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August 27, 2014

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Dog that killed boy in Henderson released after 2 years in custody

Image

City of Henderson / AP

This May 9, 2013, photo provided by the city of Henderson shows Onion, a mastiff-Rhodesian ridgeback mix, at the Henderson Animal Care and Control Facility.

Onion, a family dog that tragically killed a 1 year-old boy in April 2012, has been released after nearly two years of legal wrangling between Henderson and animal rights advocates, according to the organization that sued the city, the Lexus Project.

“Litigation for Onion has been dismissed, and he has been relocated permanently to a rescue,” said Robin Mittasch, president and co-founder of the Lexus Project, which sued Henderson for custody of Onion and to find an alternative to euthanizing the animal.

“We are thrilled with the outcome,” Mittasch added.

Henderson spokesman Bud Cranor confirmed Thursday evening that Onion has been released to the Lexus Project and the organization agreed to drop its lawsuit.

“Essentially, if we went through this hearing, it would’ve required us to put the family on the stand and put the family through all of that again,” Cranor said. “When we contemplated that whole process, it just wasn’t something we wanted to subject them to.”

The agreement between the city and the Lexus Project releases the city from any future liability for the dog, and the city stipulated Onion must be taken out of state to a licensed dog rescue facility. Lexus Project also provided assurances that the dog will not be adopted or in an environment with children ever again. At the city's request, the Lexus Project is paying for a memorial for Jeremiah Eskew-Shahan that will be placed in a Henderson park.

Mittasch would not divulge the location of the rescue that took Onion in, and, out of respect to the family of the victim, they would not comment further on the matter.

Onion, an 8-year-old, 120-pound mixed breed mastiff dog, belonged to Elizabeth Keller, who first acquired Onion as a therapy dog as she underwent treatment for lung cancer.

On April 27, 2012, Keller’s grandson, Jeremiah Eskew-Shahan, was celebrating his first birthday. At the end of a long and busy day, according to court documents, Onion was sleeping in a dark room in the house. Jeremiah, went over to Onion to say good night, but tripped and fell on the dog.

Onion grabbed the toddler by his head and shook him. It lasted for less than a minute, according to court records, but Eskew-Shahan died at the hospital that evening.

Henderson seized the dog and declared it vicious, scheduling Onion to be euthanized after a 10-day quarantine period. However, animal rights advocates enlisted the help of the Lexus Project, a New York-based organization that finds legal help for animals that face being put down.

The Lexus Project sued, arguing that the city obtained custody of Onion when Keller was under duress, on the night of the tragic death of her grandchild, and therefore were not the legal owners. The city argued that Keller knowingly signed over her dog and accepted the “vicious” designation.

Keller eventually testified in an affidavit filed in the court case that Onion had never shown signs of aggression before, and she did not understand what was happening when the Henderson animal control officer gave her the paperwork to sign.

In December, the Nevada Supreme Court granted an appeal of the Lexus Project, confirming that the Clark County District Court should have held an evidentiary hearing on who owns Onion. The case was set to go back to district court in the coming months.

During the 20 months that the court battle played out, Henderson Animal Control held Onion. Community animal rights advocates protested that the dog was languishing with little human contact or ability to move around while the court battle played out.

“It’s been a very emotional year and a half,” said Gina Greisen, president of Nevada Voters for Animals and one of the people who fought for better care for Onion.

“I’m glad that the city and Lexus Project could work something out. I hope the community learned something from this, and I hope going forward we can make changes and people will be more aware that pets are part of the family but also animals with animal instincts,” Greisen said. “I also hope we take a hard look at the laws and how we go about the process of determining a vicious dog, and we insure that it’s fair and equitable.”

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