Dogs’ illness sparks legal fight between owner, rescue group

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For the Love of Dogs owner Max Fitz-Gerald is facing a felony charge in a dispute over two dogs he refuses to return to their owners after providing potentially lifesaving veterinary care.

Wilson County sheriff’s deputies served Fitz-Gerald with a Nash County arrest warrant on Monday. He is charged with felony larceny of a dog after his nonprofit rescue group took possession of two Great Pyrenees dogs, siblings Princess and Regis.

Clark Page of the 7000 block of Jordan Road, which has an Elm City address and is in southern Nash County near the Rocky Mount-Wilson Regional Airport, said he and his wife just want their pets to come home.

“We are very mild-mannered people,” Page said. “Surely if he came around and said, ‘Hey, you know what, I really haven’t explained myself,’ if he made arrangements for us to get the animals back, we would welcome that, and it would go a long, long way in saving the court a lot of time and effort.”

Fitz-Gerald said he saved the dogs from severe illnesses that would have resulted in death and cannot return them to an elderly couple unable to provide them with proper care.

“I don’t want the court case to go away,” he said. “I want to shed the light of day on this situation. I want to shed light on the problem so other people don’t fall into this same morass. The dogs and the cats deserve to be cared for. That’s all I’m interested in.”

Page said he agreed to allow For the Love of Dogs to take Princess and Regis to a veterinarian, but he did not surrender either of the dogs and did not sign paperwork transferring their ownership.

Updates on the rescue group’s Facebook page complete with video clips show both dogs appearing to be severely ill. Princess is shown lying motionless with matted, yellowed fur. Fitz-Gerald had them taken to Quartet Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Hospital in Cary for treatment.

Fitz-Gerald said both dogs had heartworms, which can be fatal if untreated.

Princess had the tick-borne disease ehrlichia and a urinary tract infection, was severely dehydrated and had “live fire ants and other bugs crawling around” in her fur, according to Dawn Tucker, For the Love of Dogs’ rescue coordinator.

“She is not sedated in this video,” Tucker wrote in a post to the group’s Facebook page, For The Love of Dogs NC. “She’s barely able to stand and has had a seizure earlier today. She is only two years old. This is beyond sad.”

Regis suffered from a high fever and had difficulty walking in addition to having matted fur and parasites, according to the rescue group.

Asked about the dogs’ condition, Page disputed Fitz-Gerald’s claims and said he has veterinary records showing “all their shots are up to date through February of 2018.”

“He’s done this in a vindictive sort of way,” Page said. “He was going to do a service for us, and I wish he had been stopped. These dogs were not whatever he says; it’s not true.”

Fitz-Gerald said videos of the dogs on Facebook and records from the veterinary specialists who treated them show that they were on the verge of death.

“I simply want to help the dogs,” he said. “I have no interest in attacking this couple. I wouldn’t know them if they walked in the house right now. But the dogs are paying the price, and I simply want to intervene in this. I’m sorry for them, but the dogs don’t need to pay the price with their lives. They need to be given every chance medically to live.”

Page said the purebred Great Pyrenees dogs are worth $3,000, noting he “hate(s) to say cash value on a dog” and he and his wife want them returned. He says Fitz-Gerald’s offer to help treat Princess’ illness turned into a crime when he refused to give the dogs back.

“They left here for a purpose,” Page said of the dogs. “We thought that we could trust the man, but the man is a thief.”

Fitz-Gerald said Princess and Regis are still recovering from serious illnesses, and he cannot in good conscience expose the animals to neglect by returning them to Page.

“I’m very sorry for the people, but they didn’t do right by the dogs,” he said. “That’s the bottom line. The dogs are paying the price for their inability to care for them.”

Fitz-Gerald received a $1,500 unsecured bond on the felony charge, and attorney Will Farris accompanied him to his first appearance Tuesday morning in Nash County District Court.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Oct. 5 in Nashville.