Tainted food leads to death of Washougal woman’s dog

4 other dogs sickened; product recalled; owner wants action, to warn others

By Adam Littman, Columbian Staff Writer

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WASHOUGAL — Nikki Mael wanted to give her dogs a treat.

It was New Year’s Eve, and one of her dogs, Tinkerbell, had just had surgery to remove a cyst from her bladder, so Mael, 43, of Washougal went to the pet store and bought them Evanger’s Hunk of Beef dog food. Within 15 minutes of eating the food, her four pugs — Tinkerbell, 3, Tank, 10, Tito, 2, and Talula, 12 — and her daughter’s dog, Pedro, 10, started acting odd, Mael said.

The dogs were walking around like they were drunk, Mael said, bumping into things. Mael scooped the dogs up and put them in the car. They were breathing but otherwise unresponsive, she said. She took them to Columbia River Veterinary Specialists at around 8 p.m. and stayed there until 10 a.m. the following morning. She left to grab some things from home, but when she returned the doctor told her there was no hope for Talula, and they had to put her down.

“She was the boss,” Mael said of Talula. “She made sure everybody was OK. She was the leader of the pack. I think they miss her. They walk around the house looking for her.”

The other four dogs are home now and back to their energetic selves, jumping up to greet visitors and climbing over Mael while she sits on the couch. Tito had multiple seizures after eating the food and is still on seizure medication, Mael said.

After hearing about Talula’s death, Evanger’s, based in Wheeling, Ill., had other cans of dog food from the same lot tested, but nothing turned up.

Mael sent some cans to an outside lab in Michigan, and those tests showed traces of pentobarbital, a drug used in euthanasia, typically for house pets and horses. 

That was in late January, and on Feb. 3, Evanger’s recalled five lots of the Hunk of Beef dog food. There can be anywhere from 3,500 to 5,000 cans of food per lot, according to Joel Sher, vice president at Evanger’s.

“We don’t have pentobarbital in our plant,” he said. “We don’t have any poisons in our plant.”

Sher said it was particularly odd for pentobarbital to be in the product, because cows aren’t typically euthanized. He added that the company sent the food out for DNA analysis, and the results showed beef, as well as horse DNA.

Evanger’s officials figured the pentobarbital came from their supplier, which Sher didn’t want to identify at this time. He said they figured the supplier was at fault because the Hunk of Beef is supposed to have just one ingredient: cow meat.

“It’s like it says: a hunk of beef,” he said.

Sher said they didn’t hear of any other issues with the lot of food from customers with sick pets.

On Feb. 17, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration put out a release cautioning pet owners against feeding their pets Evanger’s Hunk of Beef and said an investigation is still ongoing. On the same day, Evanger’s announced another recall, this time of 60,000 cans of Hunk of Beef, which Sher said is the company’s top-selling product, that were produced around the same time.

While Evanger’s and Mael haven’t touched base since Talula’s death, they’re now heading down similar paths. In Evanger’s most recent recall release, it notes, “we have taken it upon ourselves to lead the campaign to force the FDA to put an end to allowing drugs like pentobarbital to enter the raw material stream.”

Mael said one reason she wanted to go public with her story was to get stricter regulations for pet food and make sure they’re enforced. She said she reached out to U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, but hasn’t heard back.

Still, Mael doesn’t think the two sides will join forces.

“I will not talk to them,” she said of Evanger’s. “I’m dealing with the FDA and government officials because they’re the ones who can get things done.”

Sher said the company tried to reach out to Mael, but she didn’t respond. The company got information about which lot the dog food she bought came from by contacting the store itself.

“They just needed to know their food poisoned my dog,” Mael said. “That’s it.”

An online crowdfunding page was set up to help Mael pay the veterinary bills. She set the goal at $5,800, which is what she was told the bills would be. Evanger’s donated the full amount, and with the other donations, she raised a total a little less than $8,000.

The page was shut down after complaints online that Mael raised too much, and rumors spread about the death of Talula. Mael’s friend, Lisa Walters, said that as Mael has gone public, people online have insinuated she poisoned the dogs herself, or that she threw a big party on New Year’s Eve and the dogs ate a bunch of cakes and lollipops. One woman in Utah even posted a video of her online eating the dog food to show there was no problem with it.

Walters said all those conspiracies are crazy, and that Mael loves her dogs, as well as all animals.

“It’s scary to put yourself out there,” Walters said. “She’s doing it because she really cares and wants to make sure animals are eating safe food.”