Ace of Hearts Rescue Loses Right to Keep Dogs in LA After Pit Bull Attacks
- Phyllis M. Daugherty
ANIMAL WATCH-Two Pit Bulls owned Ace of Hearts Dog Rescue, a West Hollywood group, recently attacked innocent victims in separate incidents while in the care of fosters in the city of Los Angeles. Both were declared Dangerous Dogs by LA Animal Services' GM Brenda Barnette. This means the dogs must be removed from the city or euthanized and that the owner cannot license or keep another dog within the city limits for three years.
An appeal to the declaration on the first Pit Bull, named Aspen, was heard by the Animal Services' Commission on August 22, 2017, when the Dangerous Dog declaration was upheld.
At a November 14, 2017, hearing, Kari Whitman, founder of Ace of Hearts, appealed to overturn the decision regarding the second Pit Bull, Daytona, which had attacked two children. General Manager Brenda Barnette's Dangerous Dog declaration was not overturned and, therefore, her decision stands.
Dog bites and attacks in the city of LA go largely unreported to the public. However, the number of appeals to the Board of Commissioners by owners whose dogs have seriously harmed a child, adult, or maimed/killed a beloved pet are increasingly becoming a lengthy part of its meetings. In this case, Ace of Hearts is a high-profile rescue organization, which claims to “specialize in bully breeds.”
KARI WHITMAN / ACE OF HEARTS DOG RESCUE
Kari Whiteman told the Huffington Post in 2011 that Ace of Hearts Dog Rescue began in 2001 as a non-profit devoted to rescuing dogs and providing them with loving homes. She said the inspiration was her Bulldog Ace, whom she had rescued from death row at a shelter. "When he died, I channeled my grief and frustration into trying to save other shelter dogs like Ace and find them loving homes."
During that interview, Whitman remarked, “since we specialize in ‘bully breeds,’ we’re often called upon to take in dogs from all over the country that others are reluctant to rescue because of their breed, size or need for rehabilitation.”
Kari Whitman is described on another website as, "a celebrity interior designer and television personality, and is the founder of Kari Whitman Interiors."
Both her business, Kari Whitman Interiors, and Ace of Hearts Dog Rescue publicly share the address, 1201 Larabee St., #303, West Hollywood, CA 90069 -- a high-end luxury condo building, where a 3 bed/3 bath, 1,793 sq/ft unit was recently valued by Zillow at $1,325,801.
Possible Dangerous Animal Case (Appeal): DA 172055 EV (August 22, 2017)
Respondent Kari Whitman was not present but was represented by legal counsel Anne McKenzie.
Attorney McKenzie argued that the foster guardians were responsible for the dog rather than Kari Whitman because they signed an agreement. She alleged that the fosters mishandled the dog, and stated that Ace of Hearts wants to rehabilitate and retrain the Pit Bull named Aspen.
Commissioner Roger Wolfson stated for the record that the General Manager confirmed the hearing officer's findings that the dog is a Dangerous Animal. Commissioner Garcia remarked that Ms. McKenzie’s arguments focused on placing responsibility for the dog on the fosters. However, the focus of the case is whether the dog is a Dangerous Animal.
Attorney McKenzie repeated an earlier argument that the "fosters" should be considered the "owners" of the dog while it is in their possession. She stated that her client is concerned that a determination of Dangerous Animal will cause Ace of Hearts to close its shelter because the Department prohibits the "owner" from owning any dogs for a period of three years.
Complaining witness Mirsita Avelarde stated that she lived in the building where a girl was caring for the dog and it suddenly attacked her on January 6 when she walked in the door, biting her leg and hip. According to Avelarde, the girl needed 80 stitches for her injuries; she believes the dog is dangerous because her own children also live in the building.
Commissioner Wolfson inquired whether it is possible to take the dog out of circulation and hold Ace of Hearts harmless so it can continue its work with animals in the city of Los Angeles. Assistant City Attorney (ACA) Dov Lesel explained that the Board may make a strong recommendation to the General Manager to favorably look at reinstating the license opportunities for the respondent or Ace of Hearts, but that decision is at the discretion of the General Manager.
Commissioner Dicker commented that Ace of Hearts handled the matter poorly and set the dog up to fail. However, he feels that it is in everyone’s best interest to mitigate the impact on Ace of Hearts. Ms. McKenzie replied that there seemed to be unfortunate circumstances in this case that led to the group reevaluating and changing its policies regarding the selection and training of fosters.
ACA Lesel said Ace of Hearts has been around for a long time and should have been better prepared. He advised that, if the dog is deemed dangerous and its license is revoked, the group can request a discussion with the General Manager.
Commissioner Wolfson made a motion to uphold the decision of the General Manager with the strong recommendation that Ace of Hearts be restored to good standing as quickly as possible.
Attorney McKenzie asked the Board to consider license revocation without euthanizing the dog and added that Ace of Hearts is willing to sign an affidavit stating that they’ll have their most experienced foster transport the dog to a training facility for rehabilitation.
Commissioner Wolfson commended Ace of Hearts for its willingness to save the dog at their own expense.
Commissioners Gross, Garcia, Finsten and Wolfson voted to uphold the General Manager's decision. Commissioner Dicker voted "no" but then changed to an abstention.
Possible Dangerous Animal Case: DA 171306 NC (November 14, 2017).
Kari Whitman and Ace of Hearts Dog Rescue were represented by attorney Anne Brendel. (Kari Whitman arrived later.)
Commission President Gross asked Assistant City Attorney (ACA) Dov Lesel to explain the Board’s jurisdiction when the respondent’s address is in West Hollywood. ACA Lesel stated that this can be treated as any regular case in the city of Los Angeles; the fact that the owner is domiciled or incorporated in a different city should not make a difference.
Attorney Brendel added that the police were advised Daytona was a service dog, after the attacks on two children had occurred.
Commissioner Gross said, "There is a difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal; from what I can see, this was not a service dog." Attorney Brendel responded that her clients thought therapy dogs have the same protections as service dogs; she has since explained the difference.
The Pit Bull Daytona was described by Brendel as having been with a prior foster for six months with no problems, but this foster was called away suddenly for an emergency. Thus, Daytona had to be placed with a new foster -- blatantly violating the foster agreement and acting with gross negligence by throwing a party for neighbors in the apartment complex and allowing the Pit Bull to be around children and off-leash in a public area.
She contended that Ace of Hearts should not be held responsible and Daytona should not be put down because of the recklessness of the foster. She further asserted that the incident could have been avoided had the parents and the foster been more responsible.
Kari Whitman, founder of Ace of Hearts Dog Rescue, arrived and testified that she had informed the foster the dog was not good with children and had posted that information, which was also provided by San Diego Animal Control, where they adopted the Pit Bull.
However, the complaining witness, Sabrina Panal, a neighbor of the woman fostering the dog, testified it was her understanding that Daytona was okay with children and she had even checked the Ace of Hearts website, where it said, "Daytona is good with children." Panal stated an alarming thing: the dog was not growling or showing aggression when he suddenly lunged at her 8-year-old son, grabbing him by the face and dragging him some feet before someone pulled the dog off her child. She cried as she said, looking at her child and the stitches and scars on his face, that she had had a really bad year.
She also described an earlier incident that day involving a younger child, during which Daytona allegedly grabbed a two-year-old girl's arm in his teeth. When they heard the child screaming, the father came and took the child. Panal said that none of the adults present saw this happen and disregarded the issue, believing the child could just have over-reacted out of a fear of dogs. She stated that was the reason she agreed to the foster's request to bring the dog back to the party, where he attacked her son.
Ms. Whitman and Attorney Berne argued that the foster set the dog up to fail. Commissioner Gross expressed concern that Ms. Whitman appeared to not be taking any responsibility and would put all blame on the foster. He noted that the foster's testimony at the original hearing indicated that she made Ace of Hearts aware she was intimidated by the dog and had no experience with them.
Commissioner Gross further admonished Ms. Whitman that she has a responsibility and obligation for and to the foster, yet she is "throwing her under the bus." Whitman disagreed.
Gross added that there were texts in evidence [provided to the Board] that were also of concern, adding that the foster's testimony and the texts from an unidentified source, "show that she was being told to hide the dog and deceive the police and animal control." Kari Whitman denied knowledge of the texts.
Commissioner Dicker commented that he finds this to be "unconscionable." He opined that the dog has sensitivity around children, but he believes that "triggers can be managed." He agreed with license revocation and moving the dog outside the city of Los Angeles, rather than destroying the dog.
He stated that the rescue group was irresponsible and should be barred from pulling dogs from LAAS shelters or having dogs in the City of Los Angeles for three years.
Commissioner Olivia Garcia agreed that the rescue group "was irresponsible and failed the dog."
Commissioner Gross asserted that the dog has demonstrated aggression and attacked two children, and the Board has a responsibility to ensure that other children are not attacked. He stated that there is no guarantee that the dog will be trained. He therefore made a motion to uphold the decision of the General Manager to declare Daytona to be a Dangerous Animal.
Commissioner Garcia seconded the motion, but it failed by a vote of 2-1, with Commissioner Dicker voting against it. (On a five-member Commission, three "aye" votes are required for any action regardless of number present.) The result was that, without a majority vote, the General Manager’s decision stands.
Thus, the Pit Bull Daytona must either be moved out of the City or euthanized. This also means that Kari Whitman or Ace of Hearts Dog Rescue may not own or license a dog in the city of Los Angeles for three years.
(It was not clear at the meeting or from the minutes whether Ace of Hearts will be allowed to "pull" dogs from LA City shelters.)
ACE OF HEARTS RESCUE "QUARRELS" WITH ANIMAL SHELTER
Another serious issue involving Ace of Hearts was revealed in a February 7, 2016 article in the Victorville Daily Press. It describes a “quarrel” between Ace of Hearts Dog Rescue in Beverly Hills [Ace of Hearts lists a P.O. Box in Beverly Hills] and the Apple Valley Municipal Animal Shelter, resulting from the General Manager of Animal Services having posts of 11 of its shelter dogs removed from the Ace of Hearts’ website. (The photos had been uploaded by the rescue from Adoptapet.com and Petfinders.com, according to the article.)
Kari Whitman of Ace of Hearts, responded that her rescue “routinely posts animals from anywhere between 60 and 90 shelters across California, providing adoption information to the website’s more than 100,000 monthly visitors,” the Daily Press reports.
However, Animal Services Manager Gina Whiteside countered that Ace of Hearts’ posts, “did more harm than good because the posts contained misinformation.” She pointed to wording that the dogs are “in danger in Apple Valley,” and, “I’m being cared for by Ace of Hearts Rescue" appearing under the photos. "The dogs were never in the rescue’s care,” Whiteside said, adding that Ace of Hearts was “changing the description and removing the shelter’s contact information.”
“A comparison of posts provided by Whiteside showed that Ace of Hearts also removed the shelter’s adoption process in lieu of its own, which included filling out an application on the rescue’s website, submitting to a house check and donating $400,” the report confirms.
Whitman said that donation is only a requirement for dogs at Ace of Hearts’ facility in Beverly Hills. "We only charge a fee on our dogs, not Apple Valley’s.”
Dog adoptions at the shelter start at $85. Whiteside responded, “They’re not helping us. They’re confusing the adopters and delaying the placement of animals.”
One “confused adopter” who was fearful an animal was “in danger of euthanasia” told the Daily Press she started the Ace of Hearts adoption process but became "leery" and called the shelter, where she learned “the dog had not been in danger and had already been adopted from the shelter.”
Whiteside told reporter Matt Cabe that the shelter does not plan to disassociate itself from Ace of Hearts but said, “the rescue’s criticism doesn’t help anyone. It pulls us away from our focus, which is saving animals lives.”
DOES "RESCUING" ANIMALS JUSTIFY ALL CONSEQUENCES?
Ace of Hearts was made publicly accountable by Apple Valley Animal Services for disregarding the need for total transparency, honesty and mutual support between rescues and municipal shelters.
The L.A. Animal Services' Commission rightfully determined that Ace of Hearts must be held to the same -- or higher -- standard than the average owner whose pet suddenly (or repeatedly) exhibits aggressive behavior.
But there was no discussion about the origin of the animals which are being given to Ace of Hearts and other “rescues” by various shelters, including Los Angeles Animal Services.
There are several decisions made by governmental agencies to permit "animal rescues," i.e., the State of California and the Internal Revenue Service officially approve a non-profit corporation to which the public can donate for that purpose, with no consideration of the agencies capability of performing this serious and risky task.
And there is the complicity by those shelters which allow unmonitored "rescues" to take dogs that have been deemed too aggressive/dangerous/vicious to be adopted directly to the public -- in other words, too unpredictable and/or uncontrollable for the city/county to take the risk.
There is no question that Ace of Hearts (or any rescue) must be held responsible for its actions, its fosters, and for harm done by any animal it its care in LA. Failure to do so must result in restrictions by the City.
But, at some point we must also look at the accountability of the "no kill" movement -- promoted vigorously by the very Commissioners making this decision -- and the guilt it irresponsibly imposes on both shelters and rescues, regardless of the consequences.
(Phyllis M. Daugherty is a former City of LA employee and a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.