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Trainer faces animal cruelty charge after dog left in hot car dies

Posted July 16, 2013

— Police have filed charges against an employee of a Carrboro-based service animal training organization who allegedly left a dog in her car for two hours last month while she worked.

Worthy, a 2-year-old golden retriever, died of complications from heat stroke on June 11, a day after police say Debra Cunningham, program director of Eyes, Ears, Nose and Paws, left the animal in her car with the windows rolled up.

Cunningham, 42, of 155 Viburnum Way in Carrboro, faces one count of misdemeanor animal cruelty. She is due in court Aug. 8.

Police said when Cunningham returned to the car, the dog was panting and unconscious. Veterinarians attempted to revive Worthy, but he died the next day.

According to the National Weather Service, the temperature in Carrboro reached 73 degrees. Temperatures inside parked vehicles, however, can reach into the hundreds.

EENP has declined to comment on any disciplinary action taken against Cunningham but said it was evaluating its "operating procedures, personnel and training standards, taking whatever steps we deem necessary, to ensure our dogs’ safety, health, and wellbeing."

Worthy Worker accused of animal cruelty after dog dies from heat

Cunningham also declined to comment Tuesday.

As of Tuesday afternoon, she was still listed on the group's website as having been training dogs for 26 years, including the last 12 in the area of scent detection training and education.

Worthy and a littermate were donated to EENP in 2011 by Elaine White, a former volunteer of the group who filed the animal cruelty complaint against Cunningham.

"I can't believe she even did that. Anybody in her position should know that you don't put a dog in a car," White said Tuesday.

White found out about Worthy, she said, from EENP's executive director, who called her on June 10 to let her know she was at an emergency animal clinic in Durham and that Cunningham left the windows up because it had been raining.

White rushed to the clinic, where she was told Worthy's body temperature was 109 degrees – about 8 degrees above normal for a dog – that he was having difficulty breathing and that his organs had failed.

"Every day I think about Worthy. I think about him every time I get in the car. I feel how warm the car is and what he must have felt that day and what he went through," White said. "A healthy 2-year old golden retriever should never die that way, and I just can't imagine what he went through the last two hours in that car."


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  • Mon Account Jul 17, 2013

    This is disgraceful, shameful, and cruel, to say the least. People like this should have their driver's license taken away. Permanently. This is as intentional as drunk driving deaths.

    That said, the reporter didn't check her facts: "Temperatures inside parked vehicles, however, can reach into the hundreds."

    Vehicles max out around 140 Fahrenheit - not hundreds - even with the windows cracked. To any pet or person inside, though, it's completely irrelevant- it gets hot enough to kill quickly and cruelly.

  • burgiss Jul 17, 2013

    Both of these email addresses still work:
    Maria Ikenberry, Executive Director - maria@eenp.org
    Deb Cunningham, Program Director - deb@eenp.org

    The website *has* been edited. From the EENP Board of Directors, posted to its website (date unknown):

    "What we can do is a thorough evaluation of the circumstances that led to this tragedy. EENP’s Board of Directors is evaluating our operating procedures, personnel, and training standards, taking whatever steps we deem necessary, to ensure our dogs’ safety, health, and wellbeing."

    How long does it take to replace the Program Director?

    Lynda Burgiss

  • btneast Jul 17, 2013

    And if she is still listed on the website a month after the incident then I am certain the organization doesn't plan to do anything to discipline her..Unbelieveable

    Not necessarily. Not everybody knows how to edit their website. Very few small companies have an IT person at all, much less full time. They probably hired a contractor to build their site some time ago, and now need to hire another one to edit it.

  • richardsonr6 Jul 17, 2013

    This type of story makes tears in my eyes and chills run down my spine. This dog was left in that car where he was unable to do anything to help himself.. Can not imagine what this beautiful animal went through.. This lady can not be given a stern enough punishment for my satisfaction.. The fact that the incident happened June 10 and we are just learning of it now leads me to believe if the lady that donated the dog had not brought charges and brought this to the media's attention, we would have never heard about this.. And if she is still listed on the website a month after the incident then I am certain the organization doesn't plan to do anything to discipline her..Unbelieveable.. Hope they lose lots of business over there refusal to do the right thing here..

  • burgiss Jul 17, 2013

    Dear Maria Ikenberry, Executive Director, Eyes, Ears, Nose and Paws:

    What happened to Worthy is a disgrace that your organization will forever be associated with. Forget about "evaluating" and just get rid of Cunningham!! Who doesn't know better than to leave a dog in a car for two hours with the windows rolled up?!

    I can't believe this woman, who first tried to blame it on Worthy, is "training" dogs! She should never be allowed to *touch* another dog! And at $20,000 a pop charged to clients for each dog, I think you can afford to provide a "holding" area that is cool and safe!

    If you ignore how serious this is and don't take action that shows you recognize and deeply regret what has happened, surely you can expect fewer donations, volunteers, recommendations and clients -- and deservedly so!

    Finally, Ms. Ikenberry, did you really say you think you folks let Worthy down? Are you kidding -- your organization *killed* him! Take responsibility for this tragedy!

    Lynda Burgiss

  • btneast Jul 17, 2013

    This should have never happened, it was cruel and senseless and someone who has been training dogs for 26 years should know better than to leave a dog in a car on a hot day with the windows up

    ...which leads me to believe it was unintentional.......a very bad thing that should not have happened. I feel certain she was knowledgeable about these dangers.

  • IPayYouPay Jul 17, 2013

    Cunningham should be given the same punishment and bannished from the rest of society

  • Zoey0815 Jul 17, 2013

    I can't believe someone who works with dogs would do something so stupid. I won't take my dog anywhere if I have to leave her in the car.

  • bubbasu12 Jul 17, 2013

    Information,warnings etc on the dangers of leaving an animal or human in a vehicle in hot weather are in the media and else where daily.There is no excuse for this especially from someone who is suppose to have been involved with dogs for 26 yrs.I work in animal emergency treatment,it amazes me how many people still do not either believe or comprehend what heat can do.You do not take your dog out in this heat to play vigorously for an hour,or take it jogging,bike riding etc.Yes your dog may enjoy riding in the car but that doesn't mean you have to take him with you to the grocery store.If it stays outside it needs plenty of shade access to water at all times.It does not take a genius to figure this out.As humans we seek shade or the comfort of AC and drink lots of fluids etc,why do you think your pets would need any less than this.Even if it survives heat stroke often times there is neurological damage that cannot be fixed!How would you feel with an internal temp of 107 degrees!

  • cpccarolyn Jul 16, 2013