Rob Perez

Raising Cane

By Rob Perez

Quarantine horror stories
raise questions of neglect

When Susan Tartaglia moved to Hawaii in November, she thought she had come to the perfect place to spend time with Ruby, her best friend and soulmate.

They could play on the beach together. They could swim together. They could go for runs together.

Tartaglia envisioned all that and more once Ruby, her 3-year-old miniature pinscher, finished a mandatory 30-day stay in the state's animal quarantine station in Halawa.

On Nov. 20, Ruby went into quarantine a healthy, energetic, playful pet. Two weeks later, she was dead.

Tartaglia, 30, still is devastated by the loss. But she's even more upset about the horrific way Ruby died and what Tartaglia considers a cover-up by the state to hide the true cause of death.

Susan Tartaglia, shown here with her dog, Ruby, believes pesticides used at the state animal quarantine station led to her dog's death last November.

Tartaglia, citing quarantine records, data culled from medical journals and Ruby's symptoms, believes pesticides used at the quarantine station led to her dog's death.

The state disputes that, saying tests done before and after Ruby's death found no signs of pesticide poisoning. It has not determined an official cause of death.

Whatever caused Ruby's demise, the case has become a rallying point for critics of the Halawa station and the state requirement that pets brought to Hawaii be quarantined for as many as 120 days to keep the islands rabies-free.

The case even has inspired a legislative proposal to eliminate the quarantine requirement altogether, although proponents have all but given up on the Legislature passing that measure this session.

The need for a quarantine requirement triggers passionate debate among those who say it's pointless given the effectiveness of vaccinations and those who say it's necessary to keep rabies at bay.

Fueling some of that passion is the level of service at the station. Many pet owners say the service stinks. So many, in fact, have complained to legislators, an advocacy group and others that you have to wonder what's going on up there.

Whenever one or two people criticize a service used by thousands, few people will take notice. But what if dozens or even hundreds voice criticisms? Can so many people be so wrong?

Chris Quackenbush, who founded a group pushing for elimination of the quarantine requirement, said she spends several hours each day dealing with numerous e-mails, faxes and phone calls from pet owners wanting to share their horrible experiences from the quarantine station.

"The stories speak for themselves," Quackenbush said. "It's a frightening tale of continuous abuse, ignored by the very people paid to protect us."

Some of the horror stories:

>> A woman whose 5-year-old Weimaraner was suffering from severe diarrhea and weight loss said her pleas last year to have the dog checked at an animal hospital were ignored, with quarantine personnel telling her Sabot was simply adjusting to kennel life and needed a sedative. Tammie Breedlove said she eventually arranged to have an outside veterinarian come to the station and check her dog. The vet determined Sabol was suffering from dehydration and urinary problems and gave the dog medication and fluids through an intravenous hook-up.

"Sabol suffered from terrible neglect and would have died had I not got the outside vet to intervene," Breedlove said.

>> Kim Thomas' German shepherd Kasi died after a month in the quarantine station in 1999. During that period, the dog suffered from severe weight loss, vomiting and diarrhea and eventually was transferred to a hospital, where she underwent surgery because of an intestinal blockage, believed to be caused by a foreign object that penetrated her intestine. Kasi died the next day.

Thomas said she saw many quarantined dogs who suffered from neglect, including some who were soiled from sitting in their own urine or diarrhea. "The things going on were absolutely horrifying. It was just unbelievable."

>> Robin Baumgard said one of her three Chihuahuas became pregnant in 1999 while in quarantine, even though she paid to have them in separate kennels and told the station not to let the female, who was in heat, mingle with the two males.

Baumgard, who was billed for keeping the puppies in quarantine with their mother, said the quality of care she saw during her dogs' 120-day stay was deplorable. Filthy kennels, for instance, weren't cleaned until just before visiting hours, she said. Baumgard had access beyond visiting hours because her dogs were in a special program.

"Basically, I just cried for four months," Baumgard said. "It was awful, absolutely awful."

>> Tartaglia said her concerns about Ruby's health problems -- diarrhea, weight loss, behavior changes, vomiting -- were dismissed by quarantine personnel. They told her that her anxiousness was contributing to Ruby's condition and that she should calm down and consider the 30-day quarantine like "summer camp" for dogs, according to Tartaglia.

She eventually insisted on getting Ruby checked at an animal hospital and, suspecting pesticide poisoning because of the dog's symptoms, asked the station if pesticides were used there. Tartaglia said she was told no, a denial that, in the critical first few hours of Ruby's hospitalization, steered the hospital to look for other possible causes.

Yet quarantine records show pesticides were used around kennels near where Ruby was housed, with some of the chemicals applied on the day the 15-pound dog was transferred to the hospital.

Ruby died Dec. 4, four days after being hospitalized. Toward the end, she suffered multiple seizures, often while cradled in her owner's arms.

"My best friend was gone," Tartaglia said. "I never felt so alone in all my life."

Tests done by state and mainland laboratories on Ruby's blood and tissue samples showed no signs of pesticide poisoning, according to the state Department of Agriculture, which oversees the quarantine station.

New Agriculture Board Chairwoman Sandra Lee Kunimoto said the agency is greatly concerned when any pet dies while in quarantine. In Ruby's case, though, proper procedures seem to have been followed, she said.

Roughly 4,600 pets go through the quarantine station each year, and of that amount, less than half a percent, or about 17 a year, die while in quarantine, according to Kunimoto.

The majority die from cancer or other medical conditions that existed before their quarantine, she added. In the last five years, no deaths have been attributed to suspected pesticide poisoning, Kunimoto said.

In the past fiscal year, the quarantine station housed an average of 758 pets per day. But if the department's statistics are an accurate indication, relatively few animals encountered stool problems, one common complaint.

A spokeswoman said 68 incidents were logged in December and 59 in January.

Asked about the many complaints from pet owners, Kunimoto said, "My feeling is that whenever I hear of a complaint about any of our operations, I want to look into it."

She noted, however, that the quarantine station also gets accolades from people satisfied with the service.

Because Kunimoto was only recently named to her position, she is doing a review of all department operations, including the quarantine station.

Her goal: "To continue to try to make improvements."

She won't get any arguments there.

Star-Bulletin columnist Rob Perez writes on issues
and events affecting Hawaii. Fax 529-4750, or write to
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
Honolulu 96813. He can also be reached
by e-mail at:

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