DOUGLAS — Penny arrived at Rena Gustafson’s home on Good Friday. The 14-pound Chihuahua was a great Easter present for the grandmother raising two of her grandkids, and she immediately fell in love with it.
The dog, which came from the Casper Animal Shelter, spent the next three days cuddling up to her and the kids and adjusting to its new surroundings in Douglas. Rena recalls a sweet, gentle dog which loved to rest on laps, never barking or nipping at, much less biting, anyone.
Then, on Tuesday, Penny darted out an open screen door. Frantic, Rena and her family, along with friends and even some strangers who learned of the missing dog from a social media post, searched for the white skittish pet.
And they searched. And searched. For days, people looked and, despite sightings near Lone Tree Mobile Home Park or along the city’s river walk, Penny remained at large.
Rena even called the Douglas Police Department to alert the new animal control officer and ask for help bringing Penny home. The officer agreed to help. All to no avail.
“I think that Wednesday night or Tuesday night, we saw her down the river walk, but we couldn’t catch her cuz she was so scared,” Rena recalled.
Everything changed Thursday evening.
“The police department called me. The dog catcher called me and said they caught her. It was at 4:21 at night.” Rena, sobbing, remembers the time exactly. It’s burned into her memory, as if the time alone was forcing out the tears.
The animal control officer happened to be at Lone Tree on an unrelated call when she was told about a lost little white dog, according to various accounts from sources.
“So, she says she looked around and she caught her,” Rena said she was told by the animal control officer. “Well, she had called for backup, she said, and so somebody else came and (Penny) was in a net, and the (animal control officer left) to go get a cage to put her in. And apparently, while she was gone, the little tiny dog bit the other officer so bad, he had to go to the hospital, I guess.”
And from that point on, the situation devolved from trying to find and return a grandmother’s new pet into a confrontational battle over what to do with Penny.
The animal control officer didn’t wait.
The 14-pound Chihuahua was declared a vicious animal and was to be destroyed immediately, the officer decided.
The dog was taken into custody while Rena had to show proof of rabies vaccination immediately, she was told. Luckily, she had it handy.
“They pretty much threatened me” about keeping the dog that evening, she said.
The “threats” included citing her for harboring a vicious animal. Rena relented and let the officer take Penny that night.
The Douglas Police Department on Monday evening issued a written statement that, in part, said the unidentified owner “voluntarily relinquished” the dog. Rena disagreed.
“I did not (voluntarily give her up). She said she wasn’t going to give me my dog back,” Rena said.
She did allow them to take Penny but only after being threatened with citations … and she didn’t know her new pet was about to be “put to sleep.”
“I felt coerced. I felt like I had to do what they said or get tickets. And she came back the next day (anyway) and gave me tickets. I was in shock this whole time. I did not relinquish my dog.”
At that time, Rena had been told one officer had been bitten. (The next day, while being given the citations, she said, she was told two officers, including the animal control officer, had been bitten while Penny was in the net.) “It sounds suspicious to me, too,” she said.
Then, at 6:09 p.m., Rena was called to be told Penny “had been put to sleep.”
Less than two hours after the call telling her they had caught Penny came a call that the dog was gone. Rena said she was saddened by the news of the biting, but she just wanted Penny returned to her.
“I said, ‘I am so shocked because ‘cuz she was tiny,’” Rena said. “She never growled. She never bit. I have pictures of her sleeping on (our) laps.
“She’s not a vicious dog. She was a scared, tiny, precious dog.”
As broken up as she was Thursday night, things got worse for Rena on Friday.
That’s when the animal control officer returned to her house to give her citations, one for harboring a vicious animal and one for having a dog at large.
Her date in Douglas Municipal Court is April 25.
Rena, still crying over the whole scene on Monday, said she contacted multiple attorneys, trying to find someone to help her, but one wanted $350 just for the consultation and more to appear in court, and even more to appear with her when she formally complains to the Douglas City Council next Monday, assuming they allow her to speak.
Her request to be put on the agenda was under consideration by the city administrator and city attorney as of Tuesday morning, she was told.
Rena said all of the legal costs are beyond her limited means, so the complaint to the council is her best recourse. It is, she said, as much about what appears to be a double standard as about what happened to her pet.
Her son was bitten last year by a neighbor’s dog, and she reported it to the police, she related. The owner wasn’t cited. The dog wasn’t put down. Nothing happened, she said, except the animal control officer at the time told her to take her son to the emergency room to get checked out and get rabies shots because that dog hadn’t had current vaccinations for at least four years.
“What the heck is happening here?” she asked.
Meanwhile, volunteers and others associated with the Casper Animal Shelter are taking up her cause on social media. They are expressing outrage that the dog they adopted out was killed so quickly.
“They (the city of Douglas) obviously don’t know the difference between a vicious dog and a scared Chihuahua,” one poster wrote. “And they obviously don’t have any regard for a living creature, the poor owners and all the people at our Casper shelter who work hard to help homeless animals … Let Douglas Animal Control know what they did was wrong.”
Others from Douglas also referenced the city’s own municipal code, part of which defines vicious animals as meaning “any animal that constitutes a physical threat to human beings, domestic animals or both, or menaces persons or other animals in any public or private place without just provocation.”
Rena said her dog was provoked. She was caught in a net and scared.
The code further states how long animals should be confined once taken by the city and the rules for euthanasia: “… A surrendered animal shall be available for immediate adoption and shall be kept at the animal shelter a minimum of seven days … unless the owner surrenders the animal because of viciousness or bad temperament … Feral cats and other animals which are reasonably determined by the animal control officer, veterinarian or the shelter operator to be vicious in nature or of bad temperament may be euthanized.”
“The City of Douglas Police Department made the difficult decision to euthanize a dog after it bit two police officers and was surrendered by the owner,” said a statement from the Douglas Police.
“On April 13th, 2023, Douglas Police officers were attempting to retrieve a dog that had been reported as missing. When the officers approached the dog, it began to behave aggressively. Despite attempts to calm and restrain the animal, it lunged at and bit two of the officers. The dog was eventually secured,” the statement said. “Afterwards, the dog’s owner refused to take custody of the dog and surrendered the animal to the Douglas Police Department.
“After surrender, the dog was examined by a licensed veterinarian who determined that the animal posed a serious risk to public safety. The veterinarian recommended that the dog be humanely euthanized, and he did so that same day.
“The City of Douglas Police Department understands that pets are valued members of families, and taking the decision to euthanize an animal is never easy,” the statement concluded. “However, the safety of our officers and the community is always our top priority. At this time, the Douglas Police Department will have no further comment on the matter.”
The release was signed by Douglas Police Chief Todd Byerly.