CHARLOTTE, NC (Michael Gordon/The Charlotte Observer) - The bad news for Angela and Tim Munson is that they have lost the expensive legal fight to free their puppy from a mandatory rabies quarantine.
The good news: Luna will be home for the holidays anyway.
Late last month, the Huntersville couple failed for the second – and apparently final – time in getting a judge to overturn the Mecklenburg County Health Department order that locked their tiny Chihuahua/miniature Dachshund mix away for six months.
However, Superior Court Judge Carla Archie's ruling upholding the health department decision came down shortly before Luna's quarantine expires. Health Department spokeswoman Rebecca Carter confirmed this week that "if healthy," the 8-month-old puppy will be freed Tuesday from the Matthews veterinary clinic where she's been kept since mid-June.
For the Munsons, the news is bittersweet. While they eagerly await Luna's return, they already have spent more than $20,000 on legal fees, expensive emergency room rabies shots for themselves, more than $3,000 in boarding fees, as well as other expenses – all because a bat got into their home last summer.
Asked Thursday about the final tab of their fight to free Luna, Angela Munson laughed, sort of.
"I promised my husband I wouldn't talk about money, but it's a shocking amount, shocking. It kind of made me realize that justice is not equally available to all," she said.
"During the first court hearing (in August), I thought we had won. I honestly didn't think a judge would tolerate what (the health department did). But two judges did. Considering the outcome now, I kind of feel we never had a chance."
The emotional case pitted the rights of a pet owner vs. the government's responsibility in controlling one of the world's most deadly diseases – even when the chances of Luna being infected appeared small. In 2016, according to state health statistics, Mecklenburg had 19 confirmed rabies cases in animals. Two of them involved bats.
Before dawn on June 14, Angela Munson got out of bed to investigate a downstairs noise. In the couple's kitchen, she found that her cat has cornered a bat. Munson says she used gloves and a dish towel to first pick up the invader and then release it outside. The bat flew away.
Luna, 8 weeks old at the time, was asleep upstairs in her locked crate, behind the closed door of the Munsons' bedroom – all of which turned out to be an irrelevant defense.
The next morning, Angela Munson called her vet to report the incident and learn if there was anything else she needed to do. The vet, as required by law, notified the health department. Matters began unfolding quickly after that.
In a courtroom, everyone is presumed innocent until proven otherwise. Rabies law doesn't work that way. If there's no bat to test, health officials say they must assume it was rabid. Since the Munsons couldn't say how long the bat had been in their home, the county operated under the belief that the couple and all their pets had been exposed.
Under state law, vaccinated animals suspected of being rabid are confined for 10 days of observation. Of the Munsons' five animals, only one had not been inoculated. That was Luna, who was too young at the time to get the shot. That brought the six-month quarantine into play – a period unanimously recommended by federal, state and county health experts. The couple's only other choice: Put their puppy down.
In court, the Munsons asked two judges for more discretion. Given that there was little chance of infection and that Luna had not shown any symptoms, they said the puppy should have been freed after 10 days.
First county Administrative Law Judge Selena Malherbe and then Archie disagreed.
In her order late last month, Archie said health officials had acted reasonably and that the Munsons' constitutional and due-process rights had not been violated.
As their legal fight dragged on, and the time they hoped to carve off Luna's quarantine dwindled down to weeks and then days, Angela Munson said she and husband hoped that the county could be convinced to reconsider its policy.
"They automatically apply the harshest sentences. They do not have to do that," Angela Munson said. "We hoped that they would actually start evaluating cases, so maybe the citizens and families of Charlotte won't get slapped with the harshest penalty possible just because a bat spends a few minutes in your homes."
Next week, the Munsons will retrieve Luna, who has now spent three-quarters of her life in seclusion. The couple doesn't know how the puppy will interact with them or their other pets, and they plan on letting Luna settle in for two weeks or so before they do any celebrating. That would put them right around Christmas.
Asked if she would do anything differently, Angela Munson had a quick response: She would not have followed the rules.