CARRBORO — Police charged the program manager for Eyes Ears Nose and Paws with misdemeanor animal cruelty Monday after a dog she left in a car with the windows closed later died.
Debra Cunningham, 42, was charged with one count of misdemeanor animal cruelty after she left Worthy, a golden retriever, in a car for about two hours in the middle of the day June 10. The dog died the next day.
Cunningham, who could not be reached for comment, is due in court Aug. 8 in Hillsborough.
"Fantastic," Charlene Hayes, the woman who raised Worthy, said Monday afternoon.
"Absolutely I wanted a charge to be brought so it would bring awareness, obviously to Deb Cunningham, that you can't put a dog in a car and leave it unattended," she said. "She deliberately put him in there so he wouldn't see me."
The agency agrees Cunningham had put the dog in the car so he wouldn't see Hayes, who was coming into the EENP office for a meeting. Worthy was graduating soon, and before service dogs go home with clients, Hayes said EENP rotates them in and out of the home they are raised in to ease the transition.
EENP executive director Maria Ikenberry declined to comment on the misdemeanor charge, because it's a pending case and concerns personnel matters.
"We are deeply sorry about Worthy's death and the pain that that has caused," she said.
Ikenberry said the board continues to discuss the incident and has made some policy changes. She directed questions to board Chairwoman Mary Justice.
The board has taken disciplinary action against Cunningham, Justice said. She declined to specify what action was taken but said Cunningham is good at her job and will remain an active EENP staff member.
"We have cooperated fully with the investigation," Justice said. "It was a very tragic mistake, and we are trying to learn from it."
The dog's death has generated news stories, letters to the editor and social media debate.
June 10 started out rainy, but by afternoon, it was sunny and 77 degrees, according to Hayes.
In a previous interview Justice said Worthy was found panting and unconscious in the car. Ikenberry and Cunningham rushed him to The Animal Hospital in Carrboro, where a doctor tried to lower his temperature. Medical records show Worthy's temperature was more than 109 degrees. A dog's normal temperature is between 101 and 102.5 degrees.
Worthy's medical records show he was vomiting blood and had severe bloody diarrhea by evening. He was moved to Triangle Veterinary Referral Hospital in Durham and died of cardiac arrest the next morning.
Hayes, who has raised five dogs for EENP, said she hopes Worthy's death raises awareness. She has started a Facebook page, "The Worthy Project" about the dangers of confining animals.
Carrboro's town code already prohibits leaving an animal in car, with or without the windows closed, if it is 70 degree or more outside. A first offense carries a $25 fine.
The state animal cruelty statute makes it a class 1 misdemeanor to carry or convey an animal in a cruel or inhuman manner, which it says occurs when a person shall "intentionally ... injure, torment, kill or deprive (an animal) of necessary sustenance."
The law distinguishes acts that are malicious, making that a class H felony.
Last week, Carrboro police spokesman Lt. Chris Atack said it was taking the department time to determine whether Cunningham's action contributed to the dog's death.
"You obviously have to be able to demonstrate that the cause was related to the action of the individual," Atack said.
State Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, introduced legislation this session to make it a class 2 misdemeanor to leave an animal in a vehicle under dangerous conditions even if the animal does not suffer serious injury or die. Her bill also would give law enforcement officers, including animal control officers, legal authority to enter such a vehicle "by any reasonable means."
According to the Animal Legal & Historical Center at Michigan State University, 14 states give some kinds of officers such power now. North Carolina is not one of them.
Orange County Animal Services Director Bob Marotto estimated his department gets about 100 calls about dogs in cars during the warm-weather months, or about five per week.
In an interview Harrison said her bill did not pass because of concerns about vagueness but that she hopes to at least bring back the part giving officers the explicit authority to enter cars.
"Right now the only option is to call the police, but police don't really have the option to break into a car if an animal is dying,"; she said.
Ironically, Harrison said her sister, who died of a brain tumor, got a golden retriever from Eyes Ears Nose and Paws. Her sister had lost vision on her right side, and the dog helped her navigate.
"I just don't even know what was going on in (Cunningham's) mind," Harrison said. "It really is a good organization. I'm sure she's just heartbroken about it."
Correspondent Lauren Grady contributed to this story.