08/13/2007

Northern Calif. officer and K9 retiring together

By Tom Lochner
The Contra Costa Times

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. San Pablo has lost its popular K-9 Nero to a disabling illness and shortly will also lose the services of his human partner, police Officer Shawn Ray, who is struggling to recover from injuries he suffered in an accident that nearly killed him.

Nero, 4, a Belgian Malinois, was retired in late May after suffering kidney failure, ostensibly the result of an autoimmune disease. But some San Pablo officials, including Ray and Mayor Paul Morris, believe Nero was poisoned after eating dog food contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine, which they believe triggered an autoimmune reaction.

On Sept. 24, Ray's wife took Nero to a veterinary emergency room in Concord after his joints locked up, the result of kidney shutdown. "He was standing up for hours, whining," Ray said.

At the time, Ray was fighting for his life at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek after his car went into a spin on San Pablo Dam Road in El Sobrante and hit a tree the night before. The roadway was slick from an underground water main burst.

The accident shattered the left side of Ray's face and his right hip, broke all of his ribs and cracked his right femur, among other injuries.

"When I was in the ER, he was in the ER," Ray said. "They didn't think either one of us would make it."

Ray, 35, has had reconstructive surgery on his face. His hipbone is held together by plates and screws. At the San Pablo Police Department, where he is back on light duty, Ray walked briskly last week, albeit with a limp. He can do that only on level ground and for short distances. He cannot run, and walking on more difficult terrain is an ordeal, he said.

On May 21, the San Pablo City Council voted unanimously to retire Nero and transfer ownership to Ray for a nominal sum. Nero lives at home with Ray, as he did when he was on the force.

"It's really devastating ... to make this decision to retire him," Morris said. "He was a fine animal, very well trained. We like to say he had a good sense of humor. He was fun to be around."

Morris said Ray's fate is a human tragedy.

In June, when he returned to light duty, Ray pondered his future as a police officer without Nero.

"I would never want to work (with) another dog," Ray said at the time.

That interview took place before Ray knew he, too, would have to retire.

"I was hoping I would get better," Ray said last week. "But I can't climb stairs. And just wearing this belt hurts."

Police officers carry a firearm, ammunition, handcuffs, a baton and radio on their belts.

"This is all I've ever wanted to do," Ray said. "In an instant, it was taken away from me."

Ray grew up in Pittsburg. He joined the Army when he was 17, having heard that military experience gives a leg up in law enforcement. He joined the San Pablo Police Department in 2000.

Ray will turn 36 on Sept. 25 two days after he is scheduled to retire on full disability.

"I can't imagine what I'm going to do," he said, adding, "It's really weird both of us retiring at the same time."

Nero joined the San Pablo Police Department in 2004, replacing Caesar, a Belgian Malinois who died the year before after he escaped from his yard and was shot by a rancher. After San Pablo's other K-9, Ari, moved to Washington state, Nero was the department's sole dog. San Pablo recently acquired four canines Elgos, Ivan, Tango and Argos.

Nero did suspect and narcotics detection.

The department expected him to serve from nine to 15 years, the typical career span of Belgian Malinois. They are the canines of choice in San Pablo because of their longevity and versatility.

"He's a dual-purpose dog," Ray said. "He can search a building for suspects, and he's a good dope dog."

On a visit to the San Pablo Police Department last week, a frisky Nero played with an orange traffic cone, ran back and forth, and occasionally barked excitedly. He is on painkillers and "can't feel what's going on in his body," Ray said. "When he's not on his meds, he can barely walk."

Morris said he has urged the city to sue the distributor and possibly also the manufacturer of the dog food that Nero ate. No decision had been made as of late last month, according to City Manager Brock Arner. Last week, Ray said he no longer has any of Nero's dog food.

Before he got ill, Nero ate a high-protein, high-fat, wet food for working dogs from Nutro Products, Ray said.

The company's Web site contains a list of recalled dog and cat food products. Calls to the company's headquarters in City of Industry were not returned Friday.

Reach Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760 or tlochner@cctimes.com 

Copyright 2007 Contra Costa Times

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