A south Texas no-kill shelter is being accused of "dog laundering" in a civil lawsuit.
The Redacted Complaint
Hidalgo County, TX - In October, a lawsuit was filed in Hidalgo County against the Palm Valley Animal Society (PVAS) located in Edinburg. The lawsuit was filed after a child was bitten in the face by a dog her family had adopted from them eight days earlier. The complaint is unlike any complaint we have read before, given the volume of details and allegations contained within it. The narrative reads more like a juicy manuscript, instead of a straightforward statement of facts.
Part I: Background and the Bite
On page two, the underlying allegations begin, "PVAS describes itself as 'a lifesaving leader in south Texas dedicated to ending the killing of shelter animals in the Rio Grande Valley' that is committed to 'progressive lifesaving.' PVAS covets this 'no-kill' status and is willing to risk the health of both people and animals to achieve it." The complaint then quickly alleges that PVAS routinely adopts out dangerous dogs without disclosing the dangerous histories of the dog.
"PVAS has undertaken a laudable goal of saving animals to an unreasonable extreme by placing a higher value on that than on public safety. They regularly adopt out dogs they know are dangerous and with bite histories to unsuspecting members of the public without disclosing the dangerous histories of the dog.
Even worse, PVAS misrepresents the dog's characteristics. They post pictures of the dog looking happy and wearing a bandana. They post the dog on social media in a way that gives the false impression the dog would be a good family pet when PVAS knows it has a history of aggressive behavior towards people and in some instances when the dog even has a bite history. Then, when potential adopters come to look at the dog, they make similar misrepresentations about how the dog would be a good family pet. They then try to cover their tracks with pre-printed forms and releases they put in the new owners' hands in a stack of other paperwork as they walk out the door." - Reyes v. Palm Valley Animal Society
Our nonprofit has identified most items in these two paragraphs in previous special reports (2020 Edition: 125 Behavior Terms for Shelter Dogs Decoded that Mask Aggression in Dogs Available for Adoption and What's Behind the Clickbait Web Advertisements of Aggressive Shelter Dogs Available for Adoption?). However, PVAS trying to cover their tracks by placing a stack of "pre-printed forms and releases" into the adopter's hands as they walk out the door is new mutation.
Next, the complaint alleges how PVAS benefits through a public-private partnership (when a private humane society receives funds through a government partnership, which is common among no-kill shelters). Moreover, the complaint alleges that PVAS profits from this fee-based arrangement, and does so while "avoiding the oversight a government entity would have." Indeed, public-private partnerships involving no-kill shelters are typically designed to avoid oversight.
"PVAS has a contract with McAllen, Edinburg, Hidalgo County, and other Texas cities to take in a quota of around three- or four-thousand animals per year. For each animal PVAS takes in after they meet the quota, the city or county pays them an additional flat fee. They always go over the quota, and they always profit when they take another animal in. PVAS wants their community to think they are a purely charitable organization, but in reality, they have discovered a way to turn abandoned dogs into a multi-million-dollar cottage industry. PVAS has successfully monetized suffering while avoiding the oversight a government entity would have." - Reyes v. Palm Valley Animal Society
The next three pages spell out the history of "Bo," Animal ID A44864298, the dog that is the subject of this complaint. Bo was picked up by animal control on June 17, 2020 and came into PVAS on a catch pole, indicating it was aggressive towards people. PVAS records state the dog was an owner-surrender due to aggression toward animals and livestock. Additional PVAS records indicate the dog was characterized as "aggressive, snaps, [and] growls," states the complaint.
The dog was neutered and microchipped, indicating that it could have been in a shelter before. PVAS also implanted another microchip.1 The complaint then dives into the "dog laundering" allegations, a term that was invented by dog bite attorney Kenneth Phillips. This is also known as "shelter swapping," when no-kill shelters swap unadoptable dogs with other shelters, which changes the Animal ID, often involves renaming the dog and facilitates hiding bite histories.
"No-kill shelters such as PVAS launder dogs with aggressive histories like criminals launder dirty money. They transport them to other no-kill shelters and frequently change their names in order to hide their aggressive backgrounds and launder them. The no-kill shelters usually do this in a swap where they trade undesirable dogs and launder them for each other." - Reyes v. Palm Valley Animal Society
On August 9, the Reyes family adopted Bo. At no time, alleges the complaint, did PVAS disclose on the web advertisements for Bo that he was surrendered for aggression or that he exhibited aggressive behavior while in the shelter. Reyes has four children under the age of ten. She asked if the dog was safe with children. The PVAS adoption facilitator told Reyes, "Bo was kid friendly, had no bite history and was very playful," states the complaint. Bo is a "good family dog."
The complaint alleges Bo did have a history of aggression, according to PVAS records, including, "acting aggressively, snapping and growling at the PVAS veterinarian who examined him," and being owner-surrendered due to aggression. None of this was disclosed to Reyes by the PVAS adoption facilitator, states the complaint. Reyes trusted PVAS and relied on their representation that Bo was a "good family dog." Reyes was not given dog's full history, states the complaint.
Reyes adopted the dog. The complaint alleges PVAS only supplied Reyes with partial medical and behavior records. Eight days later, the dog bit the little girl in the face. "Reyes heard screaming," states the complaint. She rushed into the other room and saw her 6-year old daughter "bleeding out, with half her face hanging off." Reyes applied pressure and called 911. She then locked herself and her children into a nearby bedroom to avoid further attack, states the complaint.
"Bo went berserk and animal control officers had to mace the dog repeatedly in order to control and detain him. After some time, the officers took the dog away. Donna Police described the dog as 'very aggressive,'" states the complaint. The child was transferred to Edinburg Children's, where she underwent treatment and plastic surgery. Due to Covid-19, only her mother could stay with her, separating the mother from her three other children. Both returned home four days later.
Leading Up to the Facial Bite
- Bo was owner-surrendered due to aggression toward animals and livestock.
- Bo came in on a catch pole and "his demeanor was aggressive toward people," states the complaint.
- PVAS notes characterized Bo as "aggressive, snaps, [and] growls."
- Bo was characterized by PVAS as "kid friendly, had no bite history, was very friendly" and was a "good family dog," states the complaint.
- This history of aggression was not disclosed by PVAS to the adopter.
- No previous bite history is alleged in the complaint, just aggressive behavior.
Part II: After the Bite & Dog Laundering
After Reyes emailed PVAS, informing them of the facial bite, PVAS told her that Bo is "back at Trenton and is under quarantine," states the complaint. However, Bo was quickly made available for adoption. Bo was listed for adoption on August 18, one day after the dog bit the child. On August 22, PVAS published new photographs of Bo, even though he was supposed to be in a bite quarantine block for 10 days after the bite, not posing for adoption photos, states the complaint.
"Subsequent adoptions demonstrate that PVAS is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve 'no-kill' status. This process is called 'dog-laundering.'"
Advertisements of Bo after the facial bite also did not indicate aggression, a bite history or a bite quarantine holding period. Bo was adopted on September 1 to "another unsuspecting family," states the complaint. The new adoption was made public on the PVAS Facebook page, but PVAS turned off comments on the adoption post for Bo. It can only be speculated as to why. Eight days later, Bo was returned to PVAS "due to aggression towards people," states the complaint.
"PVAS allows Bo to be adopted a third time. On September 12, 2020, PVAS adopted Bo out to another family. PVAS records again show that Bo has a bite history, and still characterized him as 'aggressive.' This adoption, merely three days after Bo had been surrendered for being aggressive, and less than a month after Bo bit [the little girl] on the face, shows not only that PVAS is willing to continue laundering these animals in order to obtain their 'no-kill' status, but that they do not care if anyone gets hurt along the way. To PVAS, the 'no-kill' status is more important than the well-being of people, and the well-being of the dogs. - Reyes v. Palm Valley Animal Society
Count 37 alleges that PVAS is "knowingly putting the public at risk by adopting out dogs like Bo without taking corrective action, without full disclosure" and "by lying about the dog's behavior." Such conduct, according to the complaint, "is just as negligent and reckless as shooting fireworks in the city, speeding," or other conduct that society cannot tolerate." PVAS might as well "fire a machine gun into the air without caring where the bullets might fall," states the complaint.
Counts 38 and 39 allege that the primary duty of any government is to protect the health and safety of its citizens. "Here, PVAS acting on behalf of the government, is negligently recklessly, and knowingly, endangering public health and safety. PVAS knows full well that dangerous animals should not be released to the community," states the compliant. "PVAS cannot hide its reckless conduct behind a veneer of animal welfare and conservation," states the complaint.
The complaint lists five counts of damages: negligence, fraudulent inducement, common-law fraud, bystander injury (the mother's shock and anguish of being near the scene and seeing her daughter's face mauled by the dog) and negligent misrepresentation. The complaint also seeks exemplary damages and has requested a jury trial. Discovery is scheduled to be completed by September 27, 2021 and the trial is scheduled for October 25, 2021. All dates can be amended.
After the Facial Bite
- "Bo went berserk," after the bite. Responding officers had to "mace the dog repeatedly," states the complaint.
- Bo is immediately put up for adoption again, even before the 10-day bite quarantine period was complete.
- Bo's previous bite history or any history of aggression was not seen on any of the adoption advertisements, according to the complaint.
- Eight days after Bo was adopted out again, he was returned due to "aggression towards people," states the complaint.
- Bo was quickly adopted out a third time, indicating that PVAS is willing to continue "laundering" these animals to obtain their "no-kill" status.
Though we are not attorneys, nor did we attend law school, we do have one unusual advantage. We have reviewed many dog bite lawsuits and do understand parts of cases that could prove tricky. This appears to be a case of documented aggression that was undisclosed to the adopter, but not a case of an undisclosed previous bite to Reyes. That could change during the discovery process, if plaintiffs uncover new evidence. We hope that plaintiffs do find this evidence.
The conduct of PVAS after the facial bite -- "rinse and repeat," the continued laundering of a known dangerous dog -- truly speaks to the heart of the complaint's allegations of negligence, fraud and misrepresentation. But there are also many unknowns. Did PVAS disclose to the second and third adopters Bo's documented aggression and previous bite? This deception among shelters is so bad that two states, Virginia and California, have passed mandatory bite disclosure laws.
This complaint should be widely distributed to Texas legislators so that it can become the third state to pass a mandatory bite disclosure law.
Overall, the complaint expresses the same themes we have been documenting in no-kill shelters since 2016. The single metric 90% "save rate" trumps public safety. Failure to disclose aggression and bites to potential adopters is just one aspect. Shelters will also drug dogs, using Trazodone and other drugs to mask aggressive behaviors and not disclose to adopters what the medication is for. In a 2019 case we wrote about, the shelter told the adopters it was "transitional" medication.
Despite the complaint being loaded with details, allegations and conclusions before and after the facial bite, instead of a traditional statement of facts, it carefully lays out the alleged actions, motivations and profitable payment scheme of PVAS. This entity "wants their community to think they are a purely charitable organization," but in reality they are "monetizing suffering." Moreover, "PVAS cannot hide its reckless conduct behind a veneer of animal welfare and conservation."
We have not expressed these latter points enough in the past. There are the widely discussed issues of the single metric 90% "save rate," which can result in deception and attacks, as well as no-kill shelters hiding behind public-private partnerships to reduce oversight. There is much less discussion of the "laudable goal" of "saving animals," when in reality, the entity has "discovered a way to turn abandoned dogs into a multi-million dollar cottage industry," alleges the complaint.
Manipulating Public Trust
There are many people are like Reyes, who rely "completely on PVAS's representation that Bo was a 'good family dog.'" They do not believe a shelter would lie to them. They also falsely believe the shelter has the best interest of the animal in mind. The only interest PVAS seemed to have in Bo was clearing an adoption at any cost, whether it took 3 failed adoptions or 15. Bo was a known unstable dog; shuffling him to multiple households with unprepared adopters made him worse.
We have warned the public for five years that many shelters can no longer be trusted -- certainly not no-kill shelters. We have also warned that "it is critically important to understand that 'disclosure' is not the same as 'full disclosure.'" In order to gain full disclosure of the dog's medical and behavior history, you must request the complete case file. You have the right to request all behavior memos, medical documentation and bite records for a dog prior to adoption.
Whether this lawsuit is successful or not, it should put all no-kill shelters on notice that attorneys for victims are figuring out their game plan, which includes mass instances of dog laundering. Notably, the complaint states that after the facial bite, it was "business as usual -- PVAS continued to move their product," that product being a known dangerous dog, moved from household-to-household or transport-to-transport to keep it a "live release" instead of a behavior euthanasia.
When Adopting From a Shelter
- Do your research
- Go in with questions
- Bring a trainer with you to the shelter to evaluate for signs of aggression
- Request all intake records for the dog
- Request all behavior records for the dog
- Request all medical records for the dog
- Request all "outcomes" for the dog (if the dog was returned to shelter)
- An example of what these records look like
2In a 2018 post, we discussed what shelters tell the public about a dog's behavior, versus what they tell new holding facilities, be it a transport, shelter swap or sanctuary. Given that Bo was "urgent" and "could be killed any day," according to a social media post, it would be interesting to see communications between PVAS and any rescue, transport or sanctuary about this dog. The swapping arrangement does not work if parties lie to each other!
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