TIME animals

Someone is Tempting San Francisco’s Dogs With Poison Meatballs

Meatball Sick Dog
In this 2013 photo released by Animal Internal Medicine & Specialty Services, a 7-year-old dachshund named Oskar is treated in San Francisco. AP

Poisoned meatballs have appeared and started sickening pets for the second time in eight months

Just before July 4 last year, 72-year-old Dorothy Schechter left her San Francisco home with her little brown dachshund like she always did. They started their usual walk to get her newspaper in the Twin Peaks neighborhood, a hilltop where one can see the hearty panorama of San Francisco’s sprawl and, on a clear day, across the bay to Oakland. “All of a sudden, I saw something funny on the ground,” she recalls. Her 7-year-old dog, Oskar, ate what she thought might be stones.

An hour later he was seizing. Eight days later, he was dead.

What Oskar ate turned out to be poisoned meatballs that someone appeared to have deliberately hidden around the popular dog-walking area. Several other dogs got sick. Authorities that July found several meatballs laced with the highly toxic chemical strychnine, interviewed residents and plastered up warning signs. But even after local police were joined by an investigator from the Environmental Protection Agency, officials never named a suspect. “There were no leads on who was doing it,” says Rebecca Katz, director of the city’s animal control department. “The issue seemed to have gone away, so it just sort of fell off the radar.”

Now the meatballs are back.

On Feb. 21, Katz got her first calls reporting suspicious wads of meat in the same neighborhood—one of them from Schechter, a concert pianist who had lived alone with Oskar and now resides with a new dachshund, A.J. She and A.J. were on a walk with a friend and his dog when both animals snapped alert, noses in the air. Her pet tried twice to eat mysterious objects on the ground. “I put them in the palm of my left hand,” she says. “It’s the poisoned meatballs again.”

Authorities have now found dozens of meatballs around the area, hidden in places like the underbrush where dogs are likely to sniff them out before owners are any the wiser. The EPA investigator is on the case, along with two investigators from the San Francisco Police Department and officials from animal control. The meatballs are currently being analyzed to confirm that they also contain strychnine, but a veterinarian who pumped the stomach of a dog sickened after walking in the Twin Peaks area this past weekend suspects those tests will be positive. “There’s one sick person out there that is trying to destroy the calmness of our wonderful area that we live in,” says Schechter. “Somebody has it out for the dogs in this area. … It’s just—why?”

This time, various organizations are offering rewards leading to the arrest and conviction of the “perpetrator(s) of the poisoned meatballs in the Bay Area.” Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman has donated $23,000 to the cause. “We San Franciscans take pride in the dog-friendly nature of our city,” Stoppelman says in a statement. “My dog, Darwin, is a big part of my life. … I can’t imagine losing him to this kind of thoughtless cruelty.”

Katz says animal rights groups have contacted her asking that her department put up cameras around the area where the poisoned meatballs have twice been found, but she says the city cannot constantly film the residential street due to privacy constraints. And even if a local citizen decides to set up their own stake out, there was nearly an eight-month gap between these events, leaving little surety about when the perpetrator might strike again.

When it comes to motive, Katz says that the fact the meatballs were found in the same place may suggest a vendetta against a particular dog or dog-owner rather than a desire to create chaos or panic among the city’s pet owners. “Even if you don’t like a dog or you’re frustrated with a neighbor’s dog peeing on your lawn or anything else, it’s just frightening behavior,” Katz says. “It’s an indicator of some kind of a sociopath that could hurt people as well. It shows a disregard for any kind of life.”

City officials have again put out alerts to the public. Katz says that, this being a second incident, she expects investigators to make an even more “vigorous pursuit” than last time, but so far there are no fingerprints on the meatballs or any strong leads. A city police spokesman says investigators are interviewing possible witnesses and neighbors, as well as searching for anyone who might have video footage that would help the case. Both incidents are being dealt with in a single investigation, though police have not ruled out the possibility of different perpetrators.

After Oskar passed away in July, Schechter says she received hundreds of letters of support from all over the world, and good Samaritans started a fund to help her pay what amounted to $28,000 in veterinarian bills, which forced her to dip into her retirement funds. Oskar, she says, had helped her get through her son’s death in 2009, a decade after her husband passed away. “I have gone through an awful lot of bad things in my life. And I think each one of them tend to make you a little bit stronger,” Schechter says. “You can’t let it get you down. You can’t become embittered by it, because then you’re of no use to anyone else at all. … We have to solve this.”

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