Discover more from Nathan Winograd
Seeking Justice for Saint
ACCT Philly, the Philadelphia shelter, and Aurora Velazquez, the disgraced former director, argue in court that a dog they abused, killed, and threw in the trash despite promising his family he was safe was virtually worthless property: legally no different than a lamp or toaster. The court overruled them.
Imagine an animal control officer picks up your 5-year-old dog — a dog you raised from an 8-week-old puppy – and rather than treat him kindly, he breaks your dog’s jaw. By the time your dog gets to the shelter, he is bleeding, has defecated on himself, and is in so much pain he cannot close his mouth.
Then imagine the shelter’s director and manager refuse to provide him with veterinary care. Instead, they decide to cover up the crime by killing him. They know you are on the way to pick him up, to take him to a veterinarian because you told them, and they lie to you: they tell you he is safe.
Imagine still that they know his body is evidence — of the initial officer’s crime, of their own misconduct — so they refuse to return his body to you, lie to you about its whereabouts, and take the body to the dump to throw in the trash, including the collar and tag you asked for to remember him by.
Now imagine that instead of being chastised or called out for their cruel and callous conduct, the director and her manager are celebrated by leaders of large, national “animal protection” organizations who ignore what they did to your dog and instead lament their resignation as one of the darkest days in the movement: “the likes of which we haven’t really seen.” Instead of vowing to protect other dogs in the future, they vow to protect other abusive directors. They announce the formation of a committee to develop a playbook that will allow them to get away with ‘murder’ — the killing of dogs like yours. And that committee will be chaired by a director who also openly and notoriously violates the law to the animals’ detriment.
Distraught, you file a lawsuit against the director and the agency, but they remain defiant. Instead of taking responsibility, they argue in court that their conduct is not indecent, obscene, or evil because he was just a dog. And dogs, they argue, are virtually worthless property. Let that sink in: The head of an animal shelter, whose job it is to protect animals, and the Board of Directors of that shelter, argue that legally, there’s no difference between breaking a toaster or breaking a dog’s jaw.
No difference between throwing a toaster away or killing a dog and discarding him in a landfill. And to make that claim, they cite decades-old cases which themselves are based on 19th century law that do not reflect how people today feel about dogs — how you felt about your dog: the dog you raised and loved, who played with your children, slept on your bed, and was at your side as you went from room to room. To them, he was worth the price of a toaster, give or take a few dollars.
Stop imagining, because this isn’t some far-fetched hypothetical.
This all happened to a woman named Tiffany Lavelle and her dog named Saint.
The animal control officer who broke Saint’s jaw is Terrell Walton.
The shelter director who ordered Saint killed is Aurora Velazquez.
The shelter manager who carried out the killing and disposal of Saint’s body is Summer Dolder.
The “shelter” that employed all of them is ACCT Philly.
The national groups that rallied to them and formed the committee to protect others like them are Austin Pets Alive (specifically, Kristen Hassen) and Maddie’s Fund.
And except for Walton who faces felony animal cruelty charges, the rest have moved on, having gotten away with it.
Velazquez and Dolder are directors at CUDDLY.
ACCT Philly continues to neglect, abuse, and kill dogs with impunity.
Hassen is now a shelter consultant.
With hundreds of millions of dollars, Maddie’s Fund continues to promote anti-animal programs, including asking shelters to start breeding puppies or partnering with breeders while they kill rescue dogs.
But Lavelle and Saint can’t move on. She still cries over what happened and is still searching for some measure of accountability. And Saint can’t move on because he is dead, his last moments on earth spent in the custody of abusive people who broke his jaw, injected him with poison, and discarded his body in a landfill to rot.
This is what happened. This is Saint’s story.
On August 4, 2021, Saint was traveling in a car with someone who was taken into custody on an old outstanding warrant. Saint was turned over to ACCT Philly for safeguarding, until his family could pick him up. According to the police officer who handed him over to Terrell Walton, the animal control officer: “Saint was observed to be in fair condition with no visible injuries, and showed no aggressive behavior.”
But “Video footage showed Walton using a rabies or catch pole — a metal pole with a cord loop at one end that can be tightened to help control or restrain animals — to retrieve Saint,” the police officer reported. He also, “observed Walton making jabbing motions into the [police] vehicle, and then heard Saint yelp or cry, which compelled the officer to return to his car.”
“As Walton removed Saint from the police vehicle, the officer saw blood and fecal matter in the back and on the ground.” Having witnessed Walton commit a crime, “As Saint was taken into ACCT, the officer attempted to get Walton’s information to report what he had observed, but was prevented by an ACCT employee.”
According to other reports, by the time Saint got to the shelter, he had “a jaw broken so badly that [he] couldn’t close his mouth.” ACCT Philly falsely blamed the police officer for breaking Saint’s jaw. When this was contradicted by video evidence, they then claimed it was an accident. This, too, was a lie. A spokesman for the company that makes the control pole indicated that there is no way for a dog to “accidentally” break their jaw by biting the pole and a forensic expert determined that Saint’s injuries were only consistent with blunt force trauma.
Worse, instead of providing veterinary care and despite knowing that Saint’s family was on their way to pick him up, Aurora Velazquez, the (former) director, decided to cover up the crime. After lying to Tiffany Lavelle by promising her that Saint was safe, she “instructed staff to kill Saint.” That killing was carried out under the oversight of Summer Dolder, Velzaquez’s hand-picked (former) Operations Director, who had his body quickly disposed of, refusing to return Saint or his collar and tags to his family. Prior to coming to ACCT Philly, Dolder worked with Velazquez at New York City’s notoriously abusive pound.
Following Saint’s killing, the state of Pennsylvania inspected the animal “shelter” and uncovered other neglect and abuse, including extensive filth and feces in kennels, as well as sick and injured dogs not being examined or treated. In a rare action reserved only for the most extreme cases, the Pennsylvania dog warden ordered Velazquez and her staff to provide immediate care for dogs and “made a referral to law enforcement authorities for animal cruelty charges,” the second criminal referral against ACCT Philly in as many months and a devastating indictment of Velazquez’s failure to protect and properly care for the animals in her custody. Under a cloud of ethical and criminal misconduct and the chorus of dog lovers across the nation demanding accountability, Velazquez and Dolder resigned.
Austin Pets Alive (APA), a Texas-based organization, and Maddie’s Fund subsequently weighed in on the case, but not by coming to the defense of Saint or the other mistreated dogs. Instead, Kristen Hassen, an APA (former) director, rallied to Velazquez and Dolder. In addition to several comments on Facebook in defense of Velazquez (“It’s such a difficult time for shelters and shelter workers”) and reprimanding shelter reformers who demanded less killing, medical care for ill and injured animals, and clean kennels (“it’s really disheartening this is how you are spending your time”), Hassen led a live, internet roundtable sponsored by Maddie’s Fund. She invited Velazquez and Dolder to join her and heaped praise on them. She said nothing about the filth they forced dogs to live in, their failure to provide veterinary care to sick and injured animals, the suffering they caused dogs, and the killing they allowed. Hassen also said nothing about the breaking of Saint’s jaw or the killing that turned him to ash and left his family in tatters.
Instead, Hassen called Velazquez and Dolder the true “victims” and likened the public demands for accountability which led to their subsequent resignations, one of the darkest days in the movement: “the likes of which we haven’t really seen.” But most striking of all was Hassen’s attempt to portray the public outcry, criminal referrals, and resignation of the perpetrators as a defeat when, from the perspective of animals and those who care about them, it was the opposite.
Indeed, after reviewing the evidence, the Philadelphia District Attorney filed criminal charges against Walton and he was arrested. And having reviewed the evidence, a judge likewise ordered Walton to stand trial, where he faces two felony counts of cruelty to animals, including “Aggravated Cruelty to Animals Causing Severe Bodily Injury or Death.”
Walton is currently out of custody awaiting trial, but he has been ordered to stay away from animals. But Velazquez and Dolder have not. They have moved on to cushy jobs at CUDDLY where they continue to pretend they care about them. Meanwhile, Velazquez and ACCT Philly are fighting the civil lawsuit filed by Lavelle against them by arguing that what they did to her and Saint was not indecent, evil, or reckless, and that dogs are virtually worthless, entitled to “market value” only.
Of course, Saint paid the ultimate price for the criminal conduct of ACCT Philly, but he was not the only one to suffer. “I was screaming, I was crying, and I didn’t understand,” said Lavelle. “He died alone.” In her response to the claim by Velazquez and ACCT Philly that Saint was only worth a few dollars, Lavelle reminded the court that “ACCT Philly negligently, criminally and recklessly broke Saint’s jaw, and then refused to return him to his family.” They “execut[ed] the same dog.” And they “misrepresented the location and status of Saint’s body, and in fact dumped him and his effects in a landfill.” In her lawyer’s hand, but through tears when she described it, Lavelle finally told the Court that “ACCT Philly needs to be held accountable, and there must be justice for Saint.”
Although the Court sided with her — overruling Velazquez and ACCT Philly on the value of dogs — whether Saint ultimately receives any remains to be seen.
What is the value of a dog?
Shelters, pet food companies, veterinarians, boarding kennels, groomers, breeders, and others in the business of making money off our great love of animals are not shy about acknowledging what they call “the deep bond humans develop with their pets” when we are writing the checks to them. As one of their industry organizations acknowledged:
A majority of pet owners share their beds with furry friends. People take their dogs to work, create Instagram accounts for them and help them complete bucket lists. People, it’s clear, increasingly think of pets as family — or fellow people.
This helps explain why the average cost of a veterinary visit is often more than $500, with some spending over $1,000. It also helps explain why Americans spent $100 billion on their animal companions last year. But when a shelter, veterinarian, boarding kennel, or groomer proves incompetent, when they perform below a standard of reasonableness and wrongly injure, kill, or allow your beloved companion to die, they will argue in court that the animal has no value. All the pretty talk about the “human-animal bond” is forgotten. Their claim that “The attachment humans can develop with animals is beyond dispute” becomes nothing more than foolish sentimentality. It’s a one way ticket and they want to keep it that way. Tragically, they aren’t the only ones.
PETA, which raises over $60 million each year on the love people have for animals, also considers it a one way street. After stealing and killing Maya, a family’s dog, they also argued in court that she was worthless and, at best, the family could only recover the market value of the dog. In other words, PETA’s position is the same as that of Velazquez and ACCT Philly — that dogs are like lamps or toasters. If you break it, you just throw it away and buy another one.
The authors of a study in the Journal of Cost-Benefit Analysis want to change that. They set about to monetize the value of a dog. And the sum they came up with (and their explanation as to why) was $10,000. (By contrast, a human is valued at $10,000,000.) In doing so, they acknowledge that most of us consider our animal companions more valuable; indeed, priceless. But they note, “As true as this answer may be, it provides little guidance on how to value the effect of private and public decisions on our four-legged companions.” In other words, they claim, it gives little guidance to courts or legislatures when creating public policy or compensating the families of animal victims.
Of course, there are those of us in the legal profession who believe such guidance already exists in the form of compensatory, sentimental/intrinsic, and punitive damages (and even declaratory and injunctive relief), but courts and legislatures, bowing to industry fear-mongering, often remain mired in 19th-century precedent. To many courts, dogs are like toasters. And so perhaps a monetary minimum value of $10,000 in compensatory damages, with the understanding that other damages may also be appropriate (such as cost spent on veterinary care, sentimental damages, and punitive damages when the conduct is reckless, as it was in the cases of Saint and Maya) might help move the ball forward. $10,000, while inadequate from my perspective, is a far cry from a $30 market value for a rescued dog. And if courts and legislatures adopt it, we can shift the fight to whether that figure is high enough as a mandatory minimum.
We can also use that figure as a bridge to something more akin to their actual intrinsic and relational worth. Because despite industry doublespeak, despite what corrupt organizations like ACCT Philly and incompetent shelter directors like Aurora Velazquez claim, Tiffany Lavelle can certainly get another dog, but she can never get another Saint. And as much as that matters to her, it was everything to him.
To receive future articles and support my fight for the animals, please subscribe.