story & photos by ARNO HOLSCHUH
HEATHER MULLER OF SACRAMENTO loved her dog Ernest, a fluffy white 6-year old mutt, and Ernest loved the outdoors. [in above photo]
So when Muller left the confines of the big city to visit the open spaces of Humboldt County, she always took Ernest along. Muller normally camped at Patrick's Point, but this year she decided to look for another spot -- for Ernest's sake. "They're not too dog-friendly at Patrick's Point," she explained.
In late July she chose the county campground on the shore of Big Lagoon and decided to do some fishing. The clerk at a nearby tackle shop told her there was a secluded beach on the north side of the lagoon where she might have luck with steelhead.
When she arrived at the gravelly beach, she found something strange in the water --foul-smelling, blue-green foam close to shore. Muller, who described herself as "totally paranoid" about the health of her pets, asked two nearby windsurfers if the substance was harmful to dogs.
"The lady said it was just an algae bloom -- nothing to worry about," Muller said. So she let Earnest loose to do what dogs do best -- frolic in the water.
Later that night Ernest began vomiting, but Muller wasn't worried. "In my experience, that's what dogs do -- puke."
Twelve days and more than $1,000 in vet bills later, Ernest died. First he stopped eating, then he stopped drinking water, then she took him to the vet where he was diagnosed with liver failure. Shaking, dehydrated and in pain, Ernest was made as comfortable as possible until Muller finally made the most difficult decision a pet owner can: She put him down.
Ernest's death -- and the deaths of at least four other dogs in the county this year -- can almost certainly be traced to a rare phenomenon called blue-green algae poisoning. Actually a photosynthetic bacteria, blue-green algae (or cyanobacteria) are present in many bodies of fresh or brackish water. Normally they exist in such low concentrations that they cannot be detected without laboratory equipment. But when certain conditions are right, they experience an exponential growth in population, reproducing until they form a layer of sticky, smelly scum.
Even such a population explosion -- called a bloom -- is not normally dangerous. Only certain strains of the bacteria produce toxins, and then only when they are decomposing.
It is impossible to prove beyond a doubt that blue-green algae caused the dogs' deaths because a conclusive tissue test does not exist. But a consensus is growing -- among private veterinarians, state and county officials, and the owners of the deceased dogs -- that it is by far the most likely cause.
What has Muller and other dog owners angry is not that the naturally occurring algae exists. It is that neither county nor state officials put signs up after Muller warned them that something was seriously wrong at Big Lagoon.
Muller, a public relations professional, spent a good part of what remained of her vacation crawling up and down the chain of command in county parks, state parks and the Department of Fish and Game. Throughout the month of August she tried to get some agency to simply alert other dog owners at the beach. She was repeatedly rebuffed. In the meantime, other dogs were meeting the same fate as Ernest -- liver and kidney failure, likely caused by the ingestion of blue-green algae.
Muller's first stop after Ernest was diagnosed July 28, while he was still alive, was the campground. She spoke with the camp host, who put her in contact with a county parks ranger.
"I gave him a copy of a toxicology report and he said he would take it to his boss," Muller said. The next day she received a note saying that state and county parks, which share jurisdiction over Big Lagoon, had decided to post the signs.
"Shortly thereafter, Ernest died, and I went down to see if in fact the signs were up -- and they were not." When Muller called county parks she was told that the county was going to wait for approval from state parks so they could coordinate their actions.
State parks, in turn, went to the state Department of Fish and Game for advice. Fish and Game, Muller learned, had recommended against putting signs up.
"I called Fish and Game and talked to a woman named Karen Kovacs. I asked her what the deal was," Muller said.
"When we initially got the call on this, it was so out of the blue I had never even heard if it," said Kovacs, a senior biologist supervisor with Fish and Game. Kovacs said after county parks related the story to her, she contacted Humboldt State University scientists and Fish and Game veterinarians. According to Kovacs, they said there was no information to indicate that the blue-green algae was likely to cause injury to wildlife.
"The question was, do we have any proof? And at that time, there wasn't any," Kovacs said. Given that warning signs might have negative side effects, such as scaring away tourists, she suggested that warning signs not be posted.
"Do we want to concern people unnecessarily? There are a lot of people who recreate up at Big Lagoon," she said.
In fact, Kovacs said, she has yet to be convinced that blue-green algae was the cause of death.
"There is not enough there so far to convince me that it is [blue-green algae poisoning]," she said. "The only thing for sure is that [the deaths] occurred. Is that enough to show there's a smoking gun called blue-green algae in Big Lagoon? No."
But the most important thing to realize is that the decision was never hers to make, Kovacs added.
"I can't tell them what to do," she explained, because Fish and Game does not have jurisdiction over the beach. Kovacs only becomes involved if wildlife is injured, and there has been no evidence that has occurred.
"The Department of Fish and Game is a resource agency for the state of California. What purview do we have over domestic dogs?"
Kovacs' early August recommendation may not have had the power of law, but it was enough to stop the state and county parks officials from putting warning signs up.
Bob Anderson, the state's supervising ranger for Big Lagoon, said after he spoke with Fish and Game, "I wasn't really sure what we had. We didn't really know if this blue-green algae was really the cause or not."
Anderson asked his superiors how to proceed. "We were told to monitor it and not put any signs" unless it was clear that blue-green algae was harming animals at Big Lagoon.
Of specific interest were wild animals. "It was a matter of monitoring the area to see if we found any [injured] wildlife and we never did."
Again the issue of jurisdiction complicated matters.
"State parks owns quite a bit of land around the lagoon but we don't own anything on the water itself," Anderson said. "I believe that's Fish and Game [jurisdiction]."
"If we had had some conclusive evidence, that would have helped. We would have put the signs up if we had known for sure."
What the state parks needed was proof and proof was hard to come by. Because the toxin is unidentifiable in tissue samples, you can never conclusively say it has caused a dog's death. Evidence can only be collected from the periphery -- the dog's symptoms, the weather and the appearance of the substance. All of those seemed to point convincingly to blue-green algae. But to a scientific mind, those factors were just so much circumstantial evidence.
"I don't know that anyone ever established that it was blue-green algae that caused those dogs to die," said Frank Shaughnessy, who teaches biology at HSU.
Shaughnessy said that while there is enough evidence to make the blue-green algae poisoning scenario plausible, there wasn't enough to reach a conclusion. He looked at samples from Big Lagoon and found blue-green algae present -- but even that was not conclusive.
"These organisms will `bloom' and some of them are known to be toxic, yes. But there are a whole bunch of strains that are quite beneficial to our environment," he said. Other strains, like spirulina, are even eaten by humans as a health food.
There are some indicators that this may be a strain that usually does not flourish in Big Lagoon. The lagoon did not breach in the winter of 2000-2001, so the normal exchange of salt water from the Pacific and fresh water from the streams feeding the lagoon never took place. The lack of breaching also meant that the outgoing steelhead run was trapped in the lagoon, contributing an excess of nutrients to the water.
An excessively fresh, rich water supply may have caused a strain of blue-green algae always present in background levels to explode. Put another way, if there had been a freshwater-friendly toxic strain, this year was its chance to shine.
"That could be the correct scenario," Shaughnessy said, but still doubts remain.
"The bacteria needs to be looked at and identified all the way down to species and strain" in order to reach a scientifically valid conclusion about its potential danger.
However, outside the realm of science, a different standard should apply, Shaughnessy added. Signs should be posted "just to err on the side of being cautious." And if there is a danger to dogs, there is a potential danger to humans as well, however small.
"I would suggest that dogs are vertebrates and so are we. We've got livers," he said.
Muller was becoming increasingly frustrated trying to convince the authorities of the argument to err on the side of safety. Then mysteriously, in the middle of August, the bloom seemed to clear.
"Bob Anderson calls me and leaves a message saying the bloom has cleared, they're not going to be putting any signs up at this time, and they will continue to visually monitor the water," Muller said. "That's when I said to hell with it and went home."
What neither Muller nor the parks administration knew was that the algae is very elusive; visual monitoring is not enough to conclude the bloom has cleared.
Assuming blue-green algae had caused the dogs' deaths, it would be almost impossible to tell when the danger had abated, Shaughnessy said. "If the bloom were completely gone, there wouldn't be a problem, true. But I would be doubtful that the bloom was completely gone.
"What's probably happened," he said, "is the population number has dropped down to a lower level so you don't see it or smell it when you walk along the water." That means it could come back at any time.
What's more, the algae can drift into coves and other hard-to-spot areas and form high concentrations there. Sometimes particles will sink to the bottom, where they are difficult to detect. "There can be hot spots," he explained.
The only way to tell conclusively would be to take hundreds of water samples, each of which would cost about $70 to process. And because no government agency was even clearly responsible for the situation, there was no one to pay for that testing.
Maggy Herbelin and her husband, Charlie [in photo at left] had just returned from Japan when their dog was poisoned at Big Lagoon Oct. 13. Charlie, an avid windsurfer, was eager to get back onto the water with his best buddy, an Australian shepherd-English setter mix named Wabi. [in photo below right]
"That evening, we went out to dinner with some friends and Wabi threw up in the car," Herbelin said. "The next day she was off her feet and that night she started throwing up blood." The couple took Wabi to an emergency clinic, where the dog was rehydrated and diagnosed with liver cancer.
The next day, their veterinarian told them he was curious and wanted to send blood samples to a lab for analysis. When the results came back later that day, they confirmed that Wabi's liver had been seriously damaged. By that time, the dog was dead.
"When I saw that report, I said, `Let's do an autopsy,'" Herbelin said. "[The vet] said OK, because a couple of weeks prior he had another dog come in with the same symptoms." When the results came back, they indicated Wabi had probably died of blue-green algae poisoning.
Herbelin was already on the case. As chair of the Humboldt Bay Watershed Advisory Board, she was familiar with water safety issues and wanted someone to test the water at Big Lagoon. She sent samples to Shaughnessy, who confirmed the presence of blue-green algae.
"I called Fish and Game that day, where I got a runaround," Herbelin said. "I was told they had no interest in looking into the matter at all."
But shortly thereafter, someone finally did develop an interest. Brent Whitener, who works with the county Health Department's vector control unit, was at the Big Lagoon county campground Oct. 22 checking out a possible case of rabies when he heard about something odd.
"I was advised that the campground host at the park had lost his dog. That's when I began my investigation," he said.
His first stop was to call the local veterinarians, from whom he was able to confirm that not one but at least five dogs had died after swimming in the lagoon -- and the blood test results all showed liver damage.
It was enough to convince Whitener.
"The people who owned the dogs said the dogs didn't have an opportunity to eat poisonous mushrooms. They seemed to swim in the lagoon, and since they were water dogs they wanted to lick and groom themselves when they got out, quite literally eating the algae."
Oct. 25, just three days after Whitener first learned of the problem, the county public health branch posted signs on the county beaches at Big Lagoon. Nov. 9 state park officials agreed to allow the county to post signs at the state end of the lagoon -- where the poisonings were occurring -- although they declined to post signs themselves.
Why did five dogs have to die in order for signs to be put up? The answer lies in a second, larger question: Who is responsible for the welfare of domestic animals?
It isn't public health, according to Whitener.
"What we have here is a veterinary health threat rather than a [human] public health threat," he said. "The nature of blue-green algae is to lay up on the shore with a bad smell and a pond-scum appearance." Because of how distasteful the stuff looks and smells, humans are not likely to ingest it.
The only reason Whitener suggested posting signs was because of the severity of the situation. "We're not dealing with an issue that would typically be public health. We were so taken aback by the nature of this that we decided to break from our normal profile and at least put up signs."
Pete Peterson, a state veterinarian charged with monitoring livestock diseases, told the Journal in an interview in Arcata last week, "Blue-green algae is a grey area of public safety." He didn't initially get involved because no livestock was affected. It was frustrating for him, he said, because as the summer turned into autumn, he was hearing from more private small-animal veterinarians that something was very wrong.
"We had what we call a cluster -- an unusual pattern or number of deaths," Peterson said. Trained to spot clusters in livestock, Peterson knew one when he saw it with the dogs. "Same locale, same circumstances, same history, same clinical pathology."
"Once you have a cluster, it's an indication something is legitimately there."
But it didn't matter -- there was no livestock involved. Peterson may have been concerned, but he wasn't responsible to do something.
"I hope [the state] would have someone to take care of concerns like this," said Jeri Oliphant, the veterinarian who treated Ernest. "If there is a toxin making pets ill, especially deathly ill, then someone should take responsibility for that.
"Was this a collapse of the system? I don't think so. They don't have a system."
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