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Sunday, September 25, 2005

1 pet dies, 2 sick - Lawn Treatment Suspected Cause

Whenever Zachary, 7, and Cameron Ellis, 5, latch onto a balloon outside, they kiss it, release it into the sky and say, "This is for you, Diamond."

Diamond, their beloved 71/2-year-old Doberman, died April 26, after a night of vomiting and lethargy, before her owners could get her to the veterinarian.

Diamond's death came less than 24 hours after a lawn treatment company applied a granular fertilizer to the Ellises' Candlestick Court lawn in Lancaster.

Two doors away, following a similar application on the morning of April 25, Missy, a miniature schnauzer, was treated for what her veterinarian thought was rat poisoning. Missy has been in and out of the hospital with a condition that prevents her body from producing enough red blood cells.

Elsewhere on Candlestick Court, an upscale subdivision in Lancaster, a black Labrador named C.J. became sick that same afternoon, and her vomiting and diarrhea lasted for about two days.

Three dogs became sick on the same cul-de-sac, with similar symptoms, following the same type of treatment on the same day from LushLawn Inc.

Two of the three families - Lisa and Todd Ellis, who owned Diamond, and Dianne Michlinski, Missy's owner - have used LushLawn for years, with no ill effects.

They're convinced the company must have used a bad batch of chemicals or applied them improperly to cause those problems on the same day.

"We've used LushLawn for years and recommended them to other people," Todd Ellis said. "I personally think it was an inexperienced employee and/or an improper application."

The incident has shaken these families' confidence in the product.

"They don't tell you what could happen," Michlinski said. "They don't say your dog or child could die if they went out on the grass. If they did, nobody would take that kind of chance."

Lisa Ellis, still mourning the loss of Diamond, added, "I'd like a simple "Yes, it was our fault.' "

Veterinarian's findings

One veterinarian has suggested that Diamond's death resulted from excessive levels of potassium and phosphorous, apparently from ingestion of a granular substance.

Donald R. Potenza, president of the 24-year-old company, declined to comment on the three dogs, pending further investigation.

But the top lawn care official in the state quickly came to LushLawn's defense.

"That granulized fertilizer treatment is used on tens of thousands of lawns in the Buffalo area," said Donald W. Burton, president of the New York State Lawn Care Association. "It's a bit bewildering to us that the relatively benign ingredients phosphorous and potassium would be of such concentration to cause a dog's death.

"It seems extremely unlikely to me," Burton added, noting that potassium and phosphorous also are key ingredients in retail fertilizers used by millions of homeowners.

Whatever happened, a once-healthy Doberman is dead, a schnauzer remains seriously ill five months later, and a black Lab was sick for a few days.

Like many couples, the Ellises had a special sentimental bond with Diamond: She was the first thing they bought with their wedding money.

As they were driving home with their new dog, the newlyweds noticed the dog kept chomping on Lisa Ellis' diamond ring. Thus the name Diamond.

"She was like my first child," Lisa Ellis said.

Diamond had a special sleeping spot, on the Ellises' bed - with her own pillow. In later years, the 80-pound dog became the protector for the couple's three children.

That's why it's so hard for the Ellises to talk about their loss.

Diamond was a house dog, who made only quick trips outside to do her business. For seven years, Diamond had had no problems with the lawn treatments.

Dog stricken that night

On April 25, the LushLawn worker came to the house shortly before 10 a.m. Todd Ellis, who was home, noticed that the employee seemed to be a newer one.

That evening, Diamond started to act a little lethargic and began throwing up grass. She kept throwing up throughout the night and started making sounds like Chewbacca from "Star Wars," the couple said.

The next morning, Todd Ellis planned to take her to the veterinarian. He had to carry her down to the laundry room, where he allowed the boys to give her a hug and a kiss before they left for school. Ellis went upstairs to get dressed shortly before 8:30 a.m.

"When I came downstairs, she had latched onto a big piece of blanket, kind of like a last act," he said. "I knew she was dead. She wasn't breathing anymore."

Only after comparing notes with Michlinski, their neighbor and Lisa Ellis' employer, did the Ellises learn that Missy had been throwing up that morning, too.

The Ellises took their dog's body to a veterinarian's office, which emptied her stomach. The vet called back and asked whether someone had poisoned the dog.

"They found holes in her intestine, holes in her stomach and a significant quantity of granular pellets from the lawn treatment," Todd Ellis said.

The stomach contents were sent to the Cornell Diagnostic Laboratory, which found high levels of phosphorous and potassium, "which could indicate a fertilizer-type product, but [which] is not conclusive," the report said.

The veterinarian then issued what's called a "presumptive diagnosis," that Diamond's death apparently resulted from an ingestion of a granular substance containing high levels of potassium and phosphorous.

Chemicals carry warning

Meanwhile, on the morning following the lawn treatments, Missy, the 5-year-old purebred miniature schnauzer, had become lethargic, was vomiting and couldn't stand up. The veterinarian asked whether she had eaten rat poison.

LushLawn's literature recommends that children and pets stay off the lawn for two to four hours. So Missy, a constant companion who goes to work with Michlinski and even has her own bed there, would not have been on her lawn during the four-hour period.

"That means they did something wrong," Michlinski claimed.

Since April 26, Missy has been given several blood transfusions, been treated with chemotherapy and steroids and diagnosed with "red blood cell aplasia." Her veterinarian says she's likely to be on lifelong medication.

"This has been a nightmare," Michlinski said.

Of the three Candlestick Court dogs that got sick, C.J., the 65-pound black Lab, was the only one whose family didn't have the lawn treatment.

"My dog was on a leash outside in the back yard, and she doesn't go in anyone else's yard," said the dog's owner, Janelle Sierk. "It definitely blew over from my next-door neighbor's yard."

Late last year, a missed deadline in the Erie County Legislature during the budget crisis left the county with a yearlong gap for 2005 in its Pesticide Neighbor Notification Law. That means there's no law requiring prior notification about such lawn treatments.

That gap seems to have had little effect on Diamond's death or Missy's ailments. Both families were LushLawn customers.

While LushLawn officials wouldn't comment, the company has been in business almost a quarter century, and it does between 40,000 and 50,000 treatments each year.

"LushLawn has had a very good record," said Burton, the lawn-care association president. "We have had very few calls of concerns about their service."

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