By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Who Killed Tootsie?
And should her bereaved owner get paid for emotional distress? Veterinarians and the pet industry sure hope the answer to the question is ‘no’
The earliest known depictions of the breed of dog known today as the Maltese date back to some 500 years before Christ. These dogs’ characteristics include a miniature size, rounded skulls, dome-shaped noses, striking black eyes and silky white coats. They are popular, especially among women, for their cuddly, playful dispositions.
Tootsie was a pedigree Maltese. Given that she stood less than 10 inches tall and weighed 3.5 pounds, you might not expect her to command respect. But Tootsie was born from the union of show-dog champions and carried herself accordingly. Those who knew her say she was intelligent, quirky, fearless, well-behaved and affectionate.
But Tootsie had health problems: She’d undergone heart surgery as a puppy. Beginning in about 2001, she’d developed laryngeal paralysis, a problem that increasingly worried her owner.
Gail M. McMahon, of Aliso Viejo, spent untold thousands of dollars visiting veterinary clinics in hopes of curing Tootsie’s breathing problem. For years, nothing worked. Then, in late 2004, she learned of Dr. Diane R. Craig. During a consultation, McMahon told the Tustin-based veterinarian of her unique bond with Tootsie. Indeed, she told the vet that Tootsie was the most special dog she’d ever known and of her fear of losing her.
“What I recall is [McMahon] complained that her dog would be happy, happy, happy, jumping around, and then suddenly collapse,” Craig said in an interview. “This happened over and over, and she’d be rushed to an animal hospital.”
The vet recommended corrective throat surgery—tying back one of the dog’s two laryngeal folds. For the next six months, McMahon considered the option. The operation had risks, namely a 20 percent chance of Tootsie catching aspiration pneumonia. After gaining assurances of Craig’s time-tested surgical skills and promises that her beloved, fragile Tootsie would receive high-quality pre- and post-operation care, McMahon took her 6-year-old pet to Craig’s animal hospital on the morning of June 14, 2005.
Just after noon, a heavily sedated Tootsie emerged from the successful two-hour surgery. She was placed in a cage in the back of the hospital to recover. Before the end of the day, Craig called McMahon and said there had been minor post-op complications, but not to worry; the dog would be home in a few days.
But at 12:30 the following morning, a nurse saw fluid—including blood—oozing from the dog’s nose and mouth.
Within hours, Tootsie was dead.
A suspicious McMahon ordered an autopsy. Eventually, she took claims of negligence and a cover-up to Orange County Superior Court. In her view, Tootsie’s killer was the person charged with her safety: Craig.
McMahon’s battle to prove her theory has touched off a flurry of legal briefs between animal-rights groups on one side and veterinary and pet-industry groups on the other, all over a seemingly simple question: If someone kills your beloved pet, can you put a reasonable price tag on your own pain and suffering?
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While Tootsie’s death was under legal review in May, a story appeared in The Orange County Register bearing the headline “Tustin Vet Aids Dog’s Recovery From Gunshot.” Craig, the heroine of the article, had operated on and saved Noah, a dog that had been found starving and shot in the face in Riverside County. The Register article—which failed to mention Craig’s role in the ongoing legal battle that had the attention of veterinarians and animal-rights activists nationwide—supplied an Internet link to Craig’s business, Veterinary Surgical Specialists Inc.
Craig’s lawyer, George M. Wallace, said questions about his client’s character are answered on her veterinary website. There, you’ll find Noah’s story is one of the many Craig can tell. She displays pictures of various content-looking dogs she has saved over the years at her state-of-the-art facility, located across Edinger Avenue from the old Marine Corps Air Station hangars.
Craig’s website also demonstrates that she is an animal lover in her personal life. Three cats and a Labrador retriever live with her, her husband (equine surgeon Dr. Richard Pankowski) and their three children. While growing up in San Francisco and the San Fernando Valley, she owned several show dogs and racehorses. She chose a veterinary career after completing degrees at the University of California at Davis and an internship and surgical residency at Cornell University in New York. Craig opened a private veterinary practice in 1988. In 2007, she served as president of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association.
A brochure titled “When Your Pet Needs Specialized Surgical Care,” tells Craig’s prospective clients, “We care as much about the welfare of your pet as you do.”
Such advertising translated to reality for Tootsie, according to Craig. She said in an interview that the dog received “excellent” care.
“The last time I saw Tootsie after surgery, she was wagging her tail,” the vet said. “She was cheerful, so I was as surprised as anybody to learn that she died.”
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In June 2005, McMahon was an Orange County lawyer whose hobby for more than two decades had been breeding and showing Maltese dogs. She’d been undeniably good at it, winning numerous contests. She has described her relationship with Tootsie with a single word: “love.” In anticipation of the dog’s arrival home from surgery, McMahon had placed dog treats in the house. But after midnight, she received the death notification from the animal hospital.