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Echo in the middle of everything. Like so many large breeds, the 170-pound dog appears to think he is a small dog. Courtesy photo.

Local couple Shawn and Sophia Vrooman are terribly afraid that by trying to do the right thing for their beloved mastiff Echo, they have done something terribly wrong.

The four-year-old canine named Echo, with what Sophia Vrooman calls “sweetest eyes and dignified but goofy disposition”, is now caught in a limbo that according to Ark-Valley Humane Society Executive Director Amber Van Leuken will end in his euthanization next Tuesday, or perhaps before.

Echo on an adventure with Sophia and Shawn Vrooman. Shawn adopted him from a breeder in Howard. Courtesy photo.

When they made the difficult decision to find him a new home due to their schedule (they own a year-old tree business called Tree Cycle that has them working long hours) the couple was assured by staff with whom they met that if Ark-Valley Humane Society couldn’t find Echo a new home that they could have him back rather than see him put down.

“We were very clear– we did not want Echo put down. We told them that we wanted him back if no other home could be found,” said Sophia. “We love him. We were just trying to do the right thing for him.”

“It was we two and two staffers in that meeting,” said Shawn Vrooman. “They assured us that they understood that we wanted him back if they weren’t successful in finding him a good new home.”

When told of Van Leuken’s decision to euthanize Echo, they dropped everything and rushed from Salida to the Humane Society. Not only were their pleas ignored, but Van Leuken called the Chaffee County Sheriff to have them removed.

Shawn (whose two cousins are in law enforcement and he’s done more than one ride-along with them) said they purposely waited, assuming that they would at least be able to present their case to the Sheriff. When the deputy showed up, Vrooman says he did not listen to them at all. Instead, he ordered them off the premises. When they tried to explain what was going on, they were told “leave or I put you in handcuffs.”

A Decision based on the Human Society’s “Kindness” Pledge

The couple said making the decision to see if the Humane Society could find Echo a new home was wrenching; and basely solely on the fact that they had sold their house to fund the new business, which had them away for long hours. They didn’t want Echo to be alone so much. They were also careful to select  Ark-Valley Humane Society, which advertised itself as a no-kill shelter that “helps keep pets with the families they love.”

Echo, wearing the harness that the Vroomans say the dog is used to wearing. Photo by Sophia Vrooman.

“First, we spoke on the phone. Then we went and talked with them in person,” said Shawn. “The executive director and operations manager weren’t there but we talked with two staffers – we thought they did represent the values of the organization.”

The Vroomans say they signed the Humane Society document with that understanding; that Echo could be returned to them if a home wasn’t found.

The day last week when they brought Echo to the Humane Society, they spent time getting him used to the staff.  “He was good, we and the staff were all playing with him.”

They explained to them not to put a choke hold leash on him, to keep on his collar harness (as a big dog of 170 pounds, the harness is better to slow him down). But after they left, that direction apparently wasn’t followed, and Echo did a warning nip.

They were told the staff tried again to switch out the leash, and the dog bit toward the staffer’s arm, drawing blood.

This ended with Echo being put in bite quarantine for 14 days. It occurred when Van Leuken was not at the facility.

After being told Ark-Valley Humane Society determined he wasn’t adoptable because of the incident, the Vroomans discussed Echo’s return with staff, explaining they would do whatever was necessary to get more training for the 170-pound mastiff, who like so many giant dogs appears to think he is a little dog.

They spoke three times with Operations Manager Johny Sandoval. Vrooman says he assured them that as long as Van Leuken, gave the green light, “You guys can take him back on Monday, Feb. 13 after his bite quarantine and can do some training.”

“Ark-Valley Outreach Manager Emy Luebbering said our application for four training sessions of behavior training was approved and sent us training vouchers to get him more training. I’ve got her email, said Sophia Vrooman, who showed the message to Ark Valley Voice. “We agreed to do anything we need to to get him back. We are committed that we want Echo better behaved and safe for society.”

They began calling to get training set up for Echo to begin as soon as they got him back. But then came the call from Van Leuken.

“We thought we were doing the right thing to let him have a family where people had more time for him than we do with the new business, but we realize that although our work keeps us so busy, that Echo is better with those he considers his people,” said Sophia. “We’re his people.”

According to the couple, Echo is under extreme stress. He’s a very large  (145-pound) dog in a small cage (This reminded me of basketball star Brittney Griner, the tall U.S. basketball star who was imprisoned in Russia in a cell where she could barely stand up). They can’t see him because he’s in quarantine, but the Vroomans say ” He’s alone, he’s terrified,  he’s not getting exercise, He’s a very emotional dog who needs attention.”

Mastiff’s are emotionally-attached  and protective of  “their people”

According to the American Kennel Club: “Mastiffs are patient, lovable companions and guardians who take best to gentle training. Eternally loyal Mastiffs are protective of family, and a natural wariness of strangers makes early training and socialization essential.”

This dog breed is among the largest of all dog breeds and many, including Echo, weigh more than most humans.  Shawn Vrooman adopted Echo as a puppy from a breeder in Howard.  When he met and married Sophia, who is from Berlin, Germany, Echo took to her immediately.

Those who know dogs, know that mastiffs are not Golden Retrievers (who many laughingly say would lead a burglar to the family valuables). Mastiffs are sensitive to human emotions. They tend to be one-family dogs. Historically they are dignified, loyal, good with children, and bred as working dogs.

The couple and Echo weathered a tough spot in 2020, when they had to leave Echo with friends. “When COVID hit, Sophia was visiting her family in Germany and couldn’t get back,” said Shawn. “We spent four months long distance on video chats– and Echo could hear her voice, but would look all over the house for her. Finally, I had to go over to help get her Green Card cleared up.

The Vroomans began to introduce Echo to more people and he’s a ham in front of the camera. Courtesy photo.

“We planned for Echo to fly over with Shawn. We got all his shots, got him neutered, but then they didn’t have a crate big enough to ship him in, so Shawn couldn’t bring him,” said Sophia. So they left Echo with friends in Salida. “He was great with them; they had a teenager, a young child, and two small dogs.”

“It was after we got back after that long absence that he got more sensitive,” said Shawn. “He reads people’s emotions. He needs a lot of attention – and he reacts differently to different people. He doesn’t like high-energy dogs; a kind friendly person or calm dog, he’s fine.”

There was an incident two years ago, right after they got back from Germany during COVID, when a coworker of Shawn’s showed up unannounced at their house on J Street. He came through their back gate and Echo pinned him back to the fence. “He was defending me,” said Sophia, who said she wasn’t expecting the coworker who surprised her and the dog. “He was protecting the space – he is bred for protecting the house.”

“He doesn’t have a record, nothing in any legal files about being aggressive prior to this,” said Shawn. “It took a while, but he got calmer, and we started to introduce him to more people.”

“In hindsight, we should have had him in more training,” said Shawn. ” We’re committed to doing more training, have him wear a muzzle, we’ll sign a liability waiver — whatever  we need to do to get him back.”

So, who’s making the decision to put Echo down?

What happened between Monday afternoon when the Vroomans talked with Sandoval, and Tuesday morning when Van Leuken called to announce Echo was being put down isn’t known.

Van Leuken told the Vroomans that “I’ve talked to some other authorities about this case and we all agree that he can’t be released back into society, he’s a danger, and we’re going to put him down next Tuesday.”

But who exactly are “some other authorities”?

Ark-Valley Humane Society is the official animal control facility in Chaffee County; supported by public funding that flows through Chaffee County government, but the county doesn’t run it. The Pet Animal Care Facilities Act (PACFA) Program is a licensing and inspection program dedicated to protecting the health and well-being of pet animals in facilities throughout Colorado. Facilities are supposed to meet PACFA standards for licensing.

PACFA says that a decision like this, at a facility that promotes itself as a no-kill (or rare-kill) facility, would be made with the county sheriff’s office.

But Sheriff John Spezze said he was unaware that he has that legal authority.

So who are these other authorities and who has decided to put Echo down?

It’s hard to tell because, on Thursday, the Ark-Valley Humane Society stopped answering their phone. An in-person visit at 12:00 noon on Friday revealed that Amber Van Leuken wasn’t there and won’t be working until Monday, February 13. Querying a staffer at the reception desk about who the authorities are who would make a decision about euthanizing a pet in their care, she responded that this was confidential information. No one was available to talk with me.

“It feels like we’ve been tricked – we thought we were giving Echo a better future, and now this led to him being locked up and now put down,” said Sophia, choking up. “She claims that her staff would never have told us we could have Echo back if he wasn’t placed with a family, but that’s not true. They used what we disclosed against us … if he was a little dog, he’d walk out of here with us.”

“Signing the release form doesn’t mean that we didn’t want him – we wanted the best for him and we didn’t want him to be alone all day,” said Shawn. “We’re checking on good training, we’re willing to sign anything to release them from liability to put him back into our family. But they aren’t giving him any option except death.”

The image of a giant dog in a small cage gives new meaning to the phrase “a caged animal.”