A case involving 18 feral dogs surrendered from a home on County Road 20 and euthanized by the Cortez Animal Shelter late last year sheds light on a growing problem with feral and at-large dogs in Montezuma County, a rising threat to residents and to domestic and wild animals, and an extended response by local agencies.
The 18 surrendered dogs were not tested for disease, although a sheriff’s deputy involved in their capture said they showed symptoms of canine distemper, a highly contagious and deadly disease for wildlife, pets and livestock.
The feral dogs presented a potential threat to wildlife, but Colorado Parks and Wildlife was not notified about the situation.
Public alerts about the threat of the free-roaming dogs were not issued by government agencies, and Sheriff’s Office documentation of the dog surrender was incomplete.
After obtaining dozens of documents through Colorado’s Open Records Act and conducting dozens of interviews for this article, The Journal found that the case of uncontrolled dogs and livestock had lingered since 2017.
The dogs – eight puppies and 10 adults – were found at a home at 10900 County Road 20 by the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office after residents complained about roaming dogs, according to shelter and incident reports.
“We responded to complaints over there. It was getting to be a real problem,” said Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin.
Deputy Michael Marston reported Dec. 14 that residents complained about “feral dogs running all over the area and worrying neighbors who would walk in the area.”
The property residents, William and Sally Douglas, said they were caring for the dogs, which continued to breed after a neighbor moved “and the dogs were left behind,” the incident report said.
William Douglas voluntarily surrendered the dogs to the Sheriff’s Office, and they were impounded by the Cortez Animal Shelter. Under Montezuma County ordinance 1-2010, it is unlawful for any person to harbor or possess a dog that is not under control.
The puppies were put to death in October, and the 10 adults in December, ending the case after five years.
According to Cortez Animal Shelter supervisor Jennifer Crouse, packs of feral dogs are rarely surrendered to the shelter.
“It was something where it had just gotten away from them,” Crouse told The Journal.
William and Sally Douglas bought the 160-acre property in 2005, according to county assessor records. Their modern, adobe-style home and attached two-car garage sits back from the road in a piñon-juniper forest. Nearby is a fenced horse corral and a barn containing farming equipment and hay.
William Douglas, a retired law enforcement officer, farms the land, which borders Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
Douglas told deputies that as the dogs arrived at his property, his wife, Sally, insisted that he build shelters and provide heat for them. He set up five igloo-style dog houses, tarp coverings and a propane heater.
Sally Douglas “cooked chicken, and hot dogs covered in cheese sauce,” for the dogs, according to the incident report, and the couple spent about $600 per month to feed them.
“None of these dogs were approachable or friendly,” the incident report stated. “Any attempt to walk toward the dogs would cause them to run away.”
The dogs were free to come and go as they pleased.
“They put domestic animals as well as people at risk,” Nowlin said. “That’s why we have an ordinance.”
Nowlin said that by law, the Douglases became the owners of the dogs once they provided food and shelter.
Managing the dogs became difficult, and the couple agreed to surrender the dogs to the Sheriff’s Office to be impounded at the Cortez Animal Shelter. Because the dogs were surrendered and not seized, the dogs became the property of the shelter, and the couple were not charged the usual impound and daily boarding fees.
The Sheriff’s Office released body camera footage of the roundup of the adult dogs.
The Sheriff’s Office described the dogs as feral, but Sally Douglas told The Journal they were not feral or wild because she was caring for them.
“I loved the dogs and cooked for them every morning,” she said. “They had a tough life being abandoned, so I was giving them a good life. They were healthy. It was horrible to see them dragged off.”
She said officers indicated the dogs would be adopted.
“They said they would go up to Denver for adoption,” Sally Douglas stated.
Nowlin explained if the state Animal Protection Bureau had become involved in a seizure of the dogs, the puppies would have been taken to Denver and might have been made available for adoption.
On Oct. 12, deputies Michael Marston, Nathan Horton and Cortez Animal Control Officer Taylor Marston captured the puppies, according to the incident report. The officers returned to the home two months later, on Dec. 21, and captured 10 adult dogs that had been contained by portable fences by the Douglases. The dogs acted aggressively while being captured and were taken to the shelter, according to the incident report.
Deputy Marston told The Journal that the dogs had runny eyes and noses, which are early symptoms of the canine distemper, a fatal disease.
But according to shelter records signed by Crouse, only one puppy that was euthanized exhibited a “runny nose,” and impound notes states the dogs did not show signs of disease.
Shelter impound documents show there were eight puppies, and 10 adult dogs. The incident report stated the total amount of dogs was approximately 20 dogs.
In addition to the conflicting reports, Nowlin said a voluntary animal-surrender form for the puppies was not filled out by the deputies, “but should have been.”
He said the correct number of dogs was not recorded in the incident report. A surrender form was filled out for the 10 adult dogs picked up Dec. 21.
When initially contacted by The Journal about the dogs Jan. 10, shelter supervisor Crouse declined to provide information.
The Journal then obtained the information after filing a CORA request with the city of Cortez.
According to the released shelter records, 18 dogs were deemed unadoptable and were euthanized.
A report by Crouse that The Journal obtained under CORA stated that when the eight puppies arrived Oct. 12, they looked to be about 8 weeks old “and appeared to be very wild and feral. They had to be handled very carefully by staff as to not be bitten.”
The puppies were vaccinated with a five-way shot and bordetella to prevent any disease spread while being housed at the shelter, stated Crouse, who was out of the office on vacation when the puppies arrived.
When she returned Oct. 17, the puppies were evaluated and deemed unadoptable. No medical testing was necessary, Crouse stated.
“They continued to show fear and aggression and were declining in mental well-being,” Crouse stated in a report.
Crouse said she contacted several rescues and shelters to see whether they would take the puppies, but after none agreed to accept them, “it was decided that euthanasia was the humane conclusion for these puppies.”
They were put to death Oct. 18.
Shelters contacted to take the dogs were the Colorado Department of Agriculture, Intermountain Humane Society, Ridgeway and Montrose Shelters, according to Lt. Andy Brock of the Cortez Police Department.
The 10 adult dogs impounded by the shelter Dec. 21 “exhibited extreme aggression, were unable to be handled safely, and were mutually deemed unadoptable and were humanely euthanized,” Crouse stated. “No visible signs of disease or infection were observed, so no medical testing was done.”
Brock added that the dogs were “a danger to everybody at the facility.”
Crouse told The Journal that she had no photos of the dogs, a function often taken during intake at shelters.
The shelter is a division of the Cortez Police Department, but it is licensed and regulated by the Pet Animal Care Facilities Act under the Colorado Department of Agriculture, said Brock, who is Crouse’s supervisor.
About half the dogs the shelter receives come from the county, Brock said.
Montezuma County Administrator Travis Anderson said the county has provided $27,500 per year toward the shelter budget, going back at least six years.
According to shelter records, the 10 adult dogs were euthanized on Dec. 21, the same day they were impounded, an option allowed under the law in specific circumstances.
Colorado’s Pet Animal Care Facilities Act, CRS 35-80-106, states pets held by an animal shelter and not reclaimed by the owner shall be held for a minimum of five days before it may be adopted or euthanized at the discretion of the shelter. The minimum may reduced to three days if the animal is deemed dangerous or nothing else can be done for them.
The restrictions change, however, when animals are voluntarily surrendered. The law also states that if the shelter acquires the animal from the owner or becomes the authorized representative via the surrender procedure, “the pet animal becomes the property of the animal shelter at the time of transfer of the pet animal, and the pet animal may be disposed of by and at the discretion of the animal shelter.”
In an interview with The Journal, Crouse stated the dogs brought to the shelter were “extremely aggressive,” trying to bite and unable to be handled.
“So then the decision was made amongst all of us that it would be better to euthanize them because of the safety of the staff and the animals,” Crouse stated. “So since they were surrendered, we did not have to hold them for any holding periods. They become our property as soon as they are surrendered to the shelter.”
Crouse added that a city ordinance protects shelter workers.
The “Disposition of Unclaimed Animals” section of the city ordinance states, “An animal may be euthanized at any time when in the judgment of the chief of police or his designated representative it is dangerous and represents a threat to employees of the shelter or other animals.” Crouse and the officers qualify as a designated representative.
A shelter may also euthanize a pet that experiences extreme pain or suffering after the shelter exhausts reasonable efforts to contact the owner, according to the state law.
The Pet Animal Care and Facilities Act, a Colorado Department of Agriculture branch, manages and oversees animal shelters in Colorado. The branch was adopted in 1994.
Olga Robak, PACFA director of communications and public awareness, said PACFA doesn’t set guidelines for whether an animal should be tested for disease before being euthanized. The euthanasia must be performed according to guidelines set by the American Veterinary Medical Association.
The dogs were evaluated by Crouse and experienced staff, Brock said.
Crouse has more than 20 years of shelter experience and training, Brock said, adding that a veterinarian’s exam is not required before euthanization.
A medical exam would cost about $60 per animal with an additional $50 per test, Brock stated in an email.
“If bloodwork was required, the total cost could be as high as $400 before any treatment is provided. This also would require staff to move often dangerous animals out of kennels into a transport van, to the veterinarian’s office and then back to the kennel. Exposing the animal, the kennel staff and veterinarian staff to possible injuries.”
According to a 2021 report by the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Animal Rescue Professionals Association, 81 adult dogs and 12 juvenile dogs were euthanized at the Cortez Animal Shelter Society in 2021.
That means the Cortez shelter has the highest number of euthanizations on the Western Slope.
In 2021, the shelter brought in 264 adult stray dogs, and 80 adult dogs were relinquished by owners, according to the report.
Free-roaming dogs are a potential threat to wildlife, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. They may chase or hunt small game, deer and elk, and cause stress and fatalities.
Unvaccinated dogs may carry diseases such as canine distemper, which can infect and kill wildlife and be transmitted from wildlife to dogs.
But the feral dog situation on Road 20 and possible signs of disease were not reported to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, according to spokesman John Livingston.
“I haven’t heard about that. I think we certainly always would like to be notified just to see what the potential impacts are to wildlife in that area,” he said.
CPW will work with city, county, state, tribe and federal agencies, along with members of the public, to address and resolve threats to wildlife, he said.
Vaccinating pets for distemper is critically important, Livingston said, because the disease is relatively common in wildlife communities that pets might contact, including raccoons, foxes, coyotes and skunks.
Feral dogs usually are unvaccinated, and if they come in contact with an infected animal like raccoons or skunks or coyotes, the dogs become vectors for spreading the disease even further.
“Anytime you get animals congregating in a pack like that, they are going to spread diseases quickly to each other,” Livingston said.
Farmington acts quickly during distemper outbreak
The 18 dogs euthanized by the Cortez Animal Shelter were not tested for disease.
If canine distemper is suspected in animal shelters, euthanization often is necessary because the disease is difficult to treat and is usually fatal.
In November, a distemper outbreak shut down the Farmington Regional Animal Shelter. More than 100 dogs were euthanized, said shelter Animal Welfare Director Stacie Voss.
Because the shelter has limited space for isolation areas, there “was an uncontrolled spread within the shelter,” Voss said. Most of the euthanized dogs were in the general holding area.
All movement of dogs in and out of the shelter was stopped to prevent further exposures. The Farmington outbreak initially appeared to be kennel cough, but as symptoms worsened, it turned out to be distemper.
Dog owners who fail to vaccinate their dogs and people who abandon dogs contribute to distemper outbreaks, Voss said. The COVID pandemic also might have contributed, because of shutdowns and because people were afraid to go out in public, even to a veterinarian.
When the outbreak was detected, the shelter announced publicly that it had taken in a large number of at-risk dogs from November to Aug. 1.
“We have taken in over 600 dogs and puppies, the majority of which are unvaccinated,” Voss stated in a Nov. 7 news release. “In an effort to save as many lives as possible, we open ourselves up to issues like we are seeing with this distemper outbreak. The public can help by spaying and neutering their animals, keeping their animals up to date on vaccinations and trying to find the owners of stray animals before bringing them to the shelter.”
The Farmington distemper outbreak was controlled, and it ended in December. The shelter has since reopened.
The public was notified of the Farmington shelter distemper outbreak and closure through news releases and regular social media posts, Voss said.
“The public needs to know,” she told The Journal. “It came from out in the community somewhere, people’s own dogs were in danger if they were going to public places or dog parks or that type of thing. People needed to know that there’s a possibility that there was the disease being spread in the community.”
– Journal staff
The feral dogs were roaming along the eastern border of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, a refuge for a variety of wildlife species and a winter range for deer and elk.
Wildlife are more vulnerable from dogs in winter, Livingston said.
“Protecting that winter range is really critical for their survival,” he said.
Winter food sources for wildlife lack nutritional quality, compared with spring and summer. Wildlife depend on built up fat reserves to compensate for the lack of food in the winter.
“When they are having to run to avoid a perceived threat, whether that’s human recreation, dogs off leash or in this case feral dogs, they burn valuable calories they need to survive to the spring,” Livingston said. “Dogs are capable taking down larger animals and causing injury.”
Deer and elk disturbed by dogs can hurt the health and survivability of fawns and calves.
In Colorado, the fine for knowingly or negligently allowing a dog to harass wildlife is $274, including surcharges. Any law enforcement officer in Colorado is authorized by state statute to use whatever force necessary if a dog is chasing, injuring or killing wildlife.
BLM Ranger Tyler Fous said his office received complaints about the feral dogs, but an investigating officer did not see the dogs or evidence that dogs had harassed or killed wildlife.
Carol Melton lives off Road 20, a rural area characterized by farms ad homes separated by sagebrush plains and pinon-juniper forests.
She was aware of the dog problem in the neighborhood, but had not seen them. The situation had gone on for years, and residents were worried, she said.
“We’re all keeping a close eye on our animals,” she said looking toward her free-range chickens. “The neighbors are worried about the pack attacking their pets and horses.”
She said people were glad when the people who first owned some of the dogs moved away. However, she said some that were left behind continued to breed.
“Poor things, they were probably starving and having to kill deer or look for whatever they could find,” Melton said.
The neighborhood has not experienced a dog problem of that magnitude before, she said.
Nowlin said it is difficult to determine how many of the dogs at the Douglases were from the neighboring property. Over time, the pack likely gained stray dogs from other places, he said. Marston believes stray dogs also migrate from McElmo Canyon via Trail Canyon and end up in the Road 20 neighborhood.
A public alert about the dogs was not issued, Nowlin said. “Distemper is out there,” and that is why people should vaccinate their animals, he said.
In Colorado, it is up to local jurisdictions to require vaccinations of pets. Cortez requires vaccinations, but Montezuma County does not.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture issues public warnings regarding distemper outbreaks, but the county did not tell the agency about this case, Nowlin said.
Canine distemper is not a reportable condition for health departments in Colorado because it cannot be transmitted to humans, said Montezuma County public health nurse Julie Jacobsen, in an email.
Canine distemper can spread easily among unvaccinated dogs and is usually fatal, Jacobsen stated.
Problems with roaming dogs are an issue in the county, Nowlin said, and are human-caused.
“A hiker’s dog chases a deer, which is illegal, then the dog is reported missing. OK, here we go, that’s how it starts,” he said, because it joins up with other lost or abandoned dogs.
Calls to the Sheriff’s Office regarding dogs have been on the rise in Montezuma County, according to sheriff data.
In 2022, deputies responded to 182 calls about dogs running at large, up from 125 calls in 2021.
In 2020 there were 40 calls for dogs at large, up from 22 the previous year.
The Douglases claimed the dogs began coming over from the neighboring property at 11092 Road 20 occupied by Kevin Kartchner, according to a sheriff report and interview.
In November 2019, an affidavit for a search warrant for suspected horse neglect was issued for 11092 Road 20. The affidavit written by Sgt. Bryan Hill documents that Kartchner’s neighbor, the Douglases, helped to feed Kartchners’ dogs and horses.
The affidavit stated that William Douglas said he had been feeding the livestock and dogs of his neighbors since 2017 out of concern for the animals’ well-being. He estimated there were 15 to 20 dogs on the property.
“He felt sorry for the animals and that is why he spends money and time to take care of them,” Hill said.
According to the affidavit, Hill reported he observed animal neglect for a horse with overgrown hoofs.
A warrant to seize the animal was sought by the Sheriff’s Office, with assistance from the Colorado Department Humane Society. The seizure was deemed unnecessary by the state veterinarian, and no charges were filed, Nowlin said, because Kartchner complied with a directive to improve care for the horses, including farrier care, providing hay where the horses reside, and keeping them on the property.
Nowlin said Kartchner was cited for dogs at large on March 18, 2021, but the case was dismissed.
District Attorney Matt Margeson said the case was dismissed because the court summons was issued for a day that county court was not in session. An Oct. 7 court memorandum advised all law enforcement that the court would not be in session from March 29-April 2, Margeson said. The memorandum advised that law enforcement not write any ticket summons into the court during the dates court was not in session.
For Sally Douglas, the dogs’ capture was a difficult experience. She said her goal was to vaccinate all the dogs, but had trouble finding a service to accommodate the situation.
She said she was led to believe the dogs would be put up for adoption. And she said she did not know they had been put to death until The Journal called her.
“I thought the roundup was brutal and uncalled-for,” she said. “They had no health problems, they were not sick. They were not a pack of wild dogs and mainly stayed on our property. I loved those dogs and tried to give them happiness. It is so sad how it turned out.”