When Alex Williams' family dog, a precocious red-tail pit bull whose stomping ground was Williams' south Stockton back yard, was confiscated by Animal Control in February, Williams expected a hassle.
He didn't expect heartbreak.
But a week and a half later, heartbreak is all Williams, his wife and stepdaughter have left: The pit bull, who the family called Chocolate, was mistakenly euthanized after a mix-up at Stockton Animal Shelter.
"I can't understand. How could they make that stupid mistake?" Williams asked. "This is a terrible mistake."
And it's a mistake that, according to animal-welfare experts throughout Northern California, has happened before and no doubt will happen again in Stockton and throughout the country.
"Unfortunately, I've seen it happen," said Lissy Berrian, manager at the Broadway Pet Hotel, a shelter in Berkeley. "This isn't like a rare occurrence. It says a lot about the state of our animal control."
As many as 60 percent of confiscated or abandoned dogs that end up in shelters nationwide are euthanized, according to a national animal-welfare group. At the Stockton shelter, after a $1.3 million expansion led to what some say are drastic improvements in all aspects of animal care, 66 percent of dogs were euthanized last year, down from 79 percent in 1997. ::: Advertisement :::
Almost all those dogs were euthanized after nobody claimed or adopted them. But experts say it isn't uncommon for beloved family dogs such as Chocolate to be killed accidentally because of inexperienced staff, overcrowded shelters or simple paperwork mistakes.
"This does occur," said Bob Reder, regional coordinator of the Humane Society of the United States' West Coast office. "Unfortunately mistakes can be made."
The Stockton shelter, which is operated by the Police Department, refused to comment about the incident, saying the matter was being handled by the city attorney's office. Assistant City Attorney Barbara Anderson declined to discuss the case, because the family is filing a claim seeking restitution for the loss.
Anderson said there was no way to count exactly how many dogs had been euthanized in error at the shelter but that staff in the city attorney's office could remember only a couple in the past 15 years.
Diane Jarvis, president of Friends of the Stockton Animal Shelter, a nonprofit that has pushed for improvements at the shelter for several years, defended the shelter.
If it did happen, she said, "it was truly a mistake. That staff works really hard." Jarvis could remember only "one or two" similar incidents in the past four years, and she said an increase in cages, a better-trained staff and a commitment to animal care have vastly improved conditions at the shelter in the past year.
Animal Control officers confiscated Chocolate more than a week ago after she had a run-in with a neighborhood woman, Williams said. The dog spent the weekend at the shelter, and on Monday, Williams went to the South Lincoln Street office to fill out some paperwork to help bring her home.
Shelter officials told Williams she was at a different office, but when he got there, he learned Chocolate had been put to sleep, Williams said.
"They made a mistake," Williams said. "They got the papers mixed up. Somebody that worked over the weekend did it."
Williams, his wife and stepdaughter spent last week searching for answers. They are preparing to file a claim with the city but are unsure how much money to ask for, uncertain what they are entitled to. They still don't know how or why Chocolate was killed or by whom, and they say the city refuses to show them any paperwork related to Chocolate's stay at the shelter or her death.
The family, which had Chocolate for five years, is considering hiring an attorney.
"They went beyond mistreating my dog," said Tamara Richardson, Williams' stepdaughter, who lives in Oakland. "They killed her. No one's fighting for me. My stepfather's getting getting frustrated, and my mother's getting frustrated, and I'm getting frustrated. And we're still at zero."