Florida Dangerous Dog Case: Ulu

In March, Marion Co passed a dangerous dog ordinance.  At the end of that month, the county seized Sandra Shaw’s Siberian Husky, called Ulu, under this ordinance.  Ulu had accidentally escaped his fenced yard and, as the owner was not home at the time, two family members went out looking for him.  Two witnesses in the neighborhood saw Ulu wandering loose and ultimately saw him kill a cat who was also outside unattended.  A court case over the custody and status of Ulu ensued.

Ms. Shaw wanted to keep Ulu at home pending the outcome of the dangerous dog investigation but the county denied that request basically stating that she might not be able to confine the dog properly.  Her lawyer countered that “county officials cannot prove, have not shown, or even have a procedure to show, how Shaw lacks the ability to control her pet”.  In fact, she had ample ability to contain Ulu, as will become evident.

The county also denied the owner’s request to visit Ulu at the shelter because she might spread disease to other dogs there.  Her lawyer countered that the county allows potential adopters to visit with dogs at the shelter and Ms. Shaw would be limiting her contact to her own dog.

The county was charging Ms. Shaw $15 a day to keep Ulu.  They did offer Ms. Shaw a way to take Ulu home – accept the dangerous dog classification for her dog, waive her rights to challenge it, and pay all the fees including a $250 dangerous dog registration fee.  Her attorney countered that by denying visitation, the county was trying to force owners to give up their rights and pay the fees, which were a source of revenue for the county.

During the legal process, Ulu was declared a dangerous dog under the ordinance.  The owner’s attorney requested, and was granted, permission for the owner to take Ulu home during the appeal process, and on July 20, the dangerous dog classification was vacated by a judge.  The transcript from the hearing upon which the judge made his decision is here (pdf).  If you’re a legal buff, or someone concerned about your rights as a pet owner, it’s very interesting reading.

The lawyer pokes all kinds of holes in how AC handled the matter from start to finish, failing to follow their own procedures to allow for a fair and thorough investigation.  They never interviewed Ulu’s owner to see how the dog escaped the yard.  This is significant because, not only is it a legal requirement, but had they interviewed the owner, they would have learned there were three fences set up to contain Ulu (and the owner’s other dogs) including a padlocked gate.  The padlock was accidentally left unlocked by a family member who was doing yard work and Ulu slipped out.  Ulu had never been in trouble with AC before and neighbors didn’t even recognize him.

Also significant is the fact that the owner of the cat was never advised that by involving AC, there would be a dangerous dog investigation.  Further, the cat’s owner did not want the dog declared dangerous, didn’t believe him to be dangerous and considered the entire matter to be an unfortunate accident.  Had the cat’s owner been aware that Ulu was a neighborhood pet, she testified that she would have handled the matter differently and simply settled things in a neighborly way.

Finally, there is the issue of provocation.  The county was seemingly ignorant of their own ordinance which specified that a dog could be declared dangerous only if it killed another pet “unprovoked”.  Since neither of the witnesses who saw Ulu kill the cat witnessed the beginning of the altercation, there was no way to know what had happened.  The attorney offered some plausible scenarios – that perhaps Ulu had approached the cat in a friendly manner but the cat had arched her back or hissed or swatted the dog’s nose.  Since there were no witnesses, this information was unknowable but the county ignored this fact in proceeding with the dangerous dog designation.

I admit at first blush, my reaction to this case was “Dog kills cat – meh” but when I got into the details, my interest increased immensely.  To my mind, the county’s actions can be described as nothing short of an attempt to railroad everyone involved into having Ulu declared dangerous and getting the fees paid.

For example, testimony reveals the the ACO received noticed of the first hearing a week in advance but didn’t notify the owner until the day before.  That notification came in the form of a note taped to the door which said the hearing was tomorrow and if you can’t make it, you need to provide at least 2 days advanced notice.  When the owner’s attorney contacted the ACO to say they needed sufficient time to prepare and requested the case file, he received an e-mail reply including the case file just minutes before 5pm with notice that he must respond before the end of the day.

That’s just one example.  The transcript is full of that kind of funny business.  While I’m delighted that Ulu’s owner was able to hire an attorney to fight these shenanigans in court, I fear that many dog owners, myself included, would be unable to do so.  I wonder how much ransom money the county will be able to extort from owners desperate to get their dogs back under this ordinance.  Or worse, how many dogs might be killed because the owners are unable to pay the fees.

Shame on Marion Co.  Their shelter is closed on Sundays and Mondays and only open from 10am to 5:30pm the rest of the week.  Instead of wasting months worth of time and resources on cases such as Ulu’s, maybe they could devote some of those resources toward keeping the shelter open during the days and hours the public is most likely able to get there.  Or fix the kennel cam so that taxpayers can see how their money is being spent caring for all the pets at the shelter and not just one dog.  I have other ideas too, less fit for print.

Thank you to reader Susan for alerting me to this story.

Update on Spork Case

The owners of a Dachshund who bit a CO veterinary technician have been granted a 6 month deferred prosecution by a judge. So long as Spork doesn’t bite anyone during the next 6 months, the charges will be dropped.

One of the many things I’ve learned from Cesar Millan would potentially be applicable in Spork’s case: Hand little dogs off backwards. That is, when Person A is holding a little dog and wants to hand the dog over to Person B, Person A first turns the dog around so that his face is pointing towards Person A and away from Person B. This helps prevent the dog from being afraid when Person B invades his personal space and it removes any easy target (such as a face, in the Spork case), should the dog bite. Of course nothing beats a muzzle for preventing bites but it’s always good to have additional tools in the toolbox.

Sioux City Threatens to Kill Wiggles

What goes around, comes around – that’s the saying that came to my mind when Sioux City, IA councilman Aaron Rochester’s Labrador Jake was declared “vicious” and condemned to death. Mr. Rochester had successfully campaigned for a Pitbull ban in Sioux City not long before Jake bit someone and was taken to the animal shelter. Mystery of mysteries – Jake was sold by Mr. Rochester (for $1) while at the shelter and then – uh, stolen. So Jake never got his day in court, so to speak.

Now the same law that would have killed Jake is set to kill Wiggles, a Shih-Tzu accused of biting a neighbor kid who came into his fenced yard. According to a posting on Facebook, the neighbor kids had taunted and physically hurt Wiggles for a long period of time prior to the bite. Wiggles is not owned by a city councilman and has been stuck in the shelter since January. No one has – uh, stolen him. A closed door hearing to determine his fate is due to announce a result today. Wiggles is the first dog to come up for a hearing under Sioux City’s vicious dog ordinance. I will update this post when I hear something on the case.

Update: No news reports yet but the Facebook page has been updated to say Wiggles is going home.

Update Deux: Wiggles is home and the owner has posted on Facebook:

The first thing Wiggles did when he got home was run to the door. When we got inside he made a dash around the house, came up to me, gave me a big kiss, and then made his rounds running around the dinning room table” he runs around the table to tire himself out” then he layd down next to me and sighed and took a little nap! I am so happy! Thank you all!!!!!! He is too! NOW EVERYBODY SAVE SPORK!!!!!!!!!!

In addition, the owner vows to continue fighting until Sioux City’s vicious dog law is changed.

The Sioux City Journal has an article about Wiggles’ death row pardon.

Press Releases in the Spork Case

Snippet from a press release (pdf) from Donald Dodge, owner of Jasper Animal Hospital – the vet clinic Spork is scared of:

The bite was serious. Our technician required immediate medical attention. [...] When an animal bites a person who seeks medical care, it is normal procedure for the hospital to alert animal control officers. This is what happened here.
[...]
The veterinary technician then made an individual decision to pursue charges. I supported that decision, because when an animal causes serious injury to a person, there should be a public record of that fact in case there are future incidents involving that animal.

He goes on to say that just because the tech is pressing charges doesn’t mean the clinic wants the owners prosecuted or the dog killed. Maybe they thought “pressing charges” meant that everyone has tea and a biscuit and goes home early, I don’t know.


Response from the lawyer for Spork’s owners:

Jasper Animal Hospital is responsible for the hiring, training and supervision of its employees. Further they are responsible for the development and implementation of hospital procedures to protect their clients, their animal patients, and their employees.

While the Walkers are perplexed by the City of Lafayette’s aggressive pursuit of the charges against them, they are also distressed by the veterinary technician’s desire to further this case. While they have been very upset and concerned about the injuries suffered by the tech, the Walkers are surprised that a trained veterinary professional would put an animal in her care in this position. In the police reports, it is clear other clinic employees were aware that Spork was distressed at the time of his visit. He was shaking and defecating in his owner’s arms. Given the visible state of Spork’s anguish, the Walkers are shocked that this veterinary technician, given her years of experience, would put her face anywhere close to Spork’s face. What is even more curious to the Walkers is why a trained tech would aggressively urge criminal charges in the matter when veterinary technicians are trained to handle animals, and there is an assumed risk that comes with the job. Colorado State Statute §18-9-204.5(6)(b) specifically exempts veterinary health care workers for this very reason.

Of all the points made in my previous post and the comments, I am most curious about this last bit. The bite happened in August 2009. Since the law specifically exempts veterinary staff from filing charges related to dog bites, why is this case still being pursued? To my mind, the fact that it was ever even opened was a mistake. The city should have told the tech from day one, “You are exempt and can not press charges”. Forcing the owners to spend all this time worrying and all their savings on lawyers is totally ridiculous. And the Vet is supporting these shenanigans? Even knowing there is no legal standing for these charges whatsoever?

Hey Lafayette pet owners: Jasper Animal Hospital doesn’t know how to handle scared pets and if you go there, they may give your name and address to the city and file charges against you. Maybe there’s another vet clinic in town? Or, if Lafayette is determined to invoke “home rule” to avoid compliance with this sensible state law, I’d say it would be well worth it to go to a vet clinic outside the city.

***

There is also an e-mail posted online that is purported to be from the city of Lafayette regarding the case. The city thinks we should all be grateful they don’t have breed bans and didn’t seize Spork immediately.

CO Vet’s Office FAIL

The city of Lafayette, CO has declared a 10 year old dog named “Spork” to be vicious and filed charges against the owners. Based upon your knowledge of these type of cases, have a go at these multiple guess questions:

What specifically did this “vicious dog” do?

  • Kill livestock?
  • Bite a neighborhood kid?
  • Attack someone’s pet?

How about the owners – what are they accused of doing?

  • Allowing their dog to roam loose?
  • Leaving the dog on a chain for his entire life?
  • Failing to supervise their dog around a toddler?

If you guessed “None of the Above” (oops, I forgot to include that choice), you are correct. The owners of the vicious Spork (yeah I’m loving that name) are accused of taking their Miniature Dachshund to the Vet for routine care. Like many dogs, Spork is scared at the Vet’s office. Very scared. He shakes. He loses control of his bowels. Vets see dogs like this regularly and usually know, or should know, that with these type of dogs, the owner can never hold the dog during examination. These dogs are not in a balanced state of mind during their Vet visits. And when an owner holds a dog, the owner becomes a physical extension of the dog. If that dog is already in an unbalanced state, the potential for a bite is very high.

So when the owner was told at the Vet visit to hold her dog and the technician put her face up to Spork’s, he bit the technician’s chin. State law in CO exempts veterinary workers from filing charges regarding dog bites. Somehow, the city found out about the incident (I think we can safely guess the owners did not contact the city about it) and served the owners with a citation. The owners hired a lawyer and are going to trial in April in an effort to save their dog:

The Walkers’ attorney says the charges should be dismissed. “It’ll put a scare, a fear into people with animals, that they can’t bring their dogs or cats to health care facilities in the city of Lafayette for fear of criminal charges and fear their family friend will be euthanized,” says Jennifer Edwards of the Animal Law Center.

The Walkers say they’ll do anything to make sure their dog isn’t euthanized. “Not everyone would spend their life savings protecting a 10-year-old dog, but we feel we need to.”

I am hesitant to make generalizations about biting dogs but I’ll go out on a limb here: Little dogs bite. Unlike big dogs, they can not physically resist something that makes them feel uncomfortable. They scream when they’re panicked and they bite as a last resort. Those are their defenses in a world where everyone is bigger than they are and they can be picked up, held down, or inadvertently knocked over and trampled at any moment. Anyone who works in a Vet’s office should know that a little dog presents a bite risk while at the office. Even more so for a dog who’s scared. And still more for one who is overly scared and being held in the arms of his owner as you stick your face into his/their personal space.

From the information I’ve read about this incident, it seems like the Vet’s office mishandled the situation which resulted in a staff member being bitten. Instead of using it as a learning experience, they (I’m guessing) reported the bite to the city, causing the owners terrible emotional and financial hardship. Ultimately, the dog may be locked up or killed.

At the Vets’ offices I worked in (many moons ago), we had a box full of muzzles of all sizes and we placed a muzzle on any dog who was “questionable”. Has Spork’s veterinary office heard of these things? When I take my Chihuahua mix to the Vet’s, I bring along her muzzle from home. She’s never bitten anyone and I hope to keep it that way. I’d rather be safe than sorry – especially if sorry means the city might take my dog. Although I doubt my Vet would ever mishandle a situation so badly and then try to get authorities to kill my dog over their mistakes.

Spork does not deserve to be punished. Neither do his owners. I feel for them.

The idea that Spork is vicious is something Spork’s owners have a hard time accepting. “Every night I tuck him into bed. If he doesn’t have a blanket on him, he starts crying, I have to get up and make sure he’s covered,” Kelly Walker, Spork’s owner says.

I hope that the city will come to their senses and drop this whole thing. I bet there are probably actual irresponsible owners in Lafayette who deserve citations. And I hope that Spork gets to spend many more nights in his bed, covered up by his blankie.

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