The fate of dogs used by the military in combat situations (e.g., bomb sniffing) has long been an intense area of concern. Last year, President Obama signed into law a military spending bill mandating that all such dogs must be brought home to the United States, and that handlers with whom the canines have formed bonds be given the opportunity to adopt them first.
Tragically, combat isn’t the only life-threatening situation for these dogs. This past March, USDA administrative law judge Janice Bullard rendered a decision against an animal handler that detailed the suffering of 14 dogs who died in an overheated transport van just prior to their deployment to Afghanistan. The facts of the case—gleaned from the decision, as well as from news reports and filings in a civil lawsuit pertaining to the incident—are as follows:
Fourteen German shepherd and Belgian malinois dogs—Tiny, Rocky, Crock, Dork, Harrie, Stress, Sigo, Jago, Kimbo, Kilo, Albert, Bak, and two named Rex—were trained by American K9 Detection Services (AMK9) to detect explosives for checkpoint security, vehicle sweeps, and roving patrols. AMK9 contracted with Indian Creek Enterprises, dba Animal Port Houston (APH), to help get the dogs transported to Afghanistan. APH was owned by Thomas Schooler and managed by Kyle Hay.
On December 10, 2010, the dogs were in the custody of APH and scheduled to fly the next day. Hay assured AMK9 that the dogs would be housed overnight in temperature-regulated kennels. APH’s website claimed that it specialized in “safe and gentle animal shipping” and operated a “24-hour luxury pet hotel and animal station.”
Instead, as Hay later admitted, he left the dogs overnight without observation in a poorly ventilated, tightly sealed transport truck for 13 hours. He discovered them dead the next morning. He said the air conditioning unit in the truck was not blowing cool air and that the unit’s temperature control gauge read 77 degrees Fahrenheit. The USDA determined that all 14 dogs died from asphyxiation.
AMK9 representatives arrived and found that the dogs were still in the transport truck. Not knowing what had happened, they called out the dogs’ names. Disturbed by the lack of response, they entered the truck and were struck by a rancid odor. They shook the crates but no dog moved. They saw blood on the truck floor and in several of the crates, and noted that two of the crates—those of Stress and Kimbo—had been damaged by apparent escape attempts.
Hay acknowledged having left animals overnight in transport trucks in the past, and that this was a common practice at APH. In a prior incident, laboratory mice also died after being left in a sealed transport truck. APH was subsequently notified that it needed an alarm detection system in its trucks to detect temperature changes within the transport cabin, or backup cooling units—either of which would have prevented the dogs’ deaths. APH had also received an official warning letter from the USDA in 2008 relating to the mishandling of a dog.
Following the deaths of the 14 dogs, Schooler transferred the assets of Indian Creek Enterprises/APH to Hay and filed for bankruptcy. Hay then registered as an intermediate handler under the name Live Animal Transportation Services (LATS).
In December 2011, AMK9 filed a $1.3 million lawsuit against Indian Creek Enterprises and LATS as Indian Creek’s successor in interest. That same year, the USDA began an investigation that culminated in a July 7, 2014, complaint against Indian Creek Enterprises, Thomas Schooler, and Kyle Hay for 32 violations of the Animal Welfare Act. This latter action resulted in Judge Bullard’s March 2016 decision. Concluding that the violations were indeed grave and resulted in the dogs’ deaths, the judge followed the USDA’s recommendation for a $68,600 fine (while noting that the violations could have resulted in a $320,000 penalty). The judge also issued a cease and desist order regarding further violations of the Animal Welfare Act, but was powerless to suspend or revoke Hay’s handler registration (see box below).
Indian Creek Enterprises formally canceled its USDA registration on August 6, 2012. However, Kyle Hay had already obtained a new USDA registration for LATS on July 28, 2011. Recent inspections cite LATS for not having a responsible adult present (October 13, 2015, and March 10, 2016), while a March 24, 2016, inspection cites LATS for moving its operations address without notifying the USDA. LATS’ current website touts that its staff has 37 years of combined experienced in the animal relocation industry. Hay states, “I love animals and I love my job! There is just something about seeing a child reunited with their pet that makes me smile. That’s why I do it.” Obviously, the handlers of the 14 dead dogs, who had bonded with them during several weeks of training and had already deployed to Afghanistan to await their arrival, were cruelly robbed of such a reunion.
This incident highlights a loophole in the Animal Welfare Act regarding the regulation of carriers and intermediate handlers. LATS states that it is licensed by the USDA as a Class H intermediate handler. Actually, though, LATS is registered, not licensed, as a handler. This distinction has ramifications.
When amendments to the Animal Welfare Act were adopted in 1976, carriers and intermediate handlers were added to the regulated entities. Senate Report 94-580, which accompanied the amendments, explicitly called for authorizing the USDA to have authority to suspend or revoke the license of a carrier. Yet the same report said that carriers should be registered, not licensed. Senate Report 94-580’s language regarding license suspension/revocation was subsequently removed in a conference report.
Today, because these entities are registered and not licensed under the law, they are subject to fines and orders but are not subject to having a license to operate suspended or revoked. When Congress included carriers and handlers under the law, but removed the threat of suspension or revocation, it created a loophole big enough for operators such as Indian Creek Enterprises and its successor, LATS, to drive through. Allowing such operators to continue handling animals after such egregious acts is a travesty. It is time to close this loophole.