Puppy dies at Zion National Park in toxic algae bloom that is dangerous to humans, animals

K. Sophie Will
St. George Spectrum & Daily News

A mom and son took their nearly six-month-old husky puppy Keanna for a hike through Zion National Park while on a cross-country road trip. They left confused, shocked and with broken hearts as they carried out their dying dog

On the Fourth of July weekend, Vanessa Weichberger and her son Francis were wading and splashing through the Virgin River on the Pa'rus Trail with hundreds of people.

Suddenly Keanna, a 10th birthday present for Francis who only joined the family two months ago, started looking and acting strange.

Her eyes were developing something that looked like a cat's second eyelids, and within minutes she could no longer walk. She began to seize and was visibly in pain.

Vanessa carried her as they tried to get down back to the parking lot while calling for help. Keanna nuzzled both Vanessa and Francis, and then the pain started.

"It was like she was saying goodbye," Vanessa said.

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Keanna died within 20 minutes of encountering toxic algae blooms new to the river and dangerous to humans on July 3.

Anatoxin-a, a nervous system cyanotoxin that is produced by harmful cyanobacteria, was found in the North Fork of the river as of Friday night as the Southwest Utah Public Health Department issued a public health warning.

The week gap between Keanna's death and alerting the public of the danger was due to testing time, though the park did put up signs warning of possible danger soon after the incident.

"We got out what we knew as soon as we could, then we upgraded it to a warning as soon as we got the test results back," Zion spokesman Jeff Axel said.

Pets are more sensitive to cyanotoxins than humans, the Department of Environmental Quality said on their website. Children are at a greater risk than adults.

The safe threshold for the toxin set by the state for recreational areas is 15 micrograms per liter. Results from the affected area showed a concentration greater than 55 micrograms per liter, nearly four times the state threshold. 

Axel said it is "very new and very unusual" as the bloom is not typically found in running rivers.

Signs have been posted around affected areas warning visitors not to swim, submerge themselves or let their pets be in the water. 

The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food also suggests livestock be led to a different drinking source and avoid irrigation water. Officials say to clean fish well and discard guts.

Officials warn not to swim or drink in the area and to avoid algae scum. Do not attempt to drink the water even with a purifier. 

More samples will be collected this upcoming week and results determining if the threat level should be raised to "dangerous" should come within the next few days, Axel said. 

Officials are trying to discern how this bloom grew to this degree and how to treat it. The only two ways this bloom will die is if it reaches the end of its life cycle or a monsoon flash floods the area.

Vanessa and Francis are now dealing with the grief, shock and trauma from losing Keanna this way. While Vanessa had a bad headache for a few days after encountering the algae, she's ok now as they're remembering Keanna and continuing their trek. 

It's been particularly hard for Francis, as this is his first encounter with death. 

"She brought so much joy. She was such a sweet dog, everybody loved her. This is such a hard way to hear of someone dying," Vanessa said.

Follow K. Sophie Will on Twitter: @ksophiewill.