City of Henderson / AP
Published Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Updated Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014 | 11:19 a.m.
The long legal saga of Onion the dog concluded last week when, after 21 months of court battles, Henderson agreed to release the family pet that killed a 1-year-old boy to an out-of-state rescue.
The animal advocates who turned out in Onion’s defense and the family both expressed a hope that the tragedy would be a learning experience for the community and the local government.
The court case was set to return to Clark County District Court after the Nevada Supreme Court ruled in December that an evidentiary hearing should be held on ownership of the dog. The court hearings have been avoided, leaving some legal questions unanswered.
Those who fought for Onion’s life still want to know: How is Onion being cared for, and what have the city and community learned from the tragic event?
And how much responsibility lies with the dog’s owner? Aimee Eskew, the toddler’s mother, sued her mother-in-law, Elizabeth Keller, for negligence in Clark County District Court, seeking $10,000 for medical expenses and an unspecified amount in damages. Keller filed for bankruptcy, and the case has not progressed in more than a year.
Attempts to contact either party, after last week’s settlement was reached, were unsuccessful.
The 30-second attack and the 21-month aftermath
Onion, a 120-pound tan and black mastiff and Rhodesian ridgeback mix, belonged to Keller from the time he was a puppy. Onion was a support dog for Keller while she went through treatment for lung cancer.
On April 27, 2012, Onion was celebrating his sixth birthday — and Keller’s grandson, Jeremiah Eskew-Shahan was celebrating his first. According to the family, Onion knew the toddler well and had never shown signs of aggression toward him.
After a long day of birthday cake, presents for both baby and dog and a lot of playtime, Keller put Jeremiah to sleep in a dark room where Onion was napping.
According to court records and the family’s statements, the child went over to the sleeping dog and grabbed him, either to pull himself up or because he lost his balance. Onion awoke and grabbed Jeremiah by the head with his massive jaws. The attack lasted 30 seconds, but too much damage, including severe facial damage, was done.
The toddler was airlifted to University Medical Center, but died from his injuries.
Henderson Animal Control arrived at the scene, and after assessing what occurred, they told Keller that Onion would be declared a vicious dog and, if she did not contest the designation, the dog would be destroyed after a quarantine period. According to a statement by the animal control officer, he explained the situation to Keller and she also told him that in the past Onion had been aggressive toward other dogs, but not people.
Keller signed the paperwork, which was short on details, just before midnight. Under “reason for impound,” the boxes for “request of owner,” “quarantine,” and “vicious declaration” were all checked. In the section for notes, the form simply states “owner surrender.” No other information is provided on the form that reflects what happened that evening.
After the incident, the family seemed resigned to allow Onion to be euthanized. The story quickly went national, and animal rights groups became involved. Les Golden of the Mark Morris Animal Welfare and Environmental Group, a dog lover who rescues strays off the street in his hometown of Chicago, worked to find an organization that would fight on Onion’s behalf. The Lexus Project, a greyhound rescue organization based in New York, agreed to step in, and Golden helped them find a lawyer in Nevada.
Keller later provided a statement for the court that said Onion had never been aggressive around other dogs or people.
“At no time did the Animal Control Officer explain to me that I was giving up or transferring ownership of Onion to the City of Henderson, and it was not, nor was it ever, my intent to do so,” the affidavit states. “At no time did the Animal Control Officer explain to me that I had a choice whether Onion would be deemed a dangerous or vicious dog or that he would be killed. I also was never advised that I had a right to demand a hearing or contest the dangerous or vicious designation.”
Keller transferred ownership to the Lexus Project, which, using $2,500 from Golden, established a trust to care for Onion.
The Lexus Project argued Keller was under duress, invalidating the transfer of ownership to the city.
The officer says he informed Keller about her options and what the paperwork meant, and a Henderson police officer witnessed the interaction.
Shortly after the accident, the family issued a statement through a spokeswoman that they would no longer comment, and wanted privacy while they grieved.
The city’s 10-day quarantine period and window to contest the vicious designation elapsed, and the Lexus Project won a temporary restraining order to prevent the city from euthanizing Onion.
The district court dismissed the Lexus Project’s claims, but the organization appealed the case to the Nevada Supreme Court, which ruled that a hearing was needed to determine the true owner of the dog.
Dog attacks occur regularly, but a human fatality from one is rare. Jeremiah was one of 28 people killed by dogs in the United States in 2012.
Henderson officials say they cannot recall facing a situation like this one. While the court case inched along, Onion was kept at the Henderson shelter.
Gina Greisen, a local dog lover and president of Nevada Voters for Animals, got involved several months into the process.
“There are hundreds of dogs each day that get put down and need a home who haven’t killed a child,” Greisen said. “I helped some of the people working to find an attorney for Onion, but you have to pick your battles. When we realized Onion was sitting in a cage for months on end, that’s when more people got involved.”
Greisen and other animal welfare advocates pleaded with the council to allow Onion out of his cage for better exercise and stimulation, which after nearly a year and a half was granted. City officials said Onion was cared for by shelter staff and seen by the city veterinarian.
For the last two months of Onion’s nearly two-year stay at the shelter, the new protocol called for at least two 10-minute walks per week.
“The dog was under the constant care of a veterinarian who was monitoring his care, his food, his health and exercise. Based on what that veterinarian said, it was receiving adequate care,” Henderson attorney Josh Reid said. “Because of the length of the case, the appeal, it took quite some time to get an answer on these issues. (The change in protocol) was related to the length of time animal was there. Those decisions are made by the veterinarian.”
Golden wishes the city had opted to release the dog sooner.
“We don’t fault Henderson for not having the statutory vehicles in place to deal with this kind of situation. It just occurs too rarely,” he said. “It would be like having a city code for what would happen if an alien spacecraft landed in our public swimming pool. I wish Henderson showed some compassion and had protected themselves from litigation by letting the dog go once the trust was in place. The owner said she wanted the dog saved. They should have opted for compassion.”
Question left unanswered
With the settlement, both Henderson and the Lexus Project stated their desire to put the issue to rest, and to spare the family any more grief.
The Lexus Project would not say where Onion has been taken, and has provided few details on his care.
The Blue Lion sanctuary in Colorado agreed to take Onion at the beginning of the court case, but Lexus Project president Robin Mittasch said they opted for a different facility because Blue Lion “wasn’t what they were looking for.”
It is a rescue, Mittasch said, and Onion will not be constantly crated.
When Onion was turned over by the city, he was in “excellent” health, she said.
“(The city) took magnificent care of him,” Mittasch said. “His weight was great, his muscle tone was great, and his coat was bright and shiny.”
That’s not good enough for Golden, who funded the trust.
“We want to know whose interests were served. Was it the Lexus Project’s, the City of Henderson’s, or Onion’s?” Golden said. “That will only be determined when it is made public where Onion was sent. This dog could die next week and no one would know.”
No veterinary records have been released since Onion was taken into custody in April 2012.
Golden, Greisen and others who followed the court case say the city code needs to be clarified to avoid future disputes. Golden said a Nevada lawyer called the law “unconstitutionally vague.”
The language in Henderson’s code is confusing as to the procedures for declaring a dog vicious, and the options available to the owner, Greisen said.
Only the owner of the dog can contest a vicious designation, according to the law. When the case was before the Nevada Supreme Court, Judge James Hardesty asked how the city could argue Keller did not ask for a hearing to dispute the decision when the city claims ownership of the dog.
“We are not out on a island,” Reid said. “Clark County, Las Vegas, most of them have the same language.”
Nevertheless, Reid said Henderson officials would meet with other local governments in Southern Nevada to discuss whether any changes to the ordinances are necessary.
Golden says he asked the city to implement new regulations allowing for a trust to take custody of a dog scheduled to be put down, and for the city to distribute safety pamphlets to the owners of large dogs who also have small children.
Reid said third-party trusts are not something recognized in Nevada, which was the “crux” of the court case in his view, and any changes would occur at the state, not local, level.
City spokesman Bud Cranor said this was an unprecedented event that the city hopes to never encounter again. Their primary concern in reaching a settlement was to spare the family from having to relive the event at court hearings.
“Our job is to protect the public safety, and that will remain our No. 1 priority,” Cranor said. “Our hearts go out to the family, and we are sorry for what they had to go through. A baby was killed and it’s our job is to help prevent this from ever happening again.”
Annoula Wylderich, a local animal advocate who worked with Golden hopes the community can find constructive lessons from this tragedy.
"It's been a controversial and emotional case. It's time to put this behind us, move on, and learn from it. Not every dog that attacks should be spared; however, not every animal should pay the price for our lack of awareness,” Wylderich said. “A little education can go a long way towards preventing tragedy. That is the very least we can do as our tribute to Jeremiah Eskew-Shahan."