New Maryland law aims to protect pets

Carol Harvat

After a Southern Maryland woman told state legislators of watching her dog die after it was poisoned by antifreeze, a state law starting in January will require that a bitter-tasting agent be added to the sweet-tasting liquid.

Lynne Gillis of Huntingtown told the story at a legislative hearing last winter of her dog, Nikko. She rescued Nikko from the Tri-County Animal Shelter in November 2006 after it was found wandering around Dares Beach Road and secured by employees of the Calvert County Board of Education, one of whom told Gillis about the dog.

When she first saw Nikko at the shelter, she said, “He put his paw up to greet me.” She took Nikko home where he fit in with a handful of other dogs she owned and fostered at the time.

On the morning of Feb. 17 this year, Gillis said Nikko was vomiting and not acting normal, stumbling when he walked and was lethargic. She took him to Anne Arundel Animal Hospital where he tested positive for antifreeze poisoning.

“They told me what it was and I couldn’t believe it,” she said. It was too late for Nikko, who died the next day. The poisoning needs to be diagnosed within two hours for hope to save an animal, but most don’t show symptoms until after that, she explained.

Gillis later learned that someone threw a tennis ball laced with antifreeze over her fence where she lets out her dogs in her yard. No one has been prosecuted in the case.

Gillis said she never understood what closure meant, but since she was unable to get justice for Nikko in the courts, she said being a part of getting the law passed has helped her heal and move on.

With Nikko’s poisoning still fresh in her mind, Gillis, who volunteers at Calvert Animal Welfare League and is an advocate for animals, testified on March 4, saying that the legislators listened attentively and she left there feeling grateful for the time they gave her.

“Nikko’s death is not in vain. This is a victory for me. This is part of my healing,” she said. The law might end up saving the lives of pets, animals and people, she added.

“That would be the victory I would want.”

Del. Peter F. Murphy (D-Charles) co-sponsored the bill with Del. Jon Cardin, (D-Baltimore County), after researching about the harms of antifreeze and finding that it has killed animals and people both accidentally and on purpose.

“It’s so sweet tasting,” Murphy said, adding that “it requires a very little bit of it to kill.” He said he read a news story in February about an Alabama couple using antifreeze to kill their two children by putting small amounts in their food.

He asked Gillis to testify after learning about her story, saying that she brought the bill to life and helped it pass.

The Maryland Antifreeze Bittering Agent Act, which requires retailers to stock engine coolants with the additive denatonium benzoate, will go into effect Jan.1.

The original law, Murphy said, was to go into effect Oct. 1, but they agreed to a later date to allow retailers to clear off their shelves first.

“So many times [retailers] have to order ahead, we felt that it was a fair compromise,” he said. Manufacturers have said that it only adds about 2 cents to every gallon, he said.

“Lynn Gillis gave what I consider a riveting, compelling and an emotional testimony,” said Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert, St. Mary’s).

“It was clear that there was a need for this bill,” he said.

“Tony really did help get this bill through,” Murphy said, commending O’Donnell’s support.

Maryland is one of 17 states that have passed legislation requiring the bitter agent additive to antifreeze, according to the American Veterinary Association.

Gillis received the pen that Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) used to sign the bill into law. It’s framed, with the state seal, on a background of the state colors with both her name and Nikko’s on it.

“It was very cathartic for me. I’ll cherish it for the rest of my life,” she said.