Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Streetcar dog attack: Case may end with pit bull's return to Colorado

OREGON -- It looks as if the case of a pit bull that attacked and killed a Pomeranian on a Portland street car last week may end with the dog's return to its Colorado owner.

How is that possible when an animal is dead in such a public and horrifying way?

It's a combination of the unexplained circumstance about how the pit bull came to Portland and also laws that over time have shifted from blaming the dog or a particular breed to holding dog owners responsible for their pet's behavior.

The teenager who took the dog on the streetcar hasn't stepped forward to claim it, so it remains at the county shelter, said Mike Oswald, director of Multnomah County Animal Control.

"We had phone numbers of people who might have had the dog in their possession, but no one here is saying 'that's my dog,'" Oswald said Monday.

The dog's Colorado owner wants the female pit bull back, so Oswald is working with the humane society office in Longmont, Colo., to send it back home, he said.

The owner reported the dog missing in June and had adopted it from the Longmont Humane Society several years ago, said the agency's director, Sarah Clusman. The dog had an embedded microchip, which allowed animal control workers to track it back to Colorado.

Multnomah County and the Longmont Humane Society have declined to release the owner's name, citing confidentiality regulations.

It's still not clear how the dog made its way to Portland, but it officials in Colorado were told it was living with a group of homeless youths on Portland streets.

After the attack last Wednesday night, the 16-year-old girl who had possession of the dog left the streetcar, but police stopped her several blocks away. County animal control workers were called to the scene and took the dog to the shelter.

The teenager was crying and told an officer that the dog "has never done this before," according to the police report.

Moments earlier, the pit bull had lunged at a black Pomeranian named Lady that was already aboard the streetcar and clasped its mouth over the Pomeranian's head.

The Pomeranian's owner grabbed her dog and rushed out of the streetcar to go to DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital. One witness said she recognized the Pomeranian owner and said Lady was a service dog, the police report noted. 

Officers initially found that no city or state law had been violated, but police requested a copy of the county animal services investigation and plan further review after learning the pit bull's registered owner lives in Colorado.

In the police report,  the 16-year-old  told police she was the registered owner.

"No determination has been made yet on whether charges will filed or citations issued,'' police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson said Monday.

Blood spatter where the Pomeranian was ripped apart by the pit bull

Oswald said he found that the pit bull falls in the category spelled out in the county ordinance as a "potentially dangerous dog": one that "aggressively bites any person" or "kills or causes the death of any domestic animal."

That kicks in the following restrictions: The dog must wear a muzzle and must be kept in a secure enclosure. The owner would have to buy public liability insurance or complete a pet ownership program. Owners also can be required to post warning signs on their property.

But since the ownership is clouded in this case, it's not clear what will happen to the teenager or if the Colorado owner would have to follow the restrictions, Oswald said.

Both Oregon and Colorado laws are similar to Multnomah County's ordinance as are laws in neighboring states.

The county and Oregon laws are endorsed by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruely to Animals.  California's law regarding dangerous or vicious dogs also allows for restrictions on dog owners and a hearing before a judge or hearings officer to decide the dog's fate. Washington state has similar laws, too.

"Each incident is looked at individually based on their severity," Oswald said. "You identify the owners who dogs that are aggressive and put restrictions to prevent further incidents. It's a prevention program and it works."

Studies have shown that Multnomah County's approach to dealing with dangerous dogs reduces the chance the dog will reoffend from 25 percent to 7 percent, he said.

As a matter of course, Oswald said, a potentially dangerous dog whose owner doesn't honor the restrictions or a dog that continues its aggressive behavior can be euthanized and the owner can face civil penalties and fines.

That decision would be made by either a hearings officer or a judge.

The pit bull in last week's attack doesn't fall into the definition of a "dangerous dog," the most serious classification under county law that can bring euthanasia.

A dangerous dog is one that causes "the serious physical injury or death of any person, or the dog is used in commission of a crime," under state and Multnomah County laws.

Penalties for maintaining a dangerous dog can include fines and tickets for violations, or a misdemeanor criminal charge.

Euthanasia – for dangerous animals as well as healthy animals due to overcrowding -- has become increasingly uncommon in the Portland metro area after the Animal Shelter Alliance of Portland was formed in 2006.

In 2006, what's known as the live-release rate, stood a little over 60 percent; in 2013, the combined live-release rate for dogs and cats in counties in the alliance — Multnomah, Clackamas, Washington and Clark in Washington state — stood at 91 percent.

Britta Bavaresco, co-founder of the Animal Shelter Alliance, said while the pit bull has a big strike against it for killing another dog, officials may never be able to determine what the dog went through during the three months since it was reported missing in Colorado.

"I'm not making excuses for the dog," Bavaresco said. "A small dog was killed — it's horrible and should not have happened. But the pit bull may have been fighting for her life, it could have been confused or stressed. But in plain speak, the dog is not returning to our streets. We are getting the dog out of the county and here is an owner."

(The Oregonian - September 29, 2014)


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