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Onion the Dog

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Onion the Dog of Henderson, Nevada, became an international focal point for animal welfare advocates in their struggle against municipalities and their animal control departments after the death of the family child who was injured by the dog. The incident and tragedy initiated a continuing legal battle that was heard by the Nevada Supreme Court on July 3, 2013, as to whether the dog should be killed, with the key issue being who actually owns the dog. Animal welfare advocates spearheaded by the Lexus Project are trying to keep the dog from being killed and are raising donations for their cause. The Onion case, they say, exemplifies overreaching law enforcement throughout the United States against dogs arbitrarily declared dangerous.

Fatal incident of April 27, 2012

Elizabeth Keller and her son had gathered at her home in Henderson, Nevada, to celebrate the first birthday of her grandson, Jeremiah Eskew-Shahan. The six-year old 120-lb mastiff/Rhodesian ridgeback mix family dog was in attendance at Jeremiah’s birthday party on April 27, 2012, when at 10:00 p.m. the dog, who was lying on the floor next to the baby after a day-long celebration, grabbed and began shaking the baby’s head. After the party, Jeremiah crawled over to Onion and tried to grab hold of the dog in order to stand up. As Keller leaned over to pick up Jeremiah, the dog grabbed the boy's head and began to shake the child. The boy's father heard the commotion, ran down the stairs, and yelled “stop,” at which point the dog released the child.

The family called paramedics and as Keller held the baby, an animal control officer of Henderson came and demanded that the dog be given to him, without reading any documents to Keller and without notifying her of the consequences of her action. Jeremiah was taken to a nearby hospital and was later transferred to the University Medical Center, where he died the next day, April 28, from the trauma. [1][2][3] Local authorities declared the event to be an “accident.”

Animal Control Impoundment

After the attack, Henderson animal control officials declared Onion a vicious dog and impounded him with the plan to kill him after a 10-day mandated quarantine. "The dog attacked and killed a child," animal control spokesman Keith Paul said. "It would be irresponsible of us to allow this dog to be adopted out." Later, Keller said in a sworn statement that she had turned over Onion's to Henderson while under duress, and that she now wanted the Lexus Project to have ownership of the dog.

Animal Rescue Groups Intervene

Chicago dog rescuer Les Golden spearheaded the initial campaign to save Onion. "The dog deserves to be saved," he said, and started a nationwide campaign to save Onion. After an article in the Las Vegas Review Courier led to the story going international, a dog lover contacted Golden and informed him of the New York-based Lexus Project, which was originally formed to defend a so-called "vicious" greyhound named Lexus that was impounded after killing a Pomeranian dog, but it now helps defends all breeds of dogs. Golden contacted the Anne Healy of the national mastiff rescue who put him in contact with the Blue Lion Rescue Animal Sanctuary near Denver. [4] [5] They agreed to take Onion if custody was achieved. The licensed, non-profit 35-acre sanctuary is nationally-known for dealing specifically with large breed dogs considered to be aggressive under municipal codes.

The Lexus Project lead attorney, Richard Rosenthal, agreed to help, and directed Golden to located Nevada counsel to file a temporary restraining order. Golden located Kathy McCarthy in Las Vegas through various channels and she, working with Rosenthal, successfully filed the TRO the following Monday, April 20. Soon thereafter, Keller voluntarily signed over dog ownership to the Lexus Project.

Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen refused to relinquish the dog to the sanctuary despite hundreds of postings to Las Vegas television and newspaper websites supporting compassion and clemency and the raising of sufficient money to pay for his transport from Henderson to Colorado by Blue Lion Rescue trained staff. A reporter for one of the local television stations in Las Vegas offered to adopt the dog, but Hafen spurned the request.

Legal Rulings

Temporary Restraining Order

On May 7, the Clark County court granted a temporary restraining order filed on behalf of the dog by a New York animal welfare group, The Lexus Project. A “Save-Onion” trust was established to provide for the care of the dog and a Facebook page,, was established to receive donations.[6][7] The events reached international scope after issuance of the TRO.[8]

District Court Rulings

Since his incarceration, Onion has been held at the Henderson Animal Shelter while the question of killing him is litigated in various Nevada courts. At the heart of the legal issue is whether Onion's ownership was relinquished to the city of Henderson after the attack on the child. Clark County Nevada District Judge Joanna Kishner has issued repeated legal orders allowing the euthanasia of Onion. "Lexus does not have any property rights to the dog, so it had no legal right to seek the temporary restraining order," Kishner said in one ruling.

Appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court

Because Nevada lacks an appellate court system, the Lexus Project appealed the case to the Nevada Supreme Court. Las Vegas attorney Dominique Geller working with the Lexus Project wrote the brief which led the Court to grant an indefinite stay on the dog’s killing and agreed to adjudicate the case.

Settlement Fails

On June 13, 2012, a settlement judge was assigned to work out a compromise between all parties involved, but the City of Henderson refused to enter into a settlement and the case returned to the Nevada Supreme Court.

Back to Supreme Court

On August 26, 2012, the high court ordered the dog to be kept alive until it could reach a final decision on its disposition. The court ordered all sides in the case to make their arguments before them on September 24, 2012.

Because of the high profile of the case and its potential legal precedent, the Court ordered oral arguments. On July 3, 2013, oral argument before the full Court was held. During that hearing, the City admitted that the dog has not been exercised even once during his now 14 months incarceration. He is held in a double cage, secluded from human contact except for the shelter veterinarian.

During questioning by the Court, the City of Henderson admitted that the dog has not been exercised nor taken outside of his cage during his now 14 months of incarceration. The proceedings are available at the Supreme Court website, and were placed on You Tube by KTNV Nevada.

On December 19, 2013, the Supreme Order remanded the case back to the District Court for an evidentiary hearing, noting that despite lengthy commentary and conclusions of fact no evidence had been presented.[9][10]

Exercise Issue

On December 19, 2013, the Lexus Project, following months of commentary by dog lovers and supporters of Onion, filed a motion to extend the stay and provide exercise for Onion. The City noted that beginning in November, 2013, the dog was being walked for ten minutes twice a week. This led his supporters to clamor for additional compassion toward the dog, now in his 8th year.

Legal Strategy for Similar Cases

The strategy developed by the Lexus Project is a model for similar cases throughout the country as well as a guide for proposed revision of municipal animal control statutes. A trust is established by donations to establish to the court that funds are available for court costs, transportation to a sanctuary, and food and medical care for the life of the dog at the sanctuary. To establish this trust, a federal EIN number is obtained. Donations are made into the trust and into an expense fund. Standing is then obtained either by family consent or, if the family has no interest, petitioning the city involved. In the thirty cases in which the Lexus Project has been involved, the dog has been saved. This includes a case earlier this year in which a Pennsylvania dog was deemed to have accidentally killed a child. The Lexus Project, as well as all local attorneys, work pro bono.

Revisions of Animal Law Statutes

The Motivation

To prevent the need for such litigation in the future, revisions of animal control laws are needed. These have two parts. The first is to protect the children. It states that veterinarians as well as the local municipality upon the purchase of a dog license must provide a short brochure on precautions and common-sense guidelines on protecting small children in homes with dogs. This includes the most obvious, but frequently ignored guide, that an infant must sleep in a secure crib.

The second is to protect the dogs. It follows the legal strategy noted above. In short, if a dog is deemed vicious or dangerous and becomes slated for euthanasia, then, after the 10-day observation period for rabies, if a trust is created for transport of the dog and lifetime maintenance and if a sanctuary is willing to take the dog, then the dog can be sent to the sanctuary to live out its days.

Such revisions have been presented to the board of several cities in Illinois and is under consideration. The Animal Advisory Commission of Clark County, Nevada, is modifying it for presentation to the City of Henderson. A model version is presented below in the Appendices. These are meant as models for revision of animal control laws throughout the country, with compassion a major focus.

Proposed Revision of Animal Control Laws

Chapter -- Animals

I. Guide for Large Dog Owners

Upon each visit of an owner of a domesticated animal to a licensed veterinarian or to (community) hall to purchase an animal license or by mail if the animal license is purchased by mail, if the animal either weighs 50 or more pounds or is likely to attain that weight upon maturity, the veterinarian or (community) health department shall provide the owner a booklet describing the manner of training and precautionary measures if a young child is living in the household. The booklet shall be created by the health department in consultation with a licensed veterinarian and shall be published on the (community) webpage in addition to being available in printed form at the (community) health department. The booklet shall also be printed in large type and hung as a poster on the wall of each licensed veterinarian in (community).

II. Problem Dogs: Sparing of Euthanasia

As an alternative to the procedure set forth in this section, an animal which has a) been declared vicious or dangerous, b) not been removed from the (community) pursuant to this section which faces euthanasia, shall be spared euthanasia if the following conditions are met:

1. The animal has passed the 10-day state-mandated quarantine period in accordance with the provisions of the State statutes and any regulations promulgated pursuant thereto, as amended from time to time, without evidence of rabies;

2. A licensed sanctuary for animals of the animal's breed has expressed to the (community) health department its willingness to house the animal for its lifetime, without possibility of being placed for adoption;

3. A trust fund for the animal has been established to transport the animal to the sanctuary, provide for the care of the animal at the sanctuary during its lifetime, and for transport of the animal from the (community) to the sanctuary;

4. Transport from the (community) to the sanctuary has been arranged with a licensed animal transporter;

5. A liability insurance policy has been purchased by the trust indemnifying the (community) , county,, and the State of (your state) against damage and injury resulting from the possible escape of the animal during the hours of its transport to the sanctuary, in addition to insurance carried by the animal transporter.

Upon request by the trustees of the trust established hereunder to the (community) attorney, an administrative hearing shall be held no more than 14 days after the termination of the rabies quarantine and shall deliberate whether conditions 1 through 5 above have been met for sparing from euthanasia. If all conditions have not been met, the trustee of the trust established hereunder shall be so notified by the (community) attorney and shall have 10 days to meet those conditions, at which time a second hearing shall be held.

The (community) attorney shall notify the trustees of the trust of the finding of the administrative board. If it is determined that conditions 1 through 5 above have been met, the (community) shall relinquish ownership of the animal to the trustees of the trust via the licensed animal transporter and the animal shall be transported to the sanctuary at the earliest date possible.

The trust shall reimburse the (community) for its costs in maintaining the animal from the date of notification of the trustee of the trust that conditions 1 through 5 have been met until such time as transportation to the sanctuary is effected.

Focus for Animal Welfare Groups

For decades, national and local animal welfare groups have argued that municipal codes have been prejudicial against dog that are ruled aggressive against humans and that the fault lays largely with neglect and poor training on the part of dog owners. The case of Onion became a focal point for efforts of such groups.


External links

  • [1] Blue_Lion_Rescue_Animal_Sanctuary


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