The $10,000 battle to save two dogs from the death penalty

Posted at 10:50 PM, Jun 02, 2015
and last updated 2015-06-02 22:51:26-04

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Caitlin McAdam has spent nearly $10,000 fighting an impending death sentence for her two dogs.

Jake and Lucy, a pit bull and a black lab, were seized by animal control in February after being accused of killing a neighbor’s cat.

Even though there was no evidence linking them to the death, McAdam was immediately hit with “dangerous dog” charges. She was told that Jake and Lucy would be euthanized if they were found guilty, or even sooner if she couldn’t come up with the money to pay for their impoundment while they awaited their day in court.

Their fate was initially set to be decided at trial, where McAdam would plead her case to six jurors. Autopsies of the cat — which had been kept frozen — were conducted to be used as evidence, and McAdam’s attorney had gathered expert witnesses to call to the stand.

This may seem absurd. But because dangerous dog charges are filed against the pet owner, like McAdam, these cases go through the same process as other criminal offenses.

To pay for Jake and Lucy’s $250 a week storage, along with the mounting legal costs, McAdam and her family scraped together every cent they could — selling an old car, using a tax refund and fundraising online.

To date, McAdam has racked up around $6,000 in legal bills (despite her attorney doing some work pro bono) and $2,500 in boarding costs. She has also spent more than $1,000 on the cat autopsy, the behavioral assessment, court-ordered training costs and other expenses.

The district attorney prosecuting the case wouldn’t comment, but the Pike’s Peak Regional Humane Society seemed to have little sympathy. “There’s always ways for people to come up with the money to do this,” president Jan McHugh-Smith told CNN.

Yet dog owners across the country are finding themselves in similar situations — facing huge bills over small pet-related violations like a pet getting loose in the neighborhood or a dog barking too much. Some are even facing arrest when they can’t pay up. A CNNMoney analysis of arrest warrants from a sampling of 15 cities and counties found thousands of outstanding warrants stemming from offenses like this.

Other owners have had their dogs killed when they couldn’t afford the fines and fees to get them back from animal control.

When Gerilynn Turkette, from Stockton, California, couldn’t afford the $180 bill to reclaim her lost dog Chunk, he was euthanized — a terrible outcome that the shelter now regrets. Also in California, Indio resident Elizabeth Vasquez was forced to choose which of her two dogs would live after animal control seized them both, but she could only afford to get one of them back. And Texas resident Karen Augustine’s two dogs were killed after getting loose while she was visiting her sick father.

After months of fearing her dogs would face this same fate, it looks like McAdam will narrowly escape such a heartbreaking outcome.

CNNMoney initially wrote about her saga in April. In the weeks that followed, the court let McAdam take her dogs home under house arrest. But they weren’t free yet — forced to wear muzzles when walking outside and banned from walking together.

Last month, after CNN’s Randi Kaye pressed officials about the situation, McAdam was relieved to learn that a plea deal had been offered that could end up clearing her of the dangerous dog charges. A judge is scheduled to finalize that deal on Friday.

It’s unlikely she’ll ever get the thousands of dollars back, but she knows that spending this money was the only way to keep her dogs alive.

“If we had not fought this long … our dogs would have been murdered for no reason other than not having the funds to keep fighting,” said McAdam. “That’s not right.”