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Sanctions unlikely in U. lab dog's death

Published April 11, 2011 10:38 am

Shelter animals • Health department unlikely to revoke school's license.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

State health officials say they are unlikely to sanction the University of Utah over its handling of a shelter dog killed in its labs last summer, even though the animal had an owner's identification microchip and a rescue group said it was willing to claim the dog.

A Utah Department of Health official said the agency will seek more information from the U. about the May 2010 incident. It also has contacted the North Utah Valley Animal Shelter, which sold U. researchers the dog, a brown female pit bull named Sunny.

In its March 8 complaint to the Health Department, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Utah Animal Adoption Center alleged that if the U. and the Lindon shelter "had upheld their statutory responsibility, Sunny would have been claimed by UAAC and would likely be alive today."

The department began investigating Sunny's case last month after the U. announced it was halting a decades-old practice of buying dogs and cats slated for euthanasia from area pounds and using them for research.

U. Vice President for Research Thomas Parks said March 1 the school ended the use of pound animals partly to ease pressure on the Lindon shelter from animal-rights activists, who targeted the facility with threats, protests and hostile emails.

The U. has since switched to using more expensive purpose-bred dogs and cats for its biomedical research.

In its complaint, PETA and UAAC asked health officials to permanently revoke the U.'s license to accept shelter animals and ensure the animal purchases aren't revived. They allege that the pit bull's handling and death broke state laws requiring "due diligence" in locating owners before impounded animals are sent to the U.

Jack Taylor, director of animal resources for the U., told The Salt Lake Tribune that lab workers scanned Sunny and detected a microchip as part of standard intake procedures when the dog came to the school. The scan confirmed the chip number was registered to UAAC.

But, Taylor said, because they were told the dog had been formally relinquished at the Lindon shelter, "there was no reason for us to go searching for its owner."

"Nobody wanted it," he said.

The dog was placed in a medical experiment and euthanized June 1, 2010, according to correspondence several months later between Parks and Rose Bentley, UAAC's board president.

Bentley told The Tribune that all animals rescued and adopted out by UAAC are "microchipped for life."

"No matter what, for whatever reasons, we will take that animal back," she said. "That's what should have happened, but we were never notified."

Sunny was brought to the North Utah Valley Animal Shelter on April 11, 2010, after the pit bull attacked another dog and was seized by an animal-control officer from Pleasant Grove, shelter director Tug Gettling said.

Shelter workers scanned Sunny, detected the chip, tracked the ID number to UAAC and contacted the rescue center, Gettling said — a claim Bentley denies.

With information UAAC provided, Gettling said, shelter workers contacted the dog's owner, who signed forms relinquishing the animal the next morning. Sunny remained at the shelter for another three weeks before being sold to the U.

"If it really was UAAC's dog, why didn't they come get it?'" Gettling asked.

Bentley said that a search of the rescue group's computer system under the dog's chip number showed the file hadn't been accessed since the chip was issued.

"If we had known the animal was there," Bentley said, "we would have gone and pulled it out of there, because it was ours."

She and a PETA official based in Utah also noted that the shelter has yet to produce the relinquishing form it says the owner signed.

Health Department spokesman Tom Hudachko said state law governing transfers of pound animals for lab experiments places the responsibility for tracking owners on shelters, not on the U. Hudachko said department lawyers concluded the agency lacks enforcement authority over the shelter, which is supported by cities across northern Utah County.

That decision, made official in a letter this week, drew a scalding reaction from PETA, which calls the U.'s role a case of "gross negligence."

"This is simply inexcusable," PETA spokesman Jeremy Beckham wrote, "and reflects that rather than being interested in actually finding Sunny a good home, they preferred to subject her to a life of pain and death in experiments."

tsemerad@sltrib.com