. "Why did you kill her? I want to talk to the vet." Stalter said she wanted Roxie's body and was told they would have to locate it and she could speak with the vet when she got to the shelter.

When she arrived, she said, she was treated poorly and was told she would have to fill out a release form to find out the veterinarian's information. Stalter was shaking, angry and very upset: She wanted to know why they killed her dog. Employees threatened to call security. When she received Roxie's body in a plastic bag, Stalter reached in. "She was warm. They told me they took her out of the cooler. I put my hands under her neck and when I picked her up, my legs went out from underneath me." She drove Roxie's body to her own vet, who determined that Roxie had been dead just a half hour to 45 minutes.

Within an hour after Roxie was dropped off at MCACC, the shelter's vet "made the decision that the dog was suffering and that she had to be humanely euthanized," Melissa Gable, public information officer of MCACC, told The Dodo.

"Our staff felt that Roxie had difficulty breathing and took her to the clinic. Our vet examined her and felt she was suffering," Gable continued. "They can make that decision to euthanize prior to the stray hold being up."

According to Roxie's records, later released to Stalter, the dog was noted in stable condition when she arrived.

Cori Stalter holds the found dog sign that MCACC gave to the woman who found Roxie.Corinne Stalter

Cori Stalter holds the found dog sign that MCACC gave to the woman who found Roxie. | Corinne Stalter

The neighbor who brought Roxie to the shelter had no idea what had happened until the next day when Stalter and Sullivan showed up and let her know their dog was dead.

"I was extremely surprised and taken aback because I had been under a different impression of the county," the woman said. "I was extremely sad for the family and I was upset and mad. [Roxie] did not seem in distress at all under my care. She was just a sweetheart."

Rodrigo Silva, assistant county manager and director of MCACC, who on February 5 coincidentally announced his retirement, told The Dodo that the Roxie incident played no part in his decision to resign. He stressed the importance of identification and having additional contact information on a pet for emergency situations. "At the time of the exam, our vet who assessed her believed it was in her best interest to be euthanized," he said.

With regard to the 72-hour stray hold, Stalter's attorney John Schill of the Schill Law Group in Scottsdale, Arizona, said, "There is an exception if the dog is suffering. The dog can be euthanized. But clearly looking at the video, Roxie was not in distress. She was not suffering.

"There was talk about Roxie that she didn't have a tag on her. Roxie never ran away before. She only got out because of a third-party person who got in the yard to steal a bike." He said the neighbor did what she was supposed to do by bringing her to MCACC.

Justice for Roxie

Schill says he will conduct a full investigation: "By statute, they need to hold Roxie for three days, and they violated that."

The family wanted to be with Roxie in her final hours, which were supposed to be at their home, not in the confusion and chaos of the pound. "Always have your babies collared and chipped," Stalter said. "I've learned that. She didn't have a collar because her tumor was big. Why wasn't she chipped? She was so old by the time we thought about it."

Stalter said she didn't realize how many times she actually thought about Roxie in a day until now. "I went to throw my food under the table for her yesterday, and I started crying."

In her later years, Roxie enjoyed cuddling up in her blanket at home.Corinne Stalter

In her later years, Roxie enjoyed cuddling up in her blanket at home. | Corinne Stalter

Sadly, there are other tragic stories of shelters euthanizing dogs who have homes, leaving owners devastated. Target, a beloved dog who survived the Afghan war and who appeared on "Oprah" back in 2010, didn't have a microchip and was mistakenly euthanized at another Arizona shelter before her owner could pick her up. In 2015, a North Carolina woman found out her dog was accidentally euthanized at the local pound when she went to pick him up after his quarantine. They killed the wrong dog because either the kennel cards were switched or the dogs were switched. In yet another tragic case, in 2013, a woman went to pick up her dog at her local shelter after the dog wandered away, only to find out her dog was euthanized due to an intake error.

"Unfortunately, working in the Criminal Justice Program we see this type of situation quite frequently," said Lora Dunn, staff attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund's (ALDF) Criminal Justice Program, based in Portland, Oregon.

"It usually comes down to a lack of education about the proper processes for the intake and rehabilitation of these animals, and also a lack of funding because so many of these animal control and animal shelters are processing so many animals every day and sometimes can't keep up with the volume given a scarcity of resources," Dunn said. "But certainly that's not an excuse for any type of inhumane treatment of animals including improper euthanization."

Fortunately, reform is possible. Animal advocates are demanding change at shelters across the country, Dunn said. If you're aware of abuse or systemic problems at your local shelter, she suggests, "first try to work with the shelter toward implementing some new processes and secondly if that is not helpful to report to law enforcement or those who oversee the animal shelter."

You can follow Stalter's fight for justice on the Facebook page she set up for Roxie.

For information on what to do if you find a stray animal, check out the Humane Society of the United States website.