HARLEM — The ASPCA is investigating the mysterious deaths of four dogs within days of each other after being walked in Riverside Park over the summer.
The dogs convulsed into seizures, vomited, frothed at the mouth and lapsed into comas as their owners watched helplessly during a two-day span in July. All four of them were walked on July 17 or 18 in Riverside Park between 136th and 140th streets — a coincidence that's prompted their owners to try to find out whether the dogs may have been the victims of intentional poisoning.
The dogs — a Chihuahua, a terrier mix, a French bulldog mix and a Shih Tzu — all exhibited bizarre and similar behavior within hours of being walked in the park, their owners explained.
"It was a traumatic experience because they were in so much pain," said Natalya Mari, 32, a musician and visual artist whose dog, Yoda, and her roommate's dog, Charlie, both died after a walk on July 17.
The day began as usual when Mari took Yoda, a Chihuahua, and Charlie, a terrier mix, out for a walk in the park. When they got home, she recalled, Charlie collapsed.
"He was freaking at the onset of the seizure, and just before he got to door he fell over and he was shaking and frothing at the mouth," Mari said.
Neighbors ran over to help and brought water, thinking it was brought on by the 96-degree heat that day. Mari called the city's 311 help line, but was told that authorities don't respond to calls of sick animals, she said.
A neighbor gave her the address of the Inwood Animal Clinic, and Mari hopped in a cab with both her and her roommate's dog, she said.
While in the cab, Yoda licked Charlie's mouth. By the time they reached the hospital and a veterinarian began to work on Charlie, Yoda also began acting strange.
"My little dog started vomiting at the veterinarian, and he had never thrown up before. I remembered that Charlie had thrown up," Mari said.
Before long, Yoda went into a seizure similar to the one Charlie had experienced hours earlier.
"It was the most horrible moment because I couldn't do anything about it," Mari explained, becoming choked up. "The veterinarian tried to rescue him, but an hour later he came back and said Yoda had died."
Charlie was moved to BluePearl Veterinarian in Midtown later that day, but he eventually slipped into a coma and had to be euthanized, said owner Kim Heismann, 47, who owns her own consulting firm.
"It just absolutely destroyed me. He is a family member who came with us from South Africa. He was my running buddy and the best friend of my only child who helped him during a time of upheaval," said Heismann.
Almost two months later, Heismann's son Mattie, 7, still can barely talk about his dog.
"I miss him because he was soft to pet," he said. "He would jump up and hug us."
Benjamin Davidson, a critical care veterinarian at BluePearl, said that Charlie suffered from a very high body temperature caused by the seizure, leading to clotting abnormalities. Yoda's body temperature was normal, so heat stroke was ruled out.
Because the two dogs were out together on a walk, the likely cause of the seizures and death of both Charlie and Yoda was "toxin ingestion," he said, adding that it is rare for the breed of dogs in question to suffer seizures.
"It's too coincidental," Davidson said. "If two other dogs died and showed similar signs such as a seizure, I would be concerned that someone put something down."
Most of the poisoning cases Davidson said he gets involve a dog consuming its owner's dropped medication.
"It's very rare to see a dog out on the street or in a park that has gotten into anything," Davidson said.
Several hours after Charlie and Yoda fell ill, Matthew Wood, 32, who works in e-commerce was walking Tugs, his 6 1/2-year-old French bulldog and Boston terrier mix, in Riverside Park.
On his way home, Tugs began running in circles and acting bizarre.
Wood also thought it was the heat and loosened the dog's collar — but it was too late.
"He fell over. His whole body was as stiff as a board and he was convulsing," said Wood, who owned the dog with girlfriend Emily Picard, 27, a paralegal and law student. "His eyes rolled back in his head and he was shaking violently and drooling. There was blood because he may have bit his tongue."
Wood brought Tugs to a vet, who told him, "it could have been poisoning," he said.
"It's been horrible not knowing what happened," Wood said. "If it was a tumor, there's nothing you can do but make peace with the fact he died of natural causes. But to think something else might have done this is terrible."
Yajaira Bonilla, 37, a homemaker, said her mother Marianella, 53, an office worker, still cries when she thinks about how her 10-year-old Shih Tzu Nooby began foaming at the mouth and convulsing after a walk in Riverside Park on July 18.
"That was like her baby. She was so careful with him," Bonilla said, noting the dog died before they could get it to a veterinarian.
When she began hearing about other dogs being sick, Bonilla began to believe it was intentional poisoning.
"She's walked her dog in the same place for many years and nothing happened. But for the same thing to happen to all these dogs on the same day can't be coincidence," she said.
The deceased dogs' owners came together after Heismann began posting warning signs in the area. Heismann reported the pattern of poisonings to the ASPCA as a possible criminal act.
An ASPCA spokeswoman said if rumors that the poisonings were intentional are substantiated, it could lead to a criminal charge of animal cruelty.
"It's a terrible thing. I would want to make sure it stops," said Ann Kelly, the ASPCA investigator handling the case. "We don't know if it's true yet, but we are just investigating."
Parks Department officials told some dog owners that there had not been any rodent baiting recently in the park.
Last year, a hawk died after eating rats that may have consumed rat poison placed out by the Parks Department. The department agreed to stop baiting in Riverside Park after multiple red-tailed hawks died from rat poisoning in the spring.
The Parks Department did not immediately return a call for comment.
A few weeks after Charlie died, Heismann received an anonymous call from a man who said his dog had also fallen ill with similar symptoms from what seemed like poisoning, but had survived.
The caller said he was told by his building's superintendent that another super on 137th Street had admitted to placing poison in the park because he was tired of people not picking up after their dogs.
"If that's true, this person is a danger for the community," Heismann said. "Not just animals, but people and children who are walking around and can easily grab something. They can do this again."
Dog owners in Riverside Park said they were outraged and fearful to hear about the circumstances of the dog's death.
Iga Kasztelnik called Heismann's dog Charlie a "sweet dog" while out walking her own Chihuahua mix that she rescued recently after finding it abandoned and tied to a fence in Riverside Park.
"I just can't imagine someone would do that," Kasztelnik. "I've been here eight years and never heard of anything like that."
Heismann said she wants to get her son another dog, but is fearful of doing so until the person she believes poisoned the others is found.
Meanwhile, Heismann's son Mattie has become an activist of sorts, warning dog owners in Riverside Park to be careful by recounting the story of what happened to his dog.
"I don't want them to be sad like me," he said.