Owners’ fight to free Luna from rabies quarantine moves to a higher court

Owners’ fight to free Luna from rabies quarantine moves to a higher court

CHARLOTTE, NC (Michael Gordon/The Charlotte Observer) - A Charlotte-area couple who say their puppy is being held under a long and unwarranted rabies quarantine have pushed their legal fight to free her to a higher court.

Luna, the 20-week-old Chihuahua/Mini-dachshund mix owned by Tim and Angela Munson of Huntersville, has been kept at an animal clinic in Matthews under a county Health Department order since mid June – one day after her owners found a bat in the kitchen of their home.

Luna was upstairs at the time, locked in her crate behind the closed door of the Munsons' bedroom. Angela Munson took the bat outside and released it. Seeking medical advice for her animals, she contacted her veterinarian who reported the case to the health department.

Because bats are a frequent rabies carrier, state law demands that the health department assume the winged invader in the Munson home was infected with the deadly disease. As such, health officials also had to assume that the Munsons' five animals had contact with a rabid animal.

Vaccinated dogs and cats get a partial waiver. But Luna, then only 8 weeks old, was too young for a rabies shot. Again citing state law and after checking with N.C. rabies officials, the Health Department gave the Munsons two choices: euthanize the puppy or agree to a six-month quarantine at a vet's office.

The Munsons chose the latter, but they also went to court hoping to spring their puppy. Earlier this month, Mecklenburg Administrative Law Court Judge Selena Malherbe refused, ruling that county health officials had followed the law. Malherbe did order the health department to drop its ban on the owners' visits with their pup, given that the Munsons had taken shots to block any infection.

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Dozens of pet owners from around the country have rallied to the Munsons' cause, saying the health department's handling of the case amounts to government overreach. On the other hand, rabies is almost always fatal. In 2016, according to state health statistics, Mecklenburg had 19 confirmed rabies cases in animals. Two of them involved bats.

The puppy is now scheduled to be freed the week before Christmas. But the Munsons, who estimate that they have spent close to $20,000 on everything from legal and boarding bills to rabies shots for themselves and sealing their home from future bat entries aren't willing to wait.

They want a Mecklenburg Superior Court judge to overturn Malherbe's ruling, and they're asking for a quick hearing to reduce as much of Luna's confinement as possible. The puppy has now spent more its life at the vet's office than it has at the Munson home.

"This a critical stage of development in Luna's life, and our clients know that three more months in captivity greatly increases the chances that the puppy that was taken from their home won't be the same one that's returned to them," said Charlotte attorney Corey Parton, who is representing the couple.

The health department's attorney, Robert Adden of Charlotte, said Wednesday that the agency had no comment about the appeal.

Because Luna was too young to get a rabies shot, she should have been excluded from the state requirement for the six-months quarantine, Parton says. He argues that the more appropriate step was for the dog to have been freed after a 10-day observation period.

The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta says dogs and cats who appear healthy when they bite someone can be confined for observations by their owners for 10 days.

"No anti-rabies prophylaxis is needed," the federal agency says on its website. "No person in the United States has ever contracted rabies from a dog, cat or ferret held in quarantine for 10 days."

But the CDC recommended policy for unvaccinated animals exposed to infection is highly similar to the county's:

"Unvaccinated dogs, cats, and ferrets exposed to a rabid animal should be euthanized immediately. If the owner is unwilling to have this done, the animal should be placed in strict isolation for six months. Rabies vaccine should be administered to the animal upon entry into isolation or one month before release to comply with preexposure vaccination recommendations," the agency says.

In his appeal, Parton also argues that there is no "substantial or reliable" evidence that the bat in the Munsons' kitchen was rabid or that Luna was exposed to the animal's saliva or nervous system. He wants the Health Department's policy to be amended, given the circumstances of Luna's captivity.

"If this can happen to them, it can happen to any family in the City of Charlotte," he said, "and our clients don't want to see anyone else go through what they've been through."