Three women who faced misdemeanor charges related to the deaths of seven puppies in a hot van last summer were granted acceptance into a court diversion program and won't face trial, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Brian Buckelew ruled on Tuesday.
Pets In Need employees Patricia Santana Valencia, shelter operations manager; Margaret Evans, former behavior manager; and Ingrid Hartmann, former human resources manager, transported more than 20 dogs and seven 12-week-old puppies in a transporter vehicle from a Central Valley animal shelter to the Palo Alto shelter in 90-degree temperatures on Aug. 2, 2021. They discovered the seven puppies had died between the time they were last checked at a Los Banos rest stop in Merced County and when they arrived at the Palo Alto facility at 3281 E. Bayshore Road. The trio faced misdemeanor charges of failure to give proper care and attention to an animal and inhumane transport of an animal.
In a heartfelt and sympathetic statement, Buckelew said he would grant the judicial diversion, which amounts to six months when Valencia and Evans must not have any new law violations and must perform 50 hours of community service. For Hartmann, who was the human resources manager and was brought along for an orientation ride, the judge granted six months of no new law violations, but no community service.
Buckelew said he "chewed through" the case and thanked all involved for their professionalism. He considered the multiple letters of support for all three defendants, noting that he received 17 letters on behalf of Evans detailing the highest degree of compassion, care and honor that she brought to the job, letters that Buckelew said he found "moving."
Valencia, he noted, also received multiple letters of support from veterinarians and many professionals who worked with her over the course of 20 years. The letters described her "exemplary" work and pointed out that she saved the lives of 8,152 cats and dogs over the years and had no prior negative events of this kind, Buckelew said.
Calling the duties of those who volunteer or seek professionally to protect the welfare of pets and animals "work of the highest calling," the deaths of the seven puppies was "a tragedy everyone wishes didn't happen."
Instead, he likened the incident to a mishap where someone falls asleep at the wheel and causes a crash. It was possibly "avoidable, but not negligent," he said.
Given the women's long histories in animal rescue, he said they wouldn't have allowed the dogs to be intentionally harmed.
"If there was even a hint" of knowing what they were doing would result in the puppies' deaths, he would not grant diversion, he said.
The diversion statute "recognizes that human beings are imperfect," he said. "Sometimes, an accident is an accident," he said.
Buckelew also was swayed by reports that although the temperature in the van was undeniably hot, the puppies might have already been ill because some had reportedly vomited prior to transport. Video showed them happily playing in a pen in the backyard of a Chowchilla volunteer's home before they were transported by the volunteer to meet the Pets In Need employees and their van.
The case also received a large amount of negative media attention, which he hoped "doesn't send a chill through this public service."
In an Aug. 1 email to the judge, attorney Charles J. Smith said a Palo Alto Daily Post story in late July "contained inaccurate information yet again." News stories claimed the back of the van had no air conditioning while the women rode in the air-conditioned cabin in the front, which he said is false.
Pets In Need's Mercedes-Benz transporter van had a factory-installed air-conditioning system in proper working order that was a "single zone AC" system. There were two optional air-conditioning units available for the rear cargo area, but the transporter didn't have that option installed.
The transporter has no separation between the cabin and the cargo area that would cut off air flow, but he acknowledged "undoubtedly, the single-zone system was burdened with all the dogs and the three women on a brutally hot day," he wrote.
A standard not met in veterinary best practices manuals for the transport of animals was the requirement of a thermometer in the transport area of all vehicles, he said. Pets In Need has since remedied the problem, he said. The organization also followed the recommendation that the animals receive water every four hours; the trip took less than two hours and the puppies were checked in Los Banos, he noted.
"Ms. Evans and Ms. Santanavalencia, the two employees experienced in transport fully accept responsibility for this tragedy and have second-guessed and 'Monday-morning quarterbacked' the decisions they made that day. They have to live with the fact that they could have, and should have done better. The tragedy was avoidable. But the tragedy was not intentional based on conduct that these two women knew or should have known endangered the puppies' lives. It cannot be ignored, and must be emphasized, that they were rescuing these puppies so they wouldn't be euthanized at kill shelters in the Valley but, instead, find loving homes as loving pets. The last thing they ever wanted was to act negligently, unconcerned or uncaringly and allow their neglect or lack of care or concern to be the cause of the deaths of beautiful animals that they have devoted their lives to for many years," he wrote.
Valencia, who was present at the hearing, wept after the judge's decision. She declined further comment outside of the courtroom. The women will return to court on Nov. 3 regarding the diversion program.