Seven months ago, Hershey the drug-sniffing dog was at the top of his game. He was a canine narcotics officer taking a bite out of crime in Texas prisons.
But crime bit back, and now Hershey's owner, Stephanie Anderson, has a bone to pick with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).
"Animals can't talk for themselves, so we have to speak for them," she says. "TDCJ doesn't like to tell the truth."
While on loan to the prison system, the chocolate Labrador retriever was stolen and injured, but prison officials say they won't pay thousands of dollars to cover Hershey's veterinary bills because their own agreement with Anderson violated agency policy.
Ben Brown, the TDCJ assistant director with who approved the loan, was disciplined after an internal affairs investigation, and the matter is well on its way to a legal dogfight.
How the agency responded to Hershey's ordeal is at the heart of Anderson's grievance. She says TDCJ reneged on their promise to care for Hershey, lied about his injuries and let the dog suffer needlessly "either to save face or save them money."
Agency spokesman Glen Castlebury said he could not comment on Anderson's allegations, but he denied any department staffers intentionally would allow an animal to suffer.
He acknowledges, however, the dispute identifies a need for stricter adherence to policies regarding animal ownership and handling.
"It serves to show the problems attendant to people having personal dogs [on the job], and it shows the problems attendant to these dogs being kept in people's homes," he said. "It's just not a good business practice."
Steps have been taken to correct the problems, including initiating the construction of a kennel, he said.
Anderson bred and raised Hershey, now 2, but he learned his trade in the prisons, sniffing out caches of illegal drugs, tobacco and other contraband under the tutelage of then Sgt. Anderson, a TDCJ dog handler for 10 years.
When Anderson quit in December to open a kennel, she offered to loan Hershey to Chrystal Holman, who was starting a narcotics interdiction team in the agency's northwest region. She did it because Hershey loved his work and she believed in the drug dog program.
Anderson reached an oral agreement with Brown, Ms. Holman's boss, under which Holman would care for Hershey for one year in exchange for the dog's services.
Hershey was in the back yard of Holman's home last March when he and another dog were stolen amid a rash of animal thefts.
Animal control officers found the pup three days later, limping down a street several miles from the Holman house, and returned him to the handler. Veterinary records show Hershey's pelvis was fractured in three places and one of his front teeth was broken.
Even worse, Anderson says, the dog's personality changed. The once happy-go-lucky Hershey had become a timid and fearful dog "I guess he's just a pet now," she ays. "His bones are healed, but attitude-wise, he's never going to make it again as a drug dog. He's too skittish. With drug work you have to have a very confident dog, and he's not."
TDCJ officials never told Anderson that the dog had been missing and agency documents show Brown advised Holman not to and instead say that Hershey had been injured in a dogfight. A few days later Anderson learned about the theft through other sources and demanded Hershey's immediate return.
A subsequent trip to a veterinarian revealed the extent of the dog's injuries.
With his promising career cut short, Hershey's market value, estimated at $4,000, vaporized. Prison officials have denied Anderson's request for $9,330 to cover Hershey's lost value, veterinary bills and other related expenses.
"There is no avenue for the agency to pay these expenses since policy was violated and purchasing procedures preclude payment," TDCJ Inspector General John F. McAuliffe wrote in a letter to Anderson.
Castlebury says state law prohibits the agency from spending tax dollars on employees' private property. The agency approached Anderson about buying Hershey, but she rejected the proposal because TDCJ sells some retired dogs to labs for medical research.
As the lawyers fight it out Anderson says she and Hershey are just trying to regain their faith in people. "I'm not naive," she says. "ButÂ…if a supervisor like Mr. Brown gave you their word, it was as good as gold. Things are different now."
"That's the reason I like working with animals," she adds. "You can trust them."
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