FLORENCE, Ariz. » When a suicide bomber entered a U.S. military barracks in Afghanistan in February, it was not American soldiers but Afghan stray dogs that confronted him. Target and two other dogs snarled, barked and snapped at the man, who detonated his bomb at the entrance to the facility but did not kill anyone.
The dogs were from the Dand Aw Patan district, in the eastern Paktia province near the Pakistani border. One died of wounds suffered in the blast, and months later, Target and the other dog were flown to the United States by a charity and adopted by families. Target — who received a hero’s welcome, including an appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" — went to live with the family of Sgt. Terry Young, 37, an Army medic who witnessed the animals’ bravery that night and helped treat the dogs and several U.S. soldiers who were wounded.
The glory, though, was short-lived. Target, after learning to get along with the Young family’s other dog in Arizona, becoming accustomed to dog food and to using a doggie door to relieve herself, escaped from her yard. She was captured last week and euthanized by mistake.
"My 4-year-old keeps saying: ‘Daddy, bring Target home. Daddy, get the poison out,"’ Young, a father of three, said in a telephone interview, his voice choking with emotion. "Obviously, at first there was extreme anger and horror. Now that a couple of days have passed, the anger has been replaced by sorrow."
To say that Target was a celebrated mutt would be an understatement. Beyond caresses from Oprah, the shepherd mix had appeared on all the major television news channels upon her move to the United States and had won a local Hero Award as dog of the year.
Target, not used to being confined, escaped Friday afternoon from Young’s home in the San Tan Valley area in central Arizona. After being spotted on the loose, she was reported to Pinal County’s animal control. Target was brought to the county animal shelter in Florence, where she was held just like any other run-of-the-mill stray. Because she had no tag, microchip or license with the county, her photo went up on the shelter’s website Friday in hopes that her owner might respond.
Young spotted Target’s photo online Friday and paid the fee by computer to recover her. He mistakenly thought the shelter was closed for the weekend.
By the time Young arrived at the pound Monday, the shelter employee in charge of euthanizing animals that day had apparently picked the wrong dog out of the pen and administered a lethal injection, performing what the shelter referred to as "PTS," or put to sleep.
"I am heartsick over this," Ruth Stalter, the county’s animal care and control director, said in a statement. "I had to personally deliver the news to the dog’s owner, and he and his family are understandably distraught."
Barraged with criticism, the county ordered an investigation and placed the unidentified woman who euthanized Target on administrative leave.
"This is unacceptable," Stalter said, "and no family should be deprived of their companion because procedures were not followed."
The county offered the Young family the services of a grief counselor who specializes in pet issues and agreed to refund the recovery fee and waive any fines, said Heather Murphy, a county spokeswoman.
"We are not shying away from this," she said. "We screwed up, and we’re acknowledging that."
But Target’s fate has mushroomed into more than a family tragedy. Because of the dog’s fame and her heroics in battle, there has been an outpouring of grief.
A candlelight vigil is planned for Dec. 3 to honor Target. Young said he might spread the dog’s ashes, which were provided by the animal shelter, at a memorial service, perhaps at the park where Target used to frolic off leash.
A lawyer specializing in animal issues has also contacted Young, who said a lawsuit was possible.
Recalling those difficult days in Afghanistan, Young said that perhaps because he and the other soldiers were living like dogs themselves, they bonded with the strays that found their way onto the base.
"Our rooms could be mistaken for kennels with the cement floors, smell of urine and feces, razor wire and chain-linked fence all around the compound," he wrote for his hometown paper in Oklahoma, The McCook Daily Gazette, just days after Target joined him in August.
Target had her own Facebook page for those who wanted to follow her new U.S. life. Since word of her death has spread, fans have written of their shock and outrage.
"Nooooooooooo!!! So so sad 🙁 Thank you for all you did Target! Amazing that you survived a war, but not an American shelter … something is wrong here, baby," read one posting.
The page has been used to organize a write-in campaign to Pinal Country officials to express outrage at what happened. The No Kill Advocacy Center has used Target’s death to raise the profile of its campaign to end the euthanizing of millions of cats and dogs at shelters every year.
And the Puppy Rescue Mission, the organization that raised the several thousand dollars to bring Target to the United States, has expanded its mission to encourage pet owners to install microchips in their animals so they can be easily traced.
At the shelter where Target died, there is significant despair as well, county officials said.
"On Monday, I spoke with the director and if she was not openly crying, she was fighting back tears," Murphy said. "You don’t do this work if you don’t care about animals."
"They love when someone adopts an animal or an animal is returned to its owner. That’s the best part of the job," Murphy said. "But there is roadkill to pick up, and we recently had to pick up 154 cats from a trailer with no running water. These jobs are thankless even on a good day."
The official investigation into what happened will go beyond one employee’s error and look into the policies of the shelter, officials said. Already, one former employee has come forward to say that he almost euthanized the wrong animal on several occasions.
"They said, ‘Ah, don’t worry about it, mistakes happen,’ and we went on," the former employee, Jason Melroy, told local television station KTAR. "I sedated a dog that wasn’t supposed to be put to sleep. Thank God another officer found it."