HOULTON, Maine — The former executive director of the Houlton Humane Society said Monday that she is very sorry for fabricating an adoption story about a dog named Harley after the animal admittedly died in her care.
Heather Miller also insisted that the 11-month-old pit bull mixed-breed died from an accidental fall down a set of stairs at her home because of a neurological condition the dog has suffered from since birth.
Miller, who had headed the shelter since 2009, abruptly resigned from her position on Feb. 9. Neither she nor other shelter officials would speak publicly at the time about her reasons for leaving, but Houlton Police Chief Joe McKenna said the next day that his department was investigating the death of a dog whose body was found at the shelter.
The investigation into the case remains ongoing, McKenna said Tuesday. He said the state’s Animal Welfare office also is involved in the investigation and that officials at the shelter have been cooperating fully.
“The investigating officer has not made me aware of any conclusions,” McKenna said. “That does not mean there are going to be any charges, it just means the investigation is not completed yet.”
Miller said this week that she asked the Police Department to have a necropsy conducted on the animal “to prove that I had nothing to do with Harley’s death.”
McKenna said Tuesday that he could not comment on that.
Miller said Monday that she rescued Harley from a woman in New York “several months ago.”
She said the dog had cerebellar hypoplasia, which, according to the website petmd.com, is a condition in which parts of the cerebellum have not completely developed.
“He was extremely special needs, and it was similar to what cerebral palsy is in humans,” Miller said. “He grew to weigh more than 65 pounds, and we had to carry him inside and outside. He was not housetrained, and he had to wear a harness all the time. He was starting to bite, he was scratching us, he was very frustrated in his own body because he wanted to walk and he could not, and he couldn’t play with the other dogs.”
Miller said that because the dog had a difficult time controlling its body and would flop around, falling into cupboards and the refrigerator, injuring himself, he was often kept in a playpen.
“To give him a break from his playpen, when I got ready for work, I started taking him upstairs with me by himself without any other dogs. I had a baby gate at the top of the stairs. The day of the accident, I was in the bathroom. It happened so fast. He slammed into the gate and knocked the gate down and fell down the stairs, and he passed away,” the former director said through tears.
Miller said that instead of admitting the truth about the dog’s death, she posted on Facebook that Harley had been adopted by another individual.
But the truth was discovered after she put the dog’s body in a freezer at the shelter to await cremation.
Miller alleged that a disgruntled employee of the Houlton Humane Society took photos of the body in the freezer and shared them with others.
Miller acknowledged on Monday that she should have immediately told the truth about Harley’s death but felt extreme pressure to be “perfect,” especially since more than 8,000 people are fans of a Facebook page she operates, which updates people on the status of the more than four paralyzed cats and various special needs dogs and other animals that she cares for at her home.
“They think of me as a person who can do no wrong, and I felt horrible,” she said. “I felt like people were going to be ashamed of me and were going to think I was incapable of taking care of my animals.
“I made a mistake, and I posted on Facebook that I found Harley a home and I shouldn’t have. I take full responsibility for that,” Miller added. “I’ve asked for forgiveness. I’ve prayed about it. I know I shouldn’t have said it, but I was embarrassed. … I was very upset, and I just wanted it to go away.”
Shortly afterward, Miller resigned, and Monica Gray, president of the animal shelter’s board of directors, announced that Ramona Conrad had been selected by the board as the new interim executive director.
Miller said it was the shelter that asked for her resignation.
“I wished they would have stood by me, but it happened so fast, and I know they had to protect the shelter,” she said. “It is not that I blame them, but looking back, I wish it was handled differently.”
At the same time, she said she did not want the shelter to suffer “because of people’s beliefs about me.”
Conrad, the new director, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Since her resignation, Miller said she has been the subject of vicious cyberbullying by a group of individuals using social media that has included threats of physical harm.
She said has not reported any of those threats to the police but that the hostile comments have affected her emotionally and physically.
“They bully and they hurt, and they don’t realize how much damage they do,” she said.
Miller added that she is grateful for the support she has received from friends, family members and other supporters.
“I have had people who have reached out and sent emails and cards and flowers with notes and stories telling me about times where they have accidentally backed over their own pet in the driveway, or a lady from another shelter telling me where she was bottle feeding a kitten and she accidentally overfed it and it died,” she said. “They have been telling me that accidents happen. I am grateful.”