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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications Co., Published January 18 2012

Filled with regret, Minot flood survivors ask for dog back from shelter

GRAND FORKS - Her name is Nell, or was, and Erin Fitzgerald wants her back.

Nell is about 4 years old and well traveled, having loped through at least eight states and leaped into a dozen bodies of water after a tossed stick, from the Missouri River in North Dakota to Flathead Lake in Montana and the Pacific Ocean off Washington and Oregon.

“She never got tired,” Fitzgerald says of the red heeler, or Australian cattle dog, that she raised from a pup. “We tried so hard to wear her out, but it couldn’t be done.”

Then came the June flood in Minot. Fitzgerald and her husband lost their rented home and most of their belongings, which led them into a succession of temporary and restricted accommodations, including eventually a small house in Grand Forks.

Late last summer, they felt compelled to surrender Nell and her “sister” – a 2-year-old cat named Jade – to the Circle of Friends Humane Society in Grand Forks.

Two weeks later, full of remorse, Fitzgerald called the shelter.

“We want our pets back,” she said.

But it was too late.

Regret is rare

Jade had proved to be impossible to place and had been put down, Fitzgerald was told.

Nell had been adopted by an area couple.

Fitzgerald pleaded with Arlette Moen, Circle of Friends’ executive director, to talk with the couple, to let them know how much she and her husband regretted the decision they had made at a highly stressful time.

“I did talk to the new owners,” Moen said this week. “They said they love this dog. They did feel badly about the previous owner, but they want to keep the dog. They have bonded with it.”

She declined to identify the couple.

“We all acted in good faith,” she said. “They did surrender the dog to us, and on the form it does say they are giving up the rights to the animal. There was no indication they wanted the dog back until after it was adopted.”

Moen said it is a rare occurrence, someone turning an animal over to the shelter and later asking to take it back.

“If it happens, it’s usually within the first 24 hours,” she said.

Stressful times

Fitzgerald, 29, is from Michigan, and that is where she lives now with husband Jon, originally from Jamestown, N.D., and their 1-year-old son, Quinn.

She and Jon met in Montana, where he was farming and she was working at a small newspaper. They arrived in Minot in February 2011, four months before the flood.

They relocated first to Colorado, staying with Jon’s relatives, then to Minneapolis to live with Erin’s sister and later in a hotel. In about mid-August, they came to Grand Forks; Jon was interested in UND’s helicopter training program.

The stress of the past few months had taken a toll, Erin said, and the home Jon had found for them was “cramped,” especially with a toddler and two pets. They were expecting some flood assistance money, but it hadn’t arrived and they were running out of savings.

“The day after we got there, after all the moving around, we talked about it and decided, ‘OK, we can’t keep our pets,’” she said. “We didn’t think about it enough.”

Tearful choice

Circle of Friends had responded to the Minot disaster by soliciting donations of cash and bedding supplies for animals displaced by the flooding and providing temporary shelter for some.

Fitzgerald called, explained her family’s situation and said she could not keep her dog and cat. She and her husband drove to the shelter and turned over their pets. Erin filled a sheet of paper, “front and back,” with descriptions of personality and behavior.

“Nell was the nicest dog,” she said. “She never fought with another dog or showed any aggression toward anyone. She was the dog at the dog park that other dogs wanted to play with.

“About a week before we gave her away, she began to plop the ball in front of our son, Quinn, and she did this because at around 11 months Quinn discovered how to throw the ball to her. We could already see that they were going to bond over this, and it made giving her up even that much harder.

“My husband and I were both in tears, trying to reassure each other that they would get a good home.”

‘I want her back’

Two weeks later, talking about visiting the shelter to “find out how they were doing,” Erin and Jon realized they had made a mistake. Erin called Moen and said, “We want our pets back.” She wrestled for a week with the news that Jade had been put down and Nell had been adopted, then she called again.

“Can you call these people who adopted her and tell them I want her back?” she asked Moen. They had had the dog only a short time, and “I’m pretty sure she would want to be with us.”

Moen agreed to make the call.

“The people who adopted the dog are an older couple,” she said. “They went through an adoption process, filled out a questionnaire and signed a contract. They spent time with the pet and learned about its temperament and personality.

“They’re doing fine together.”

Moen said she also thought it was unfair to put the couple in such a difficult emotional situation.

“They in good faith adopted this dog,” she said. “It would be devastating to them.”

Fitzgerald said she isn’t claiming that anyone has done anything wrong here.

“I don’t fault them at all,” she said of Moen and others at the shelter. “I did sign a waiver that I was surrendering my dog. They’ve found a home for my dog, which was what we asked them to do.

“But we have a house now (in Dewitt, Mich., north of Lansing) with a yard. We are doing better and would be willing to pay the expense of getting Nell out here.

“I just wish they had done more to communicate to the new owner how much I want her back.”


Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald.