Once bitten: Adopt-a-thon turns ugly

The piercing shrieks were audible even from inside the Giant grocery store on Seminole Trail on Saturday, August 9. A woman ran through the doors, hand clamped over her mouth in horror. As the cries continued, employees of the store and shoppers alike raced out the door to find the child who was so clearly in distress.

They didn't have to go far.

In fact, just 30 feet from the front door, the Fluvanna County SPCA was hosting a dog adoption, and a 13-year-old girl had put her face too close to a nervous dog.

"He lunged at her and tore her face open," said one bystander who witnessed the aftermath of the attack, gesturing to his cheek.

Indeed, according to a police report, a three-year-old shepherd mix named Baxter attacked the girl, leaving a four-inch long bite (police say it is a laceration-type wound approximately 1/2-inch deep) on her right cheek.

Within minutes, police and rescue personnel had responded, and the girl was taken to UVA medical center where it has been reported she underwent plastic surgery later on Saturday. UVA medical center spokesperson Marguerite Beck could not give information on the girl without her name.

The girl's name has not been released because of her age, so she could not be reached. But Cindi Scott, a Fluvanna SPCA board member who was in charge of Saturday's outing, says her volunteers didn't have a chance to react before the attack.

According to the volunteers, the girl, running ahead of her grandmother, came quickly around a line of carts with her arms up and startled the dog. But Scott says she's not making excuses.

"Under no circumstances is she to be blamed for this," Scott says of the teen. "We apologize profusely to anyone involved in this."

Though the Fluvanna SPCA makes every effort to bring only socialized, adoptable animals to such public outings, Scott says this was one case in which the organization's best intentions couldn't prevent an incident.

The Fluvanna SPCA has been doing "hundreds" of these outings at public locations for five years, and in that time, Scott says, there has been only one other "minor" incident. She says the shelter has been able to become "low-kill" because of these outings and the organization's work with rescue groups.

She fears that Saturday's incident will hurt other animals' prospects for adoption, and she wants people to know that she and her fellow volunteers take precautions to try to prevent such incidents and are dedicated to making it a positive experience for everyone.

"We give up our Saturdays to do this," she explains. "Our goal is to save as many animals as possible."

Carolyn Foreman, director of the Charlottesville SPCA, says she appreciates the motivations behind the outings, but she doesn't think "impulsive" adoptions are a good idea.

For one thing, prospective adopters may be unprepared for the responsibilities of dog ownership. Fluvanna's Scott, however, says her organization does screen potential adopters both with a questionnaire and an interview. "We've turned people down if we don't think they're suitable," she explains.

Also, notes Foreman, it's hard to predict how animals will react in a stressful situation where they are restrained and may feel threatened.

Sergeant Dave Jones of the Charlottesville Police Department says it's unlikely that any criminal charges will be pressed against the Fluvanna SPCA because the dog was properly restrained, and the organization had followed protocol for such an event.

"They didn't do anything illegal," he says.

The dog, however, won't escape punishment.

As the ambulance pulled away, Baxter, caged in the back of an SUV in front of the store, seemed unaware of the chaos he had caused.

Aware or not, his fate is sealed. According to Fluvanna SPCA board member Shirley Lavin, after a 10-day quarantine period, the animal will be euthanized.