It was April Fool's Day, ironically, when Tracy Morgan's troubles began. That was the day she lost her dog, Brandy.
Morgan, a 22-year-old travel agent who works in Burbank and lives in Chatsworth, has been embroiled in a dispute with the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation since her fluffy white 1 1/2-year-old Shih Tzu was picked up by animal regulation officers not far from Morgan's apartment.
No City License
Morgan says she tried to get Brandy--normally a house dog that wore a collar with a name tag and Morgan's phone number on it but did not have a city license--out of the pound, but had no success.
On April 9, the dog was adopted by a Van Nuys couple for $65.
So far, in spite of several attempts by department officials to get Brandy back for Morgan, the couple, whose identity animal regulation personnel will not divulge, refuses to give up the dog in lieu of a replacement.
Morgan doesn't want another dog, either. She wants her own back.
Next week, Tracy Morgan plans to file a claim against the City of Los Angeles for damages--for the value of the dog and for the pain and suffering she said she has endured because of losing it.
Morgan also is concerned about her pet's health, explaining that she bred the dog to her grandmother's male Shih Tzu in March. "We didn't know yet whether it took," she said. "But I was going to let her have a litter and then have her spayed. Now I don't know what's happening to her."
The sequence of events is complex.
It seems, according to Morgan, that Brandy escaped from Morgan's patio at the apartment complex sometime after she left for work that morning, and was taken by animal control officers to the city's West Valley Animal Shelter on Plummer Street in Chatsworth.
Taken to Shelter
Elsa Lee, assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation, said that the small dog was taken to the shelter after "a person who lives on DeSoto called and said 'Come pick up this stray dog in my yard.' "
Morgan said that on the afternoon of April 1, a friend of hers stopped by her apartment and found that the dog was gone.
Benson, Morgan's other Shih Tzu, a 5-month-old puppy, was still there, but not Brandy. After checking with neighbors to ask if they had seen the dog, the friend went to the West Valley shelter and found Brandy there.
"He called and told me she was there, so I went right over after work," Morgan recalled. "I get off at five. I went back (to the kennels where the dogs are kept) and looked in the cages and there she was. I petted her and then the kennel man told me to go up to the front desk so I could claim her."
Morgan says the receptionist at the shelter's front desk told her she had to have personal identification with a photo, such as a California drivers' license or California ID card, in order to claim her dog. But Morgan did not have either, having been mugged and had her purse stolen two weeks earlier in a supermarket parking lot.
"I lost all my ID, plus my paycheck," Morgan said. "I had just cashed my paycheck. When I went to the shelter I just had a checkbook--I didn't have it with me when my purse was stolen. The checks had my name and address on them, but the woman said only an ID with my photo was acceptable," Morgan said. "I was upset and furious and I left. I went home to look for Brandy's AKC (American Kennel Club) papers and pictures of her."
Her First Dog
Morgan bought Brandy in August, 1983, as a birthday present to herself. She said that her family had had several dogs at their farm near Cincinnati, Ohio, when she was growing up, but that Brandy was the first dog she ever had owned. She paid $275 for the pedigreed Shih Tzu.
"She was 6 weeks old when I got her," Morgan said. "I got her for my 21st birthday. She went everywhere with me. She used to like to hop in a bag and I'd carry her. She was so little. Benson (the puppy) misses her, too. He's lonesome."
Both Morgan and her friend insist that they went to the shelter on Monday, April 1, but Lee said that department records say neither of them came to the shelter until Tuesday, April 2.
"I don't care what they say, they're wrong. That's a lie," Morgan said, obviously upset. "I went there right after I got off work."
Assistant general manager Lee said that according department records from the shelter, Morgan came to West Valley on April 2 and did not come back until Tuesday, April 9, the day Brandy was adopted by the undisclosed couple.
Morgan fumed again when she heard that.
"I didn't go Tuesday (April 2) because I had school that night," she said. "I go to school Tuesdays and Thursdays."
Morgan attends West Valley Occupational Center in Woodland Hills, where she is studying accounting.
"I found her papers (AKC registration) and brought them back with some pictures on Wednesday, and the receptionist--there was an older woman there, too--looked briefly at them and said, 'I don't make the rules. You'll have to get some form of ID with a photo.' "
Morgan said she called the shelter on Friday, April 5, and said she would get a duplicate drivers' license and come in Monday after the Easter holiday to get her dog. "I didn't get the woman's name," Morgan said. "But she said that if that didn't have a photo, it still wouldn't do any good. She told me Brandy would be up for adoption on Tuesday, the ninth. I told her I'd be there at 5:30 after work on Tuesday to adopt the dog. Then I got mad and hung up."
By Tuesday at 5:20 p.m. when Morgan arrived at West Valley shelter, her dog was gone.
A kennel attendant, she said later, told her that her little dog had been adopted by a couple at 8 a.m. The cost was $65.
"They all knew me over there (at the shelter)," a tearful Morgan said this week. "I raised such hell they all knew she was my dog. I had no idea they would let somebody else have her, since they knew she was mine. I just thought, well, if I don't have an ID, I'll go adopt her myself."
When Morgan called West Valley shelter Wednesday morning, April 10, she finally reached animal control officer Linda Gordon, who is serving as supervisor there while her superior is on vacation.
"Lt. Gordon was very nice, very understanding," Morgan said. "She said she was very sorry and she didn't understand how this could happen. She said they had made a mistake and she would call the new owners personally and explain and try to get the dog back."
Gordon, according to Morgan, told her the following day that she had called the couple and they refused to give up Brandy, saying that they were "too attached" to her.
Visited in her office by a reporter and photographer this week, Gordon said she was not permitted to talk with The Times specifically about the situation. She had no records available to look at, she said, because her superiors downtown had asked that the Morgan file be sent to Department General Manager Robert Rush's office. "You'll have to talk with them downtown," Morgan said. Rush was not available for comment on the Morgan case.
"I wasn't personally aware of the situation until it already had happened," Gordon said. "And I'm sorry I wasn't aware of this particular problem. I don't think this kind of thing happens very often. It has happened, but we have gotten dogs back before (in similar cases)."
Gordon said their caseload of dogs at West Valley is heavy every month. Checking her latest computer printout, she said: "In April we processed 827 dogs. That's more than 200 a week. But we did try several times to get Tracy's dog back. I don't know why they would not give the dog back."
Gordon said the usual city animal regulation department policy is to ask for personal identification from persons trying to claim their dogs. She did not say that identification positively had to include a photograph.
Asked for her interpretation of what identification city animal control officers would accept in such a case, Elsa Lee said the department "would prefer something with a photo on it."
Lee also said that the report she had made no mention of Morgan having bank checks with her name and address on them.
"It is department policy to have proper ID," Lee said. "That could mean a picture ID, but I am inclined to believe that's not the case. And I didn't see anything in the file about Tracy having the dog's papers before she came on the day the dog was adopted. If she came with the papers before, why would we keep the dog?"
Those are some of the questions members of the Department of Animal Regulation's advisory commission soon will be asking too.
Learning of the case after Morgan wrote a letter to an animal regulation department commissioner, commission president Rita Hoisch said that the commission planned to "look into policies relating to the release of impounded animals to owners at the next meeting." The group meets on May 20.
'Any Bill With Her Name'
"I just wish Tracy would have come back with a telephone bill or a water and power bill with her name and address on it," Lee added. "Any bill with her name and address on it. We prefer a photo, but if that's not possible, I think that would have worked."
Hearing that, Morgan said: "Nobody ever told me that. I wish somebody had. I wish I had known when this started what I know now. I would have come back with anything. I would have done anything. Now they say I can have the $65. I don't want the money, I want my dog."
Gordon said she offered Morgan the $65 that was collected for her Shih Tzu in the adoption procedure, under a provision contained in Los Angeles Municipal Code for the Department of Animal Regulation.
According to standard department policy, Gordon said, adult dogs and cats are kept seven days, although the law actually requires them to be kept only three days.
"The policy is seven days," Gordon said. "And then the next day they can be auctioned. Except in the case of puppies and kittens because they are so subject to disease. They're kept three days and auctioned the fourth day.
"Every animal sold out of the animal shelter is sold at public auction," she continued. "If there is just one person (interested in a certain animal), he pays what the city has in the dog or cat. If there's more than one person, then they bid. And the bidding starts at $11 and goes up in increments of $1."
The latest word on the Morgan case came Tuesday afternoon from the undisclosed couple from Van Nuys, according to Lee.
"They called in response to Mr. Rush's letter," Lee said. "He wrote a personal letter to them on Friday asking that they reconsider and give back the dog. But they told me today that they were unwilling to do that. They also feel they are being harassed and mentioned that they had talked to an attorney.
"We tried so many times to get the dog back and that looks like their final answer," she added. "They've been spoken to on the phone several times, and one of our district supervisors went there (to their home) personally to talk to them. We offered to assist them in getting another of the same type, purebred dog with papers."
Reached the Limit
Lee said that she feels that the animal regulation department has gone about as far as it can go in trying to correct the error and reclaim the dog for Morgan.
"I don't want the department to have any more of a black eye over this than it already has, and I think we've done the best to get the animal back. I think that's all the effort we can do. I do feel very sorry about the whole thing. It's really sad. I wish everyone was a little more cooperative and compassionate. But the bottom line is that the people are unwilling to give up the dog."
Morgan, for her part, is unwilling to give up her quest to be reunited with Brandy.
Throughout the passing weeks, Morgan said she has been contacting everyone she thought might help her reclaim her pet, but had to stop dealing with the matter during office hours because her boss said it was interfering with her work.
"I only got this job in February, so I'm pretty new and I don't want to lose it," Morgan said. Two days before Morgan started her new job, her car was stolen and she hasn't gotten it back either.
Her father bought her a used Pinto to drive to work, and she is paying him back each month.
"I don't care about the car," she said. "I just care about my dog. I would take her back and forget it, but if I'm not going to get her back, I won't quit."
Not Over Yet
That does not appear to be Tracy Morgan's last word on the matter.
As of Tuesday afternoon, she officially had a lawyer, Gloria Allred, who had heard about the case from a friend while attending a cocktail party, and called Morgan.
"They (the animal regulation department) need to know this kind of conduct is not to be tolerated, so they will take more care not to do this to anyone else," Allred said. "This is not the kind of case I ordinarily handle, but when I heard about it, I felt it was very unfair and I could assist her in filing a claim.
"My daughter, who is about Tracy's age, has a dog," she added. "And she would have been distraught if something like this had happened to her dog."
Allred said that Morgan's claim against the city would be for damages for the value of the animal and for Morgan's pain and suffering because of the loss of her pet.
"It's hard to stipulate money in this matter," she said, "to put a figure on what losing a dog you're attached to is worth. But it will be in the ballpark of $50,000. What Tracy really would like, though, is the return of her dog."
Allred said she and Morgan have not decided whether to file a lawsuit against the undisclosed new owners to seek the return of the dog, but the lawyer said that she had notified Lee by phone Tuesday that Morgan's claim against the city would be filed early next week.
"You hate to be that way," Morgan said sadly. "But I've learned a lot from this whole experience. I think they (animal regulation officials) thought I'm just a young girl and I don't have any money for a lawyer, so I'll go away. Well, I've got to get a little tougher in life and be more demanding. You can't act like everybody is trying to take you for everything. But you can't just stand by and let it happen, either."