Thursday, June 17, 2010

St. Augustine Record: 'Dangerous' shih-tsu on Death Row Owner of Cyrus has 10 days to appeal hearing officer's order to put down pet


Cyrus, a shaggy 14-pound shih-tsu, sits in solitary confinement on a doggy Death Row in a wire cage at St. Johns County Animal Control, doing the only thing he's allowed to do -- bark.

But not for long.

On late Wednesday afternoon, hearing officer Jerry T. Cameron issued an order saying, "The Department of Animal Control is hereby authorized to destroy the animal in an expeditious and humane manner."

County officials have said the dog's owner, Philip J. Stoddard of St. Augustine, has 10 days to appeal.

Stoddard intends to do just that.

"The hearing (deciding Cyrus' fate) was such a rush to judgment as to be unbelievable," he said. "The county seems intent upon killing this dog. If they can do this to my pet, they can do it to someone else's. Everybody's pet is in jeopardy."

Cyrus was staying at a dog foster home in St. Augustine in late April when he bolted out of the house, ran toward two girls on a swing set and then swerved toward a 5-year-old boy riding on a battery-operated Jeep.

What happened next put him in deep trouble.

County employee Leslie Banta, the boy's mother, wrote an affidavit saying she saw Cyrus "viciously attacking" her son "from one side of the Jeep to the other." He was "covered in blood" and his arm "was very bruised and has puncture wounds also. Due to the trauma and terror my son and daughter suffered, I would really like this dog deemed dangerous. Due to the aggressive bites and severe injury, this dog needs to be destroyed."

But Stoddard pointed out that Banta was sitting on her patio, four or five homes away from the incident.

"That hearing was a show trial," he said. "If there is nothing I can do against these (people), Cyrus will die."


A one-page report by Sheriff's Office Deputy Christina Dobbs said Cyrus escaped Flowers' house about 7 p.m. on April 27 and bit the 5-year-old's ear. The responding deputy apparently did not deem the dog a danger to the public, because she didn't impound it.

Then a volunteer from SAFE Pet Rescue of Northeast Florida Inc., who had custody of the dog, drove Cyrus to another foster home in Flagler Beach. Eight days later, Animal Control Crew Chief Ed Martin drove down and returned Cyrus to St. Johns County.

SAFE did not return phone calls seeking information about the case.

But according to Martin, he ruled Cyrus as a "dangerous dog" because the injuries were severe and the attack unprovoked.

Stoddard had already completed buying Cyrus for $75 from SAFE.

"He's sweet and loving," Stoddard said. "He's never had a problem with anyone. But I'm worried about his health. He's been in solitary confinement now for 40 days."

Shih Tzu, which in Chinese literally means "Lion Dog," range in weight from 10 to 16 pounds.

Cyrus looks dirty and unkempt this week in his 4-foot by 10-foot wire pen, which contains a small sleeping blanket and a pail of water.

Cameron's order said, "It does not appear that from the evidence and testimony presented that anyone involved in this unfortunate incident previously knew the animal was capable of such an attack."

The legalities

The boy suffered a straight cut on the back of his left ear and minor puncture lacerations on his left arm. Doctors at Flagler Hospital took 10 stitches to sew up the ear.

Crew Chief Martin sent a letter to SAFE saying, "Because severe injury occurred, as defined by St. Johns County's Dangerous Dog Ordinance, your dog shall be deemed for destruction."

Cameron was appointed to preside over this case because a special magistrate was unavailable.

He said last week that he had examined every bit of evidence and testimony multiple times.

"The child's injuries are severe," Cameron said. "I have to go strictly by the law. I have no discretion. My job is to hear the facts and see if the facts comport with the law. It's a serious matter to take anything's life."

In the order, he denied a request by Stoddard to move the dog to a care provider in Putnam County, saying, "The Hearing Officer does not find such authority in these regulations. Neither (county or state law) authorizes the removal of a dangerous animal from the jurisdiction."

Only hours before the order was issued, attorneys Robert E. Grier and Undine C. Pawlowsi of Anastasia Law Partners Inc., representing Stoddard, filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief.

Stoddard said, "We are asking the court to declare the county and state law (regulating dangerous dogs) unconstitutional and enjoin the county from enforcing it."

Animal Control has said it will perform the execution in a timely fashion after the order is issued.

'It doesn't matter'

Krista Randall, owner of Park Avenue Paws, 425 State Road 207, said Cyrus had stayed as a foster dog in her home for weeks.

"He was the sweetest, most loving little boy," Randall said. "I have children and at the time had (two other) foster dogs. He was so wonderful. I would hold all three dogs together and never saw an angry side to that dog, ever. He'd jump into the car, ready to go and snuggle up to me."

He was housebroken and would run to the French doors to indicate he had business outside, she said.

"I know he's unsure of why he's (confined)," she said.

But a dog's good character doesn't count for much, according to Animal Control.

Division Chief Paul Studivant said his officers -- who follow county and state statutes -- decide every day which dogs should be deemed dangerous.

"We don't know the history of this dog. (But) whether large or small, we treat every (animal) the same," Studivant said. "It doesn't matter what its size is. It's a hard decision, but one that has to be made. If I'm going to err, I'll err on the side of public safety."

Florida law defines "severe injury" as "any physical injury that results in broken bones, multiple bites or disfiguring lacerations requiring sutures or reconstructive surgery."

To the courts

Stoddard disputes that the boy's injuries were actually severe, and believes that they could have been caused when the boy fell off the Jeep rather than being administered by Cyrus.

There were no witnesses to the attack. The only direct testimony came from the victim, who ran home and told his mother, "The dog bit me."

He believes the county is defending one of its own, and adds that Banta has already indicated she has hired an attorney to sue SAFE.

"The only evidence we have of those bites are fuzzy photographs taken at the Emergency Room," Stoddard said. "We don't know who took them. Pets are property and both Florida and federal law mandates that there be safeguards in place before they can take your property."

His complaint names all five county commissioners, County Administrator Michael Wanchick and Cameron, calling county and state law "obsolete" and claiming they violate the Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendments.

But Cameron said, "I'm absolutely committed to fair play and a full hearing on the evidence. I love animals, but I have to push all that aside. Cases get decided on legal definitions every day. If I had any discretion, I'd rule on the side of the dog."

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