Maria del Refugio Escobar gladly signed the form given her by the D.C. dogcatcher Tuesday afternoon. At last, she thought, a warm and loving home would be found for the friendly little brown-and-white basset hound that had moved into the alleyway beside her Northwest Washington home a month ago.
But by 10 o'clock that night, the dog was dead.
The dogcatcher mistakenly had assumed it was an unwanted house pet being abandoned rather than a lost hound or a stray to be picked up for adoption. He checked the "can-be-killed" box and handed the form to Escobar, who cannot read English. She signed it.
And Winston, a four-year-old, full-bred basset and champion show dog who had wandered away from home July 5, was put to sleep, along with 56 other dogs at the city pound.
"I had no idea this was going to happen to that dog," Esobar said the other day, choking through her tears as she talked to a translator. "I thought the dog would be well cared for. That was all I wanted."
Anne Michaels, a self-employed movie producer who owned Winston and had offered a $300 reward to anyone who found and returned him, also was surprised. o
"I was hoping the next time I saw him, he'd be safe in my arms," Michaels said. "How wrong I was."
Authorities at the D.C. Animal Control Facility blamed dogcatcher Levy Richardson for the dog's death because he did not make sure that Escober understood what she was signing. He should have called someone to explain the form to Escobar or found someone else to sign it, said Ingrid Newkirk, Richardson's supervisor.
"He was in a rush to get home, perhaps. He wasn't doing his job properly. That's for sure," she said.
Escobar's 11-year-old daughter, Maria, insistently asked Richardson in English whether Winston would be safe.
"He told me the dog would be okay," said Maria.
Richardson said he thought the dog, which had a collar but no tag, belonged to the Escobars since it had been roaming around near their home for a month. He also said he did not think to call a neighbor to interpret the form and denied he was in a hurry to get home.
"I was just trying to do my job," Richardson said the other day. "I'm sad, too, this happened."
The show dog had been missing since the July 4 holiday weekend, when he and his seven-year-old brother, Oliver, jumped the fence at the Foxhall Road home where they were staying while Michaels was away. A neighbor found Oliver and took him home. But Winston was not found.
A week later, Winston, had found himself a new home in the alleyway beside the Escobar's home at 3310 Brown St. NW.
Next-door neighbor Edward Hicks took a liking to the dog, feeding it daily. But early this week, Hicks decided it was time for the dog to leave, so he phoned the pound.
Mrs. Escobar, a babysitter with five children, said she would have kept the dog, herself, but could not afford it.
"That's why we were so happy the dog would have a new home," she said.
The D.C. Animal Control Act requires the pound to hold stray pups for at least seven days before committing them to the death barracks. But Winston wasn't granted this reprieve because the form Escobar signed indicated he had an owner.
Michaels said she was irritated that pound authorities did not check the facility's lost-and-found records before they killed the dog. According to Newkirk, who was not at the pound Tuesday night, had they done so they would have spotted three reports of missing bassets -- one of whom was Winston.
But the pound staff is overworked, Newkirk said. When the woman who exterminates the dogs challenged the dogcatcher's story, he insisted that Escober owned the dog. Richardson said the dog had a violent temper and should be killed.
Richardson was transferred out of the animal control facility after Winston's death.
Michaels said she plans to file suit against the animal control facility in an attempt to draw more attention to the fate of animals in the District.
"You can't cry over spilt milk, but you can make a symbolic point," she said. "You can hope people hear you when you cry, and remember the awful feeling of losing a pet you loved like your own family."