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Public outcry follows ASPCA decision to euthanize Oreo, 'miracle' dog who survived six-story fall

November 18, 2009 |  4:01 pm

Oreo, a 1-year-old terrier mix, is held by her handler, Thursday, Nov. 12, at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York. Oreo was thrown from the roof of a six-story Brooklyn building June 18

Over the summer, animal lovers were outraged over a shocking incident of animal cruelty: A man threw his 1-year-old female pit bull, Oreo, from the roof of the six-story Brooklyn, N.Y., building where he lived.

Fabian Henderson, 19, was charged with aggravated cruelty to animals, criminal trespassing and "overdriving, torturing and injuring animals," charges that could result in a sentence of up to two years in prison, according to the Brooklyn district attorney's office; he pleaded guilty to a felony animal-cruelty charge in October and will be sentenced Dec. 1

Officials of the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals told the New York Daily News that they'd first received a complaint that an animal was being beaten on the third floor of the building, where Henderson shares an apartment with family members, and shortly thereafter heard from witnesses who reported seeing Oreo thrown from the roof. (For her part, Henderson's mother told the Daily News that she believed her son was not guilty and that he was "basically a quiet person, good with animals.")

Oreo became something of a celebrity and recovered from the physical injuries that resulted from the fall, which included "multiple fractures in her two front legs, severe ligament damage, bruised lungs, a fractured rib, liver injury and internal bleeding," according to the indictment against Henderson. 

But her physical injuries proved to be the least of her problems, as the ASPCA staff entrusted with her care soon learned. Once she began to recover from her injuries, Oreo exhibited severe aggression toward both humans and other dogs. Late last week, the ASPCA made a controversial announcement that outraged many animal lovers: Oreo would be euthanized. Friday, that task was carried out, despite impassioned pleas from many in the animal-rescue community to allow her to live out her life at a sanctuary. A protest was even staged outside the ASPCA's New York headquarters. 

Pets Alive, a sanctuary located in New York state, had offered to take Oreo from the ASPCA. After the dog's death, Pets Alive executive co-director Kerry Clair had harsh words for the ASPCA, calling it "a welfare organization that chooses murder over rehabilitation" and urging its supporters to withhold donations in protest. "Animal organizations should not be adversaries, but when an organization that is chartered with protecting animals chooses to murder them when there are other options, they should lose the right to be called their protectors," Clair said.

Oreo, a 1-year-old terrier mix, is held by her handler, Thursday, Nov. 12, at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York. Oreo was thrown from the roof of a six-story Brooklyn building June 18In a statement, ASPCA President Ed Sayres called the decision to euthanize Oreo "difficult and heartbreaking," but he insisted it had been the best decision both for the general public and for the dog. "Despite extensive behavior rehabilitation efforts undertaken by ASPCA staff, Oreo continued to lunge, growl, snap and attempt to bite," Sayres said. "She would lunge at a behaviorist, only to spontaneously and unpredictably redirect her aggression toward her handler. She could not be socialized with other dogs for fear of an attack -- her aggression toward other dogs was clearly evident during her evaluations." 

Oreo's aggression clearly meant she couldn't be adopted by a private citizen, but why not send her to a sanctuary like Pets Alive? According to Sayres, even that seemed like an inappropriate way to deal with the dog, because her behavior problems would essentially require her to be kept in isolation, likely for the remainder of her life. "Her contact with the outside world would have been minimal at best," Sayres' statement continued. "Her quality of life would have been reduced to virtually nothing." Speaking to USA Today, ASPCA behaviorist Stephen Zawistowski echoed Sayres' sentiments about Oreo's prospects at a sanctuary, saying the dog exhibited extreme reactions to such a large number of stimuli that she was almost constantly stressed. "We tried to desensitize her, and that tended to make her more reactive," Zawistowski said. "The kind of love, attention and handling that has worked with so many other dogs made her more hostile."

That didn't make the bitter pill any easier to swallow for no-kill advocates such as Nathan Winograd, who told the New York Times that he viewed evaluating Oreo's behavior so quickly after her traumatic event as "setting the dog up for failure." (Winograd argued that Oreo, rather than being euthanized, needed "a rehabilitative process where the dog learns to trust people again, and then re-evaluate the dog.")  No fan of Sayres, Winograd later wrote on Examiner.com that "the ASPCA, under Sayres, proves once again that the large national organizations have no vision, no desire to truly raise the status of animals in society, and despite claiming they are setting the bar on how society should relate to animals, that they are in reality staffed by those who would rather perpetuate the violence and betrayal Oreo already experienced by killing her -- even as true animals lovers offered them a simple, life-affirming alternative, and the second chance at life Oreo so richly deserved."

Sayres' and Zawistowski's statements about Oreo's potential quality of life at a sanctuary also didn't quell the feelings of Pets Alive supporters, who created an online petition demanding Sayres' ouster as ASPCA president. The petition, which to date has received more than 1,500 signatures, says in part that Sayres "has demonstrated that he no longer has the capacity to act in the best interest of the animals in their care."

In an interview with USA Today's Sharon L. Peters, Zawistowski said the ASPCA, while unable to rehabilitate Oreo in life, had at least been able to do right by the animal in death. "Oreo didn't die when she was thrown from that building -- traumatically, fear-filled, when the last hand to touch her was a cruel hand," he said. "She left this world without stress or panic, in a quiet room, after she'd been sedated, with people who'd cared for her. The last hand she felt was a gentle hand."

Whether that outcome is good enough is one that will be debated for some time to come: New York state Assemblyman Micah Kellner has announced his plans to introduce "Oreo's Law." The legislation, if approved, would "allow animal welfare organizations the right to request animals be given to their care when a shelter is planning to euthanize them," Kellner wrote on his website. Had Oreo's Law, which Kellner said is modeled after California law, been in effect last week, it would have potentially allowed Pets Alive to take over Oreo's care when the ASPCA announced its plans to euthanize the dog.

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photos: Oreo is held by a handler on Nov. 12, the day before the dog was euthanized.  Credit: Stephen Chernin / Associated Press

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