The mornings are the worst for Matt Van Vranken. Being “early people,” the mornings were when Van Vranken would take his dog, Boni, for a walk and cook him his breakfast of boiled chicken.
“It was a ritual to make him breakfast, get him going, take our walk,” the 51-year-old said Wednesday morning. “That was our thing. He was a barker. He would bark if breakfast was not on time.”
Two weeks ago, that routine ended, leaving Van Vranken’s home in West Bradenton empty. Boni, a 17-year-old black Labrador mix, got loose from the house on Dec. 21. The dog, who didn’t have a collar or microchip, was picked up by someone near Van Vranken’s home and taken to Bradenton Veterinary Emergency before being transferred on Dec. 22 to Manatee County Animal Services.
He was euthanized that same day, violating the shelter’s five-day hold period for strays.
“That was my best friend,” Van Vranken said, standing in his kitchen where pictures of Boni hang on the wall along with a sign that says, “A spoiled rotten black lab lives here!”
Boni was Van Vranken’s birthday present when the pup was just 10 weeks old. Over the years, Boni liked to go swimming and loved to ride in Van Vranken’s truck.
Boni’s black leash still lies on the table by the front door. His water and food bowls rest on a wooden block near the screened glass door to the back yard, and his red plaid dog bed is still next to the Christmas tree.
“I think every morning he must have walked this yard 75 times,” Van Vranken said.
That was my best friend.
Matt Van Vranken, Boni’s owner
As Boni got older, sleeping became how he spent most days. But even with a bad hip and a perineal hernia, Boni was not suffering, Van Vranken said. He gave his 17-year-old buddy Cosequin DS joint health supplements three times a day.
“As long as he had them pills, he was fine,” Van Vranken said. “There wasn’t anything wrong with him.”
But when Boni ended up in the county shelter, his condition was described differently. An examination done by Carmen Lucena, former veterinarian at Animal Services, concluded he was suffering.
According to the exam records from Dec. 22, the same day the dog was transferred to Animal Services from Bradenton Veterinary Emergency, Lucena wrote that the dog had a poor quality of life:
“Surgery can be an option to repiar (sic) perineal hernia but very geriatric patient with numerous problems and poor quality of life. Patient seems to be in pain and suffering.”
Boni was “humanely euthanized,” but because it was prior to the five-day stray hold period, Animal Services conducted an investigation, according to Sarah Brown, Animal Services chief.
“After a thorough investigation, we have concluded that MCAS protocols regarding the euthanasia of stray animals were not followed,” Brown said in an email Wednesday to the Bradenton Herald. “Those protocols reflect our organizational philosophy that the euthanasia of animals is a serious matter and should only be considered as a last option. This was an isolated incident, but the breach of protocol in such a sensitive area of operation is unacceptable.”
There is nothing more important to me than the welfare of the animals in our care.
Sarah Brown, Manatee County Animal Services chief
Unable to comment on personnel matters, Brown confirmed on Tuesday that Lucena’s last day with the county was Dec. 29.
“In addition to personnel changes that have been made, I will be consulting with area veterinary experts to implement an additional set of procedures to further ensure that this situation is not repeated,” Brown said in the email Wednesday. “There is nothing more important to me than the welfare of the animals in our care. The reputation of MCAS in our community demands that we remain accountable for our actions.”
On Wednesday morning, Van Vranken repeatedly emphasized that he wants to ensure others don’t have to go through the same loss.
“They called and apologized to me and said they made a mistake and that it shouldn’t have been done,” Van Vranken said. “You don’t just kill something. I just don’t understand.”
Manatee County Animal Services states it is a no-kill shelter, but Van Vranken doesn’t understand how that is possible.
“There has to be a method to the madness,” he said. “It’s not about my grieving. It’s about the next dog that goes up there. The other places in this town don’t take them down like that.”
As he choked up, Van Vranken just shook his head. Pointing to a picture hanging behind the Christmas tree of Boni laying on a bed, his owner remembers his only companion in the house for the last 16 years.
“I think it is something that needs to be addressed,” Van Vranken said. “Somebody needs to address this issue. It can’t keep going on. That five days would have been the difference of him being right there.”