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

Police have filed charges against Debra Cunningham, of Carrboro, after a service dog-in-training died after being left in her car for two hours last month.

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CARRBORO, N.C. — 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."

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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