Zoe was the runt of the litter. Of the 10 collies she was born alongside in Southern California, she was the smallest, often fighting with her siblings for food and was the last puppy of the brood to leave the breeder.
It was John and Caren Burton who took Zoe into their home just east of Bend. Zoe took to her new owners and her new high-desert terrain, gradually shaking off the timidity of her infancy and, like so many pet animals, became a member of the family.
John and Caren went as far as to bestow upon her a middle name: Autumn, reflecting the hue of her coat, which John referred to as "the color of fall golden wheat." She would often accompany the Burtons on their trips, riding in the car without complaint, and in her six years Zoe had only been left in another's care a handful of times.
But in late July of 2009, the Burtons headed south to San Diego for a wedding and Zoe wasn't on the passenger list flying south. They dropped her off at Redmond's Deschutes Pet Lodge, then continued on to the airport, boarded their flight and enjoyed a quick three-day vacation. They returned earlier than planned on Monday morning, finding that one of the strongest heat waves of the summer had inundated Central Oregon with 95-degree days. When John and Caren pulled up at the kennel, they saw Zoe on a leash out in the Pet Lodge's play area looking lethargic.
An assistant manager at the Pet Lodge told them that Zoe had thrown up and was wobbly on her feet. But the Burtons chalked it up to the heat, which continued through the week, and did their best to keep Zoe cool at home by way of ice cubes, fans and rest. Then, on the following Saturday when playing with Zoe, John and Caren saw the collie begin gasping for air and heard a crackling sound emanate from her side.
The next few days would see two trips to veterinarians, the first of which said Zoe had two broken ribs, the second stating there were four broken ribs, and that they needed to get the dog to a specialist in Clackamas. They left immediately. There they would learn that Zoe had six broken ribs, in addition to bruising to her lungs and diaphragm, as well as a rupture in her upper trachea.
Zoe returned home three days later, but three months passed before she could make her way up and down the stairs of the Burton's classically cabin-like home. While the collie was recovering, however, the Deschutes County Sheriff's Department was investigating how the dog could have sustained such serious injuries. The Burtons may never know exactly how their pet was so seriously injured - and police reports are being withheld by the district attorney's office - but what is known is that by the end of October, an employee of the Pet Lodge, Martie Davidson, was arrested on suspicion of animal abuse in the first degree. About two weeks ago, Davidson pled not guilty to the charge. A trial is set for April.
Maria George, who along with her husband, Gary, owns the Deschutes Pet Lodge, says that she still does not know how Zoe was injured or what evidence led deputies to arrest their employee who no longer works at the kennel.
"We've had an excellent reputation and we've never had a problem like this. I don't know at this point how this could have happened," says George.
John Burton, watching Zoe chew on a squeaky toy in his living room, guesses that the dog has recovered to about 80 percent in the six months since she incurred the injuries. The Burtons have also seen a change in their pet's behavior wherein the previously relaxed and welcoming dog now is often on edge when around strangers.
"If new people come in she'll bark and she never used to do that," says John, "And if we raise our voices around her, it's not good."
The saga is not over for the Burtons, considering the ongoing criminal trial, as well as the fact that the couple has used their circumstances to rally for reform in the kennel industry.
"I know it sounds cliché, but we're trying to take lemons and make lemonade," says John, a middle school English teacher.
In addition to forming a pet advocacy group called Always SAFE (Saving Animals From Endangerment), the Burtons are looking into proposing a piece of state legislation that would set safety standards for facilities that board pets.
"We're looking at the possibility of a law regarding kennels that provide care for days at a time because currently, there aren't any," says Caren Burton, "There are no laws that pertain to the actual animals."
The Burtons are also using Always SAFE to let pet owners know how to spot warning signs at kennels, as well as what to do should they suspect their pet has been abused.
The Burtons have found support in other local pet owners who share their concerns, but have also brought state Representative Judy Stiegler (D-Bend) on board, who is considering bringing a bill forward in 2011. Both the Burtons and Stiegler want to see some sort of oversight for kennels, but neither are looking to hurt kennels financially.
"My goal is not to come up with something that's overly onerous, but something that's fair," says Stiegler, who's a dog owner.
"I think people would much rather know that they can go to a kennel and the dog is going to be safe rather than having to bring a lawsuit," she says.
There are states that do have kennel accreditation laws on the books, but the majority of states do not. States like Oregon have no official vetting process, leading kennel owners to turn to private organizations like Pet Care Services Association, formerly known as the American Boarding Kennel Association (ABKA), for certification. Pet Care Services also provides services and advocacy for other businesses in the pet industry like grooming, training and pet supply sales. On the Deschutes Pet Lodge website, the ABKA logo is presented prominently. George says that before working at the Pet Lodge, all employees are required to read materials provided by Pet Care Services, then pass a test that is scored by the organization.
Pet Care Services CEO Joan Saunders says the Redmond kennel is in good standing as a member of the organization and that there have been no complaints filed regarding the Deschutes Pet Lodge. She wasn't aware of Davidson's arrest or any other problems at the kennel. Pet Care Services does, however, have a process for reviewing complaints, but Saunders says that actual ethics complaints are "few and far between" and it's rare for an ethics complaint to result in a kennel losing its accreditation.
"What would generally happen is the family would contact us and the ethics board would investigate," says Saunders, "But we do watch [member kennels] like hawks."
Saunders describes Pet Care Services as a "trade organization" and says that she and her staff have worked with lawmakers in Colorado (where Pet Care Services is based) to help draft kennel laws and are also willing to assist other states.
"We don't want, as an industry, to be overregulated. That wouldn't help anyone. But we do want to ensure that people know that their pet will be safe," says Saunders.
Assistant District Attorney Wells Ashby, who is prosecuting the case against Davidson, says that the county has seen its share of animal abuse cases, but many of these have been related to neglected horses. The Deschutes County Sheriff's Department investigates animal abuse cases, including those suspected of occurring at kennels.
Susie Parr called deputies in November after Phoebe, her self-described "Maltese mutt," came back from the Deschutes Pet Lodge, "looking like she was a loser in a fight," says Parr. Kennel employees told Parr that they had no idea what had happened to Phoebe, but the dog required the attention of a veterinarian to treat a blood-red eye and bruised nose. Parr says deputies are still looking over the vet's records, but in the meantime, she has joined the Burtons in advocating for kennel accreditation.
"If nothing else, hopefully we can get some rules out of this," she says.
While any legislation is likely a year - or more - out, the Burtons continue to work toward regulations that might prevent the sort of injuries suffered by their dog and others throughout the state.
"Abuse bothers me to no end and it's another thing when it's your own dog. It makes you sick to your stomach," says Caren. "This was too big to ignore."