CHARLOTTE, NC (Michael Gordon/The Charlotte Observer) - That's the plea a Charlotte-area couple will make to a judge Wednesday, arguing that Mecklenburg officials wrongly placed their puppy under six-months quarantine due to the slimmest of chance she came in contact with a rabid bat.
In their complaint against the Mecklenburg County Health Department, Angela and Timothy Munson say there is no evidence that the bat was rabid or that Luna, their Chihuahua/miniature Dachshund mix, got anywhere near it.
All they know is that they've spent more than $17,000 on everything from legal fees, expensive rabies inoculations for themselves at a local emergency room and repairs to seal off their Huntersville home from future bat invasions, to more than $500 a month in boarding fees to a Matthews vet where Luna is serving out her sentence.
Luna, two months into the quarantine, has now spent half her life in the canine equivalent of solitary confinement. She is scheduled to be held until mid-December. The Munsons want Mecklenburg Administrative Law Judge Selina Malherbe to free the pup, saying that the health department's demand of either quarantine or extermination for Luna is illegal and inhumane.
Corey Parton, one of the Munsons' attorneys, said he would not comment on the case.
In response to a list of Observer questions Tuesday, health department spokeswoman Rebecca Carter said the county is "following state and federal guidelines" by ordering Luna's quarantine.
Malherbe's boss, Senior Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrison of Raleigh, says he's never seen a case quite like this one during his 32 years on the job. One one side, there's a couple's love for their adopted rescue puppy; on the other, the county's legal responsibility to guard against a deadly disease. In 2016, according to state health statistics, Mecklenburg County had 19 confirmed rabies cases in animals. Two of them involved bats.
According to the complaint, here's what happened:
In May, the Munsons adopted Luna, who was 4 weeks old and weighed 2 pounds at the time. A month later, while the pup was asleep upstairs in her crate behind the closed door of her owners' bedroom, Angela Munson went downstairs to investigate a noise. She found a bat in the kitchen. She put on some gloves, grabbed a dish towel and released the bat outside.
The next day, she decided to tell her vet about the incident, just in case her cat, which had been in the general vicinity of the bat, might require follow-up care. According to the court document, she talked to the office receptionist, detailing how Luna, who was too young for a rabies shot, was locked safely away while the bat was removed.
The vet called back that night, letting the Munsons know in a voice mail that the county's animal-control officer has been notified. Angela Munson, now panicking about the fate of her 8-week-old puppy, says she next talked by phone with Jose Pena of the health department. The complaint picks up the story from there:
"Mr. Pena, completely relying on the account of events he received (from the vet) refuses to listen to Mrs. Munson's version of what happened. Mr. Pena speculates that the bat could have been living in (the home) for years and could have bitten or scratched" Luna or her owners.
According to the complaint, he gave the couple a choice: Quarantine Luna for six months or have her put down.
Minutes later, there was a knock at the Munsons' door. When Angela opened it, an animal-control officer was waiting outside. Luna went into quarantine the next day.
The central questions in the case boil down to two: Did the health department act properly to a legitimate safety threat? Or did staff members overreact in ordering Luna taken from her home? Malherbe begins sifting for answers at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Her decision can be appealed to Mecklenburg Superior Court.
Under state law, animals suspected of being rabid are to be confined for 10 days. The six-months quarantine comes into play for nonvaccinated animals "reasonably suspected" of being exposed to the disease.
Luna, too young for a rabies shot, is therefore too young to be held for such a long time, the Munsons say. They argue that their dog should have been released June 25.