Justin Scharr visited his nine-year-old lab/Rottweiler mix Harley inside the Minneapolis Animal Control facility earlier this week. The dog owner knew this would be one of the last times they'd spend together.
Scharr's insides were a tempest of opposing emotions. On the floor beside his pooch that he'd adopted as a one-year-old at the Humane Society so long ago that now felt like yesterday Scharr tried to ride good thoughts. Harley in the car, head out the window, came to mind. So did Thursday morning when Harley would be euthanized somewhere inside this same building.
Harley, officially considered a "dangerous dog" because of prior reports of aggression, had been quarantined since biting a mail carrier in late April. His death sentence came days later. Scharr bought time fighting to save Harley's life with the possible placement at a pet sanctuary.
His time would run out less than 48 hours from now. Scharr had tears drop down his cheeks in one moment, only to have Harley cracking him up in the next. Then the dog presented Scharr a gift when he needed it most.
"It was when basically I was apologizing to him. He gave me the paw and then gave me this look that as far and best as I could tell, it's hard to describe, he said, it's okay. I wouldn't want to go anywhere else but home with you."
Despite his city file documenting a dubious history and Harley's current "dangerous dog" standing, Animal Control Director Caroline Hairfield and her boss, Noah Schuchman, head of Regulatory Services, visited a pet sanctuary in May in Star Prairie, Wis., just across the St. Croix River.
Scharr had found Home for Life in the days after Harley's April quarantine. He hoped it could be an alternative, where Harley could live out the remainder of his days.
Hairfield initially balked at the option late in April. This despite Scharr's letter from Lisa LaVerdiere, Home for Life's executive director, saying they would welcome Harley.
"We believe that as an older dog, and as a secure facility with an experienced staff, we can offer Harley a safe and happy retirement home," she wrote, "while being responsive to the concerns of your department to keep the citizens of Minneapolis safe."
The facility is home to dozens of pets on 40 acres along the Apple River.
Officials would rethink their hard line stance. They made the drive to Star Prairie.
Somewhere between visiting the "proposed sanctuary" and the start of this week, something derailed the conversation. Maybe the sanctuary had second thoughts about whether the animal and staff would have a "safe and happy" relationship. Maybe insurance liability and signed waivers became impossible impediments.
"With Harley's extensive history of unprovoked predatory aggression towards humans — both adults and children — and his pack behavior," Hairfield's letter to Scharr dated May 30 read, "a sanctuary is not a safe placement [for] him or the people who would come in contact with him.
An Animal Control staffer treated Harley to a pork chop Wednesday night. Scharr says there are plans to start a nonprofit called "Harley's Hope."
"It would raise money for advocacy defense and support for citizens who find themselves in the same situation, facing dangerous dog declarations and destruction, and help them navigate the process," Scharr says. "It's important something positive comes out of this.
The behaviors that doomed Harley, Scharr believes, originated because the dog loved so much he lashed out when he thought the bond was threatened. At the same time, Scharr thinks his love for the dog blinded him to the animal's aberrant behaviors.
It's an awareness Scharr promises he will apply to Boomer, his other adopted dog with a history of aggressive behavior. The golden retriever mix's melancholy has lightened somewhat since Harley left. Scharr hopes he's approaching something around his old goofy normal by the time Harley's ashes are returned.
Harley loved camping. Scharr thinks Boomer will ride shotgun on the day he sprinkles the ashes out the car window as it motors on a lonely road near a campground at just the right speed so that Harley's ears would be flapping.
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