Police dog deaths worry handlers

After canine cancer cases, Balto. County closes facility, tests officers and site

December 11, 2005|By JOSH MITCHELL | JOSH MITCHELL,SUN REPORTER

Two years ago, Baltimore County police marked the opening of their canine facility with an open house and a demonstration of police dogs' skills. Now, bright orange fencing and a "No Trespassing" sign keep visitors from the building.

Police and union officials say two dogs are dead from cancer. Tests are being conducted to determine the cause of a third animal's death, while a fourth is believed to have brain cancer. And the union says its members worry that the dogs might be more like coal-mine canaries - signaling the potential for serious health problems among the humans who have worked at the facility, built on parkland on top of a former landfill.

"We've never seen anything like this before," said Cole B. Weston, president of the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police. "Since February to December, losing four dogs out of service, three of which are dead and one death is imminent, absolutely would cause people concern."

The county's chief environmental officer has said it would be an "unprofessional leap of faith" to link the cancer cases to Southwest Area Park, pointing out that soil and groundwater tests were conducted on the land before the facility opened. Still, the county has closed the facility and a nearby playground and is conducting environmental tests.

"We're going to err on the side of caution," said Donald I. Mohler, a spokesman for County Executive James T. Smith Jr. "That's why we're spending a quarter of a million dollars on environmental tests. As much as the police union, we want to make sure that it is safe. It's the most extensive testing you can do."

The county has sent the body of an 8-year-old police dog named Harley, a German shepherd who died Dec. 2, to the University of Maryland for a necropsy to determine the cause of death. Results are expected in a week to 10 days, Mohler said.

Two dogs that spent the most time at the facility have been sent to the University of Pennsylvania for physical examinations.

In February, Jeb, one of the canine unit's three bloodhounds, was found to have cancer, and cancer was found in a black Lab named Leo in July, Weston said. The union president said both animals were euthanized.

A German shepherd named Enno was found to have brain cancer in March and has since been retired, Weston said.

Dr. Phyllis Ciekot Glawe, a veterinarian with the Veterinary Cancer Specialists in Denver, said that cancer is a leading cause of death for dogs older than age 10, but that cancer in dogs younger than 5 is less common. In terms of environmental factors, "there's no paper that's been published that says this causes cancer in dogs," Glawe said.

Weston could not say last week the ages of the three police dogs who had cancer, nor could he provide the types of cancer diagnosed in two dogs who died.

The canine unit's 34 dogs and 27 handlers work patrols and can be called on to detect bombs and guns. They also search for bodies.

Southwest Area Park is on land that was once the site of a 235-acre landfill. The land was purchased by the county in 1966 with the aid of a Department of Housing and Urban Development grant. The grant specified that the land would eventually become a park, and by 1985 construction had begun.

The canine unit moved to its facility at the park in March 2003. The warehouse-like building sits diagonally from the Maryland Transit Administration's Patapsco Avenue Light Rail station.

Before the move, the unit, created in 1961, had lost one dog to cancer. Police cited the deaths of the two dogs this year in closing the canine unit building in September until environmental tests could be done.

Other parts of the park, including a boat ramp, were open last week.

The unit has been working out of the department's North Point precinct, Weston said.

On the day the canine center was closed, 31 employees of the dog center, including 27 officers, filed injury reports with the department. In the reports, some officers complained of headaches, dizziness and respiratory problems.

Weston said officers were tested at a county-contracted health clinic shortly thereafter. The officers received results that Weston characterized as "raw numbers."

"They have yet to receive any sort of summary or medical information as to exactly what all those test results mean," Weston said. "There's a tremendous amount of anxiety because there's a lot of unknown answers."

Mohler, the county spokesman, said a Police Department colonel has asked the health clinic physicians to translate the blood test results in a "more user-friendly format."

Weston turned down a reporter's request to be put in touch with one or more of the unit's officers. He said the officers did not want to comment publicly because they did not want to risk their standing with the department.

Cpl. Michael Hill, a police spokesman, said the department would not comment until it received results of the environmental tests, which are expected in mid-January.

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

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