Test on dead dog points to paraquat

Police unwilling to draw conclusions until more clues are explored

A urine sample from one of the 12 dogs suspected of being fatally poisoned in Southeast Portland's Laurelhurst Park earlier this month tested positive for the highly toxic, restricted-use pesticide paraquat dichloride.

Dr. Jonathan Akins, the manager of toxicology and environmental safety for Syngenta, a Swiss company that is the largest U.S. manufacturer of paraquat, told the Tribune Wednesday that he learned about the positive test result from an employee of Portland's Dove Lewis Emergency Animal Hospital earlier this week.

However, Akins said that he would not consider the identification to be '100 percent positive' until he personally had reviewed the toxicology data.

'All the information is not in,' he said. 'Chemists are going to be cautious and not jump at the first theory.'

Dove Lewis spokeswoman Devon Jahn confirmed that a hospital employee had spoken with Akins about the test but had intended for the conversation to be confidential.

If the dogs were poisoned with paraquat, that could be a valuable clue, since both the substance's sale and use are restricted.

But Portland police who declined to confirm Akins' information say they still are a long way from making an arrest.

'We're pretty close to square one in this case,' Portland Police Bureau spokesman Sgt. Brian Schmautz said Thursday. 'Finding someone who has poison, or the exact same poison, in their garage isn't going to get us there. We need witness statements.'

Schmautz said investigators have canvassed the park and talked to the owners of the dogs, which are believed to have become sick after eating poisoned meat at the park between July 3 and July 9. However, he said police still lack 'empirical evidence' that all of the dogs were poisoned in the same way and the same place. He asked anyone who noticed anything unusual at the park during that time period to contact the bureau.

Schmautz confirmed that urine from one of the dead dogs tested positive for poison. But he declined to confirm the identification of paraquat or to comment on other specifics of the investigation, including whether police had searched the park or contacted any licensed paraquat dealers or users.

Vet suspects pesticide

Multnomah County currently has no licensed paraquat dealers, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, which regulates paraquat and other restricted-use pesticides. Only 12 Multnomah County individuals and businesses are licensed to use it, and several of those appear to be multiple licenses for the same business interest. The licensees do not include Portland Parks & Recreation, which does not use paraquat in city parks, according to department spokeswoman Carolyn Lee.

No one working on the case had contacted the Oregon Department of Agriculture's pesticides division as of press time Thursday.

'I would think that if it (the alleged dog poisonings) really did involve pesticide, we would be involved,' said the division's administrator, Chris Kerby. 'We deal with a lot of situations where someone goes, 'Oh, it's pesticide.' We're kind of sitting here with a giant question mark: Why does someone think it's pesticide?'

Akins, who said that he initially contacted Dove Lewis after learning about the dog poisonings in the media, said the dogs' symptoms are consistent with paraquat ingestion.

'Dove Lewis is working on the theory that it was paraquat,' said Akins. 'It certainly looks that way,' he added.

Schmautz said the test was done by a laboratory at the University of California, Davis at the request of Dove Lewis, which had been treating sick dogs for more than a week when the case became an official criminal investigation July 14.

Jahn said that the death toll includes eight dogs that died or were euthanized at Dove Lewis and four, seen by other veterinarians, that died under similar circumstances and were recently added to the Laurelhurst fatality list. Jahn said she is aware of two other sick dogs whose poisoning at the park has not been confirmed.

Additional toxicology testing is being done.

A dangerous chemical

Under Environmental Protection Agency regulations, the purchase and/or use of paraquat is restricted to people and businesses who have obtained special state licenses. The pesticide, which is used to control broadleaf weeds in agricultural and other settings, is sold by Syngenta under the brand name Gramoxone and by another American manufacturer as Boa.

A spokesman for one of the Portland companies that is authorized to use paraquat as part of its state restricted-agricultural herbicides license said Wednesday that the company has not been contacted by Portland police.

Vici Ellis, office manager for Major Spray, said it would be more efficient for investigators to talk to companies that supply paraquat instead of those that are authorized to use it.

'We've never had any on the premises,' she said. 'It's always been dangerous. It's not a chemical that anyone with a brain in their head would use anymore.'

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