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N4T Investigators: County faces lawsuit after adoption from PACC bites woman in face

TUCSON – As Pima County saves a record number of animals, it is facing a lawsuit after a dog adopted from Pima Animal Care Center bit a woman in the face.

The News 4 Tucson Investigators discovered several cases where the county was aware an animal was aggressive but released it to the public anyway. Some of the adopters said they were not told about the animals’ issues.

Shelly Bortugno was on her couch working on a crossword puzzle on February 4.

“All of the sudden she stood up, and she came with her whole mouth right on my face,” Bortugno said.

A PACC employee wrote a note 8 days before the adoption that said, “Unable to examine (attempting to bite).”

Bortugno hired Brian Riley at Zanes Law to represent her. Riley said the county cannot deny responsibility even though Bortugno signed a waiver.

“That might be all good and well when PACC actually doesn’t know what the dog’s tendencies are, whether the dog is vicious or not,” Riley said. “But in this situation, it was only shortly before Shelly actually adopted the dog that the dog, Clarke, was examined by a veterinarian and showed signs of aggression, so much to the event that a professional veterinarian was not able to examine the dog.”

The note about the examination was included in Bortugno’s paperwork. She said she probably would not have adopted the dog if she knew about that note.

The county will not comment on that incident because of the lawsuit.

Before News 4 Tucson started investigating this subject, a PACC employee wrote in an email about a dog named Messi on May 20, “I do not feel safe sending this dog out into the community, much less risking our foster program (in its infancy) on a news story about how PACC sends behaviorally unstable dogs out to foster.”

Internal PACC email
Internal PACC email

She also wrote that recommendations to release Messi and another dog “do not seem sound to me. They seem more emotionally driven (knee jerk OMG SAVE THEM ALL) vs. logically realistically and SAFELY made.”

Internal PACC email
Internal PACC email

Messi was released to a foster.

Mark Evans is a spokesman for Pima County.

“An individual decision is made based on the total amount of information,” Evans said, “not perhaps one particular person’s point of view about that animal.”

A dog named Bucca was returned to PACC multiple times with notes that included “very fearful of men – barks, growls, snapped and attempted to bite” and “has gone after both dogs in the foster’s children’s homes” and “does not do well with grandchildren – has bitten 4 of them.”

Bucca was placed in a 4th home. She was returned on April 3 and released from rabies quarantine on April 12. Evans and PACC director Kristen Auerbach initially said they did not know why Bucca was returned or placed in quarantine. Another public records request revealed Bucca bit a man in the face, and a PACC officer impounded her.

“They can be trained. Their behaviors can be modified,” Evans said, “and that’s why these dogs get chances. And that’s why we no longer have huge heaping mounds of dead dogs that we euthanize.”

A PACC foster named Eve got off a leash attacked Marilyn Worth’s dog Mia on April 22. The county paid the bill to euthanize Mia.

Eve was placed in another home. Evans said that was a positive outcome.

Worth said that was not a positive outcome.

“Of course not,” Worth said, “because that dog had predatory behavior so aggressive that he actually tore my dog apart.”

Evans pointed out Mia could have recovered, but Worth chose to euthanize her. He said negative interactions happen between dogs all the time.

A man trapped a dog named Kinks in his yard on May 12. He called PACC and said, “This is an ongoing issue and that the dog is aggressive.” An officer “impounded dog using snare pole because he lashed out toward me barking his teeth and ‘screaming.'”

Alma Esparza adopted Kinks and later returned him to PACC for showing aggression toward her granddaughter. She said nobody told her Kinks might have behavior problems.

PACC record on Kinks
PACC record on Kinks

PACC euthanized 6,102 dogs in 2012. The number plummeted to 1,463 in 2017, according to a PACC safety report.

Adopted dogs bit 142 people in 2014. The number remained stable with 159 adopted dog bites in 2015, 200 in 2016 and 193 in 2017.

“We had 6,000 adoptions last year,” Evans said. “We had maybe 200 that came back that were involved in a biting incident. That’s an enormous success rate. We’re really good at this. We’re really good at these evaluations.”

Clarke was picked up by a Pinal County animal control officer and euthanized. Evans said none of the other dogs in this report are threats to public safety.

PACC continues to euthanize about 4 dogs per day.

Sam Salzwedel

Sam Salzwedel is an investigative reporter at News 4 Tucson – KVOA.

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