Days after Irvine police said they saved a pit bull puppy from a fentanyl overdose, the animal’s owner has been cleared to take his dog back after a preliminary drug test on the pup came back negative.
There’s one problem: The 29-year-old says he now has 14 days to pay the city more than $2,000 for the animal’s care.
“Basically they are holding my puppy for ransom,” Caleb Gibson, the dog’s owner, told The Times. “I’m a college student on financial aid, so I don’t have that kind of money to throw around.”
Last week, Gibson and his girlfriend made headlines after police arrested the couple in a Walmart parking lot. Authorities said the pair had drugs in their car, and that Gibson’s girlfriend feared Myla, their 8-week-old puppy, had somehow ingested fentanyl during the arrest. Police treated the dog with Narcan — a brand of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone — and said the animal “immediately began to recover.”
Then they sent the case to the district attorney’s office for suspected drug possession and animal cruelty, but so far no charges have been filed. On Tuesday, Sgt. Karie Davies confirmed that Gibson had been cleared to take his dog back, but maintained that the animal had overdosed even though they have not found proof of drugs in its system. She said that a sample of the dog’s blood had been sent to a laboratory for further testing.
“We know it was fentanyl in the car, that’s confirmed,” Davies told The Times. “The dog was overdosing, so whether the tests come back negative or not is irrelevant.”
In recent years there have been several viral news reports of dogs — especially police dogs — allegedly overdosing on fentanyl, though it’s not clear how often that actually happens. Experts say that canine overdoses are possible, but that dogs are far less sensitive to the drug than humans. And, just like with humans, drug experts say it is not possible for animals to overdose simply from being exposed to the substance by touching or inhaling it, despite police sometimes making claims to the contrary.
“Law enforcement has been spreading misinformation about fentanyl for several years,” said Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University. “That same situation is being repeated now with animals.”
Before he got Myla, Gibson had been wanting a dog for a few months. He said he’d given his prior pet — a pit bull named Baxter — to his mother after she’d been diagnosed with cancer. She fell in love with Baxter, so Gibson didn’t want to take him back. Instead, he worked on cleaning up his own life.
By that point, he’d been struggling with addiction for a few years. What started as some partying as a teen got out of hand, and by his mid-20s Gibson was addicted to opioids. About nine months ago, he said, he decided to sign up for a methadone program so he could take daily doses of a medication that would help control the urge to get high.
“I’ve been trying to clean my life up,” he said. “I’ve had two or three slip-ups but the counselor at the methadone clinic says I’m doing pretty good.”
He also started welding school, earning perfect marks as he worked to refocus his life. His girlfriend started taking methadone as well, he said, though she occasionally fell back into drug use.
Two months ago, a pit bull owned by one of Gibson’s friends had puppies.
“But there was something wrong with the mom, I was helping my friends take care of them,” he said. “And I fell in love with Myla.”
He bought the dog for $200, and took her back to visit her siblings every day when he went to welding school, then picked her up on the way home.
“I’ve never had kids, but I had her,” he said. “She was happy and healthy.”
On Wednesday morning, the couple decided to stop at Whole Foods for breakfast burritos and puppy food, Gibson said. Afterward, they realized they didn’t have a dog bowl so they went to Walmart. They were eating in the store parking lot when Gibson said he tossed part of his burrito out of the car.
Initially, Irvine police said the arrests started as a “consensual” encounter, though Gibson later disputed that. He said the officers accused him of littering, arrested him and wanted to search the car.
After police discovered the fentanyl, Gibson said, the officers briefly left the dog in the car alone before deciding to let the animal sit outside with him and his girlfriend, 27-year-old Katherine Menke. Some of the officers petted the pup, who was still playful during the 45 or more minutes they waited, Gibson said.
It was only once they all got to the police station that the dog began to seem lethargic. By that point, Gibson had already been escorted to another room so he didn’t see what happened next.
Department spokesman Kyle Oldoerp told The Times on Saturday that Menke said, “Oh, I think my dog is overdosing,” which prompted police to act.
“She knew the symptoms because it was the second time the dog had overdosed,” he said.
But it was unclear when the puppy would have ingested the drugs.
“Whatever happened to her happened 2 hours into custody,” Gibson wrote on the department’s Facebook page. “The cops found drugs, handled them, then let the puppy chew on their fingers. This and only this is why Katherine said what she said.”
The department pushed back on Gibson’s and Menke’s accounts.
“They’re going to dispute anything that happened that day,” Davies told The Times. “So we’re not going to comment on an active criminal investigation.”
Though Gibson and Menke did not deny that there was fentanyl in the car, Gibson said it was not his and that he has been continuing to take part in the methadone program instead of using street drugs. Menke told The Times that she had relapsed but has since returned to the methadone program.
After spending a few hours at the station, Gibson said, he and his girlfriend were allowed to leave without any charges — but they couldn’t take their dog. Instead, the department held onto the animal pending a hearing.
When the couple showed up for the hearing on Monday, they learned that a preliminary urine test didn’t find any drugs in the dog’s system. According to Gibson, the animal control officer had qualms about the results because they could not recover as much urine from the puppy as they would normally use for a test.
Though she confirmed Gibson’s account about the initial test results, Davies said it was too soon to draw any conclusions because there were more results pending.
“The bottom line is that the lab tests we sent off have not returned, so I’m just going to leave it at that,” she said, adding that the test authorities used “doesn’t specifically test for fentanyl.”
To Chelsea Shover, an epidemiologist and health services researcher at UCLA, that raised additional questions.
“It is baffling that if someone suspected a fentanyl overdose, they wouldn’t do a urine screen for fentanyl,” she said.
But in light of the preliminary test results, Gibson and Menke said they were surprised that Monday’s hearing found the seizure was justified, which meant they’d have to repay the city for the cost of caring for the dog.
On Wednesday Gibson told The Times that after two days of back-and-forth with the city he found out he owed $2,586.33. If he doesn’t pay by Sept. 20, the dog will be “deemed abandoned” and “become property of the city,” according to paperwork Gibson received.
“Myla made our days so much better and made us want to do better for ourselves,” Menke said. “We really didn’t have anyone but each other. That dog made it feel like we were actually a family.”