Local animal law required release of a pit bull that killed a Chihuahua

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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No one from the Humane Society for Southwest Washington knows how a pit bull named Jane made her way to Vancouver or where she is now. Clark County Animal Protection and Control doesn’t know, either.

Neither does Maria Gonzalez. But she remembers the grim day at her daughter’s house when she heard agitated barking from the backyard and saw Jane’s teeth clenching Princess, the family’s pet Chihuahua. She also remembers Galaxy, the family’s other Chihuahua, futilely biting and barking at the strange dog.

Gonzalez said the pit bull released Princess after she called Galaxy, who was hesitant to leave her wounded companion, to come inside. The pit bull turned to Galaxy as she made her retreat, and Gonzalez slammed the house’s sliding glass door on the pursuing dog’s nose. With the door shut, the snarling pit bull took a running start and slammed against the door so hard, Gonzalez said, she worried it would shatter.

“It was almost like she wanted to attack anything that was smaller,” recalled Gonzalez, with her daughter, Ana Govea, translating from Spanish.

That afternoon, Nov. 4, Gonzalez said, she was watching her grandsons and a friend’s baby. She rushed the kids into a bedroom and locked Galaxy in a kennel and stowed it in the laundry room. The frantic pit bull continued charging the glass door and running around the backyard, leaping at the window of the room where she’d put the children, she said.

When the police arrived, Princess was already dead or dying in the backyard. The pit bull had calmed down and was happily playing with a soccer ball in the family’s front yard. Her mouth and neck were marked with blood.

Around the pit bull’s neck was a tag with the name “Jane.”

After an unsuccessful effort to find Jane’s owner, the Humane Society prepared to euthanize her. But a prominent animal rights lawyer stepped in, arguing that Jane deserved a home and another chance. And he had the Vancouver animal code on his side.

“We are all about saving animals,” Lisa Feder, vice president of shelter operations for the Humane Society. “But it is very difficult for us to let an animal out knowing that he or she has the potential to injure another animal.”

Govea, whose family is still shaken by the attack, is also unsettled not knowing what happened to the dog.

“That really frightens me,” she said.

‘A danger to other dogs’

Vancouver police had gotten Jane into the back of their patrol car without a problem by the time animal control officer Trisha Kraff arrived at the scene. Kraff said that Jane became restless in the back of the vehicle, barking and pacing back and forth.

Using a control stick, a long stick with a leash at the end, Kraff transferred Jane to the animal control van without incident. She took a statement from the family and drove around the neighborhood knocking on doors unsuccessfully trying to find Jane’s owner.

Kraff said she took Jane to the shelter run by the Humane Society for Southwest Washington, which contracts with Clark County and the city of Vancouver. Kraff said that Jane had calmed down by the time she was put in a kennel in the processing bay. But when another dog walked by, she became agitated and aggressively threw herself at the bars of the kennel, Kraff said.

“If another dog came into the vicinity, (Jane) just came unhinged and started lunging and barking and growling,” said Kraff, who described Jane as cooperative with humans. “I’ve seen a lot of aggressive dogs and dogs with dog-aggression (issues). I’ve never seen one quite this dog-aggressive.”

Kraff continued to search for Jane’s owner. But Jane had no county license. She did have a chip that had been implanted in California, but there was no information pointing to an owner. One of the phone numbers on Jane’s tag didn’t work, and the other was for a residence in California that had no connection to the dog, Feder said.

The Humane Society continued searching, according to Denise Barr, the organization’s vice president of marketing. The Humane Society spent 10 days looking for an owner and would have made the call to euthanize Jane.

The Humane Society has a 96.5 percent live release rate for all dogs that enter the shelter and will only euthanize animals that are either too sick or injured for recovery, or have behavioral issues that likely won’t be fixed through training, according to Barr.

“We would have to euthanize the dog,” said Feder. “We believe that the dog is a danger to other dogs, without question.”

But the call wasn’t made. Feder isn’t sure how people heard about Jane’s predicament, and she suspects they didn’t fully understand the situation. They started contacting the Humane Society asking that the dog be released, she said. She recalled a man showed up one morning knocking on the door, demanding her release and worried that Jane was going to be imminently euthanized.

According to Barr, another three people representing rescues and animal welfare organizations (she didn’t say which ones) contacted the Humane Society. One said he represented a sanctuary in Texas that he was authorized to take Jane to. But, Barr said, the Humane Society was concerned the sanctuary couldn’t safely house Jane with other dogs.

Finally, the Humane Society was contacted by Adam Karp, a prominent Bellingham-based animal law attorney, who said he was acting on behalf of Jane’s owner who wanted the dog back.

Doggy law

Under the city of Vancouver’s animal control code, if a dog attacks another animal or human without provocation and is deemed to be a stray, the Humane Society determines its fate. If that dog has an owner, that individual can be fined or be slapped with requirements that the animal be kept in a secure enclosure and be put in a muzzle while in public, among other requirements.

Feder said Karp threatened to sue on behalf of the person claiming to own Jane unless the dog was released. The Humane Society and Karp entered into a settlement agreement requiring the owner to pay $500 in fines and impound fees and take Jane outside of Washington permanently. On Christmas Eve, Jane was released from the shelter.

“We never actually talked to the owner,” said Feder, adding that her organization was unable to establish Jane’s chain of custody.

Karp declined to be interviewed for this story but in a statement wrote that the city code wasn’t properly followed, “depriving stakeholders of due process.”

“Further, regardless of Janey’s alleged transgressions, she has a right to life with the proper family,” he wrote. “She is not presently in Washington state.”

Kathy Hessler, clinical professor and director of Lewis & Clark Law School’s Animal Law Clinic, said animals are legally regarded as private property, with which local governments try to avoid interfering.

She said that euthanasia of an aggressive dog may be a more attractive option for shelters than costly rehabilitation and housing. But she said that people in the animal welfare community are becoming less inclined to euthanize dogs that have displayed aggressive tendencies. Most famously, she pointed to the success in rehabilitating pit bulls owned by Michael Vick, an NFL player convicted for his involvement in a dogfighting ring.

“These dogs were so terrorized and abused that people thought there was just no chance,” she said.

She said that humans create the circumstances that cause dogs to become aggressive. She said that situations like this should raise questions such as, “Does the dog have to be killed, and why do we think that?”

Pit bulls have gotten a bad rap as aggressive dogs, but studies have questioned if it’s a deserved reputation. Notably, a literature review by the American Veterinary Medical Association concluded that “studies have not identified this breed group as disproportionately dangerous.” In 2011, the city of Vancouver considered a ban on pit bulls but backed off.

In an email, Barr wrote that Humane Society policy is that dogs “should be judged by their current personality and behaviors, not by breed.”

“We believe that providing them with love, care and training tailored to each individual dog’s need is the best way to ensure that dogs and people can share safe and happy lives together,” wrote Barr.

Regardless, the local animal welfare community is concerned that Vancouver’s and Clark County’s animal code, which are aligned, allowed Jane to be released. Last month, the Animal Protection and Control Advisory Board discussed the situation and a need for a code change. Susan Svendsen, chair of the board, said that she’s also skeptical that a dog like Jane could be rehabilitated.

“Some people think that the dog needs to be saved no matter what,”she said. “This dog was taken out of our jurisdiction, and it could still kill other animals and people.”

Aftermath

Princess is missed. Govea recalled how the cream-colored Chihuahua would roll on her back letting her 3-year-old son, Yahel, pet her belly.

The family cremated Princess and keep her ashes in a wooden box on the mantle. On top of it is a set of verses that begins: “There’s something missing in my home, I feel it day and night.”

After the attack, Govea said, Galaxy ate less and became lethargic. But things improved after the family adopted Piggy, another Chihuahua. She said that Galaxy remains on edge in the backyard, even though they lock the back gate with a chain and padlock.

“I think this particular pit bull went through a traumatic life experience,” said Govea, who added that she doesn’t hold a grudge against the breed and thinks it’s possible Jane deserves a second chance. But she said she’s troubled that she doesn’t know if Jane was already on a second chance when the attack happened and what conditions she’s being kept in now.

But even if the dog were rehabilitated, she added, “I obviously wouldn’t want it anywhere near my neighborhood.”

 

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