NEW PORT RICHEY — Suzy, an 8-year-old Shih Tzu, was sickly and frail. Her owners, Susan and Ricky Ouellette, said she wasn't about to run off, so they let her out onto their front lawn.
That was 3:30 Friday afternoon. When they went to check on her an hour later, Suzy was gone.
The Ouellettes scoured the neighborhood and ran into a woman who said her cousin thought Suzy was a stray. She took her to the SPCA Suncoast shelter, which is a few blocks from their New Port Richey home. The Ouellettes were familiar with the shelter, having adopted several cats.
They raced to the shelter just before closing, but they say a woman at the front desk said Suzy was not there. They figured maybe the neighbor took her to a different shelter. Or that Suzy was still lost. They hadn't put a collar on her because she had never run away.
They made fliers with Suzy's photo and taped them on telephone poles. They stayed out until 3 a.m., calling her name.
On Saturday, they went back to the SPCA twice, asking if Suzy was there. Again, the Ouellettes said, the answer was no.
They drove to the Pasco Animal Control shelter in Land O'Lakes. No Suzy. Same thing at the Humane Society of Pasco in Shady Hills. They went back to the SPCA on Sunday. Same answer.
The nonprofit shelter, which says it never euthanizes animals just to clear space for others, is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. But on Tuesday, Ricky said, "Enough of this."
They went back. They pushed open the gate and went inside. They said they asked a woman at the desk about Suzy, but the answer was the same: "We don't have your dog.''
The Ouellettes, who are both unable to work because of physical disabilities, took a flier down from a telephone pole outside the shelter and gave it to the employee. They asked for a call if anyone heard anything.
Ricky, 50, and Susan, 48, went home. Soon their phone rang. The Ouellettes said it was Gail Armstrong, interim executive director of the SPCA. She told them Suzy had been euthanized.
"You killed our dog?" Susan asked. She handed the phone to Ricky and wilted in her chair. They had owned Suzy since she was 8 weeks old.
Armstrong did not return calls for this story. On Wednesday, she issued a statement by e-mail.
"A recent event involving a stray dog has led the SPCA Suncoast officials to issue a reminder to pet owners to provide proper identification and licensing for their pets," she wrote. "The vast majority of stray animals are held for a brief period of time before being assessed for adoption, but because of her grave condition the SPCA humanely euthanized the dog rather than allow her to continue suffering."
Armstrong said the dog had been wandering for a "number of days."
"It is so unfortunate that there were no indications of ownership including a collar, ID tag or microchip. Identification would have allowed us to notify the owners that their dog was in a critical state."
Armstrong did not address why the Ouellettes were not told their dog was at the shelter, or what time Suzy was put down.
"They're covering up their own errors and trying to pass the blame to us," Ricky Ouellette said.
He acknowledged that Suzy was sickly. The couple took her to the vet May 13 because she had lost weight. The vet recommended tests that they couldn't afford. They took her home and fed her special formula to get her eating again. They said Suzy appeared to be getting better.
As for the SPCA's claim that Suzy was suffering: "That's baloney," Ricky said. And Suzy was not wandering the streets for days, he said.
"We came and asked for our dog and they lied to our faces."
Martha Murray, the former executive director of SPCA Suncoast, said it was protocol to hold dogs at least three days so owners had a chance to find them.
"Anything less than that isn't fair," Murray said.
When she worked there, she said, animals were euthanized "very sparingly" and only if they were greatly suffering.
In her statement, Armstrong wrote: "No one wins in this situation. Not the pet's owner, not the good Samaritan who tried to do the right thing and not the SPCA who provides compassionate care and a safe haven for more than a thousand animals every year."
She concluded with an offer to the family: to provide Suzy's ashes at no cost.
"It's not going to bring her back," Susan said.
"What they did was wrong."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.