UPDATE: 9:21 p.m.: Gray says the claim he told the city to come pick up K-9 Yoeri is “a bold-faced lie.” ADDS Cooper interview audio.

by Robin Kemp

For the past few weeks, the City of Forest Park has been holding its last K-9 officer in an isolated kennel, although the only person qualified to handle the dog has left the force.

K-9 Yoeri, an 11-year-old Belgian malinois, is being fed once a day but is not being let out of the kennel. The Clayton Crescent is not disclosing the location of the kennel for safety reasons. However, the dog was not visible from the fence surrounding the area when we checked it out.

Police K-9s are not pets. They are dogs that are trained to bite people on command. What’s more, the bond between working K-9s and their handlers means that not just anyone can handle these dogs. K-9 Yoeri is one of those dogs.

His handler, Master Police Officer Nathan Gray, said he did not want any media attention and had had calls from the local TV stations, but is concerned for the dog’s welfare. He says he is the only person capable of handling the dog, which could mean K-9 Yoeri has not been out of the kennel in weeks. Forest Park Animal Control feeds the dog once a day, he said. However, the dog is not being put through his paces, which means his expensive training could wear off.

Gray said his wife’s friend, Kerri Gebler, posted about the matter on Facebook. Gebler told The Clayton Crescent that she has helped donate numerous K-9 protective vests, that she trains search and rescue dogs alongside police officers, and that she’s just a dog person who thinks it’s cruel for the city to hold K-9 Yoeri in isolation. Her post has drawn lots of attention from outraged animal lovers, with nearly 2,000 shares as of press time:

In her Facebook post, Gebler said K-9 Yoeri is retired from the Forest Park Police Department. Both Gray and Cooper said that K-9 Yoeri is not retired. In fact, that is the sticking point: Cooper said he needs an outside opinion on whether or not K-9 Yoeri is medically fit for duty. Without a handler, however, the number of K-9 officers at FPPD right now is zero. As a result, Cooper said, the city has to ask other agencies whether they can lend Forest Park a K-9 officer and handler.

Gray, who worked with K-9 Yoeri for six years, said he had nothing to do with the Facebook post. A hashtag #FreeYoeri is now circulating online.

“We had put in a letter of recommendation–this was probably a week before I left–and requested that he be retired, just based off of his age and his medical issues, because he’s 11 years old,” Gray said. “I believe it was the beginning of this year he had a perineal hernia surgery. It was on his rear end and he was beginning to show signs of having another one. I’ve been giving him food, as far as, you know, mixing in soft food, watering down his food, and also stool softeners, and I’ve been giving him arthritis medication, also, just because he’s getting older and he’s starting to have some joint problems.”

Gray said, “We were kind of hoping that they would at least let me keep him until the city made a decision. I don’t know how fast it happened with Officer Freeman and his K-9 Diljan, but I know he didn’t go through all this. It was a pretty quick process.”

When he was headed to work Thursday afternoon, he said, “They told me, ‘Hey look, Friday morning, Animal Control is going to come pick up your dog, and they’re going to be taking him him to Pet Paradise–either Pet Paradise, or Pet Palace or whatever in Atlanta. And I knew that would not be a good idea because I know they’re on Facebook, saying Yoeri’s an aggressive dog. That’s coming from someone who doesn’t know much about police K-9s. That’s what their job is. Their job is to bite people. And dogs are like people. Some people like to be around other people, some people don’t. And Yoeri is one of those dogs that doesn’t like to be around other people. He doesn’t like people to walk up to him, talk to him, tower over him, or try to pet him. He’s just like, ‘Leave me alone.’ He’s never bitten anybody he wasn’t supposed to since I’ve had him. If you walk up to his kennel, yeah, he’s gonna bark.”

When he got word about the city’s plan to house the dog at the Atlanta pet kennel, Gray said he called Chief Nathaniel Clark. “I actually called the chief twice. I left him a voicemail and I also sent him a text message, asking him to call me so I could at least try to make my recommendation, you know, as far as doing that with Yoeri.”

Clark never called back, he said.

And he heard that “the Pet Palace or Pet Castle, whatever it is, they wouldn’t take him. Because they couldn’t handle him. And I even told the Animal Control guy, ‘You need to let them know that he does bite, and I don’t know how they’re gonna get the muzzle off of him.”

So, he said, the city took K-9 Yoeri to its own facility. “He’s out there by himself. They took him out there, and I get a phone call, and they’re like, ‘Well, we can’t get the muzzle off of the dog.’ So, this is after I had already left. I was actually shopping with my wife in McDonough. And I asked them, ‘Would you like for me to come up there and take the muzzle off of him for you and put him back in the kennel out there?’ And they were like, ‘Please.’ So I drove all the way back to Forest Park, took the muzzle off him, put him in the kennel–just because I didn’t want him to get hurt. And I didn’t want somebody else to get hurt. Because it’s not their fault.”

He said Animal Control feeds the dog once a day, because the dogs are scheduled to eat after their shift. He gave the Animal Control some stool softener for the dog. “That’s stuff I bought out of my own pocket,” he said. “Never asked for any money from the department for stuff like that.” Because of K-9 Yoeri’s hernia issue, Gray had been giving the dog weekly enemas.

And he waited for the City Council to “make a decision, retire Yoeri just like they did with Diljan, and give him to me.” He even offered to sign a waiver “taking the liability off of Forest Park.”

He’s still waiting.

“I know he’s not getting exercise,” he said.

City Manager Dr. Marc-Antonie Cooper told The Clayton Crescent that the police department did not hand over the dog’s file when asked. A few days ago, Cooper said, he was sent a few printouts from area veterinarians who had treated Yoeri for a bite in 2012. Cooper allowed us to see copies of the public documents but did not provide copies. The dates on the reports differ from the printout date at the bottom, which was October 12 for at least two of the documents. A letter from Morrow Animal Clinic urged the city to medically retire K-9 Yoeri and let him go home with Gray. Because the dog is city property, Cooper said, he has to gather enough information about his condition before presenting the matter to the City Council for a vote.

In September, Cooper said, “He asked us to come pick the dog up because we would not let him, basically, keep the dog. He wanted to submit a letter for us to retire the dog, and when we started asking for medical records, he said, ‘Well, fine, if I can’t go to training with the dog’–because he asked to go to training in August with this dog, and because his training was not done and he wanted to leave, we knew that–it was ‘OK, fine. Y’all take the dog, then. Come get him.'”

Gray responded late Thursday, “That was a bold-faced lie. I’ve never had a conversation with the city manager. I’ve never had a conversation with the chief. I’ve never had a conversation with the mayor. I would like to know who told him that, because that’s a bold-faced lie.” He added, “If I remember correctly, there was an issue with me going to certification, right when MPO Freeman couldn’t get a new dog.”

Cooper confirmed K-9 Yoeri has been in the kennel for a little over a month. He also said he had told Clark they should go out and see the dog for themselves before the end of the week. The Clayton Crescent asked to come along to see K-9 Yoeri, even if from behind a fence. Cooper said he would inquire.

Asked whether the city has been in touch with Alabama K-9, which trained the dog, Cooper said, “I try to stay abreast of everything, but getting that deep in it, I haven’t been that deep involved.” He said an executive at FPPD was in charge of the matter.

Cooper said it would take the city a year and a half to two years to get another dog and handler trained and onto the force. However, Gray said the city is already in line for a new dog and handler, following MPO Freeman’s departure. Freeman was allowed to take K-9 Officer Diljan. Here’s his retirement (the Facebook audio is low):

Forest Park Police Department K-9 Officer Diljan was given full retirement honors by Police Chief Nathaniel Clark and Mayor Angelyne Butler and released to his handler, MPO Freeman. (Audio is low on this Facebook video.)

The city also posted K-9 Officer Diljan’s traditional last radio call with Freeman, but the city has disabled embedding for that video–which is a public record. The link is https://fb.watch/8NEkehNmCa/

Police Chief Nathaniel Clark did not respond to The Clayton Crescent’s requests by phone and in person for comment. However, FPPD released a statement, addressed to Forest Park residents and posted to its Facebook page. It read in part, “Forest Park Police Department was informed that K9 Yoeri had limited contact with others because of his vicious nature.”

Gray said the dog, which is not a pet, is trained to bite people and to listen to his handler. Gray said each dog has a different temperament, and that K-9 Yoeri’s preference is to be left alone. He also said that his young daughter has walked the muzzled K-9, with his supervision, around their neighborhood.

“They just don’t know anything about dogs,” Gray said.

Cooper said he was open to letting Gray take K-9 Yoeri if another veterinarian recommends the dog be medically retired. However, the decision would be up to the city council, which would have to vote on the matter.

He said if the dog needed to be sedated for an evaluation, and the vet were to say, “‘Hey, we see the arthritis, we see this, yeah, we think we need to put him–‘, okay, great. My thing is, I’ll bring that back to council and say, ‘Council, we have had a vet review, the dog should be retired, and get the council’s approval to retire the dog, and once the dog is retired, that evening, the handler or whoever can walk out with the dog, if that’s what they want. But the thing is, based on the information that I have here, there’s nothing here that would have me take it to council to say, ‘Hey, I have information.”

He added, “So I’m trying to get that information, and with the Facebook posts, with all of these people calling, this is just more of a, to me, this is a tactic to try to pressure the city to basically circumvent its own rules and regulations and let somebody keep a dog. We have people that are assigned vehicles in this city. Do we allow them to keep it when they leave? ‘Oh, my mechanic said it needs all this work done. I’ll pay for it if you let me keep it.’ No, you don’t do that.”

Fox 5’s Deidra Dukes spoke with Freeman, who said, “My personal feelings is Officer Gray is a great dog handler, and there’s a lot of animosity with all the officers that are leaving that department up there and when Officer Gray left, it just, it seems vindictive to us.”

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