Dog attack spurs local, state action

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PUTNEY — Sarah Cooper-Ellis was walking her dog, Posy, in Putney Village on Dec. 29 when the unthinkable happened — two pit bulls came running toward them.

Cooper-Ellis described the incident in a letter to the Reformer.

"A large dog tore across the street snarling. A woman ran after it, yelling. The large dog immediately jumped up on — and, with huge jaws, attacked — my dog. The woman attempted to gain control, perhaps with a leash, but she was soon lying on the ground next to her dog. I tried to lift my dog from beneath the attacking dog. Then a second dog, who looked very much like the first, came from the same direction and joined in biting my dog. The owner and I both screamed, to no effect. Each time I attempted to lift my dog up, the attacking dogs jumped up and pulled her back down with their teeth," she wrote.

Posy did not survive the attack.

Cooper-Ellis contacted the Windham County Sheriff's Office, which serves as Putney's animal control, to see what could be done about the death of her dog.

Deputy Sheriff Ian Tuttle responded, but told Cooper-Ellis there wasn't much he could do because Vermont has limited dog control laws. He determined that the animals should be confined to the house, except when they need to use the bathroom. When they go outside they must be leashed.

Cooper-Ellis was not pleased with that result. She said the dogs were leashed when they attacked Posy.

"We need to change the laws in Vermont," she told the Reformer. She wants to hold owners more liable for the actions of their dogs. She isn't the only person who wants to see the laws changed.

State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, who represents Putney, Westminster and Dummerston, said Vermont's law is facetiously described as "first bite free," by some people. Last legislative session, Mrowicki was the lead author of a bill that would make dog owners more responsible for their dog's actions.

Currently, the state of Vermont doesn't have any mandates about dog control. It's left up to individual municipalities. Mrowicki believes dog control needs to be state mandated.

Last legislative session the bill fell by the wayside. This year's bill will have very few changes, Mrowicki said, but he hopes it will be better received.

"Sometimes it takes a while to build support," he said.

It's unfortunate, he said, but incidents like what happened to Posy draw attention to legislation and encourage more people to support it.

The incident was added to Putney's Select Board agenda for Wednesday. Town Manager Willis "Chip" Stearns said the Select Board will be reviewing the incident. Under Putney's animal control ordinance; owners are charged $50 for a first-time offending dangerous animal.

Stearns believes that Cooper-Ellis would like to see the owner pay more than a $50. That could cause problems for the town. Stearns fears that Cooper-Ellis will be asking to put the two dogs down. To do that the Select Board would have to go through a vicious-dog trial. The trial would also involve attorneys.

"Corporal punishment doesn't work well with humans and it doesn't work well with PETA," Stearns said, referring to the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "It's not as plain and simple as an eye for an eye."

Outside of the consequences of Posy's death, Stearns believes that the Select Board might also want to rewrite or examine Putney's current ordinances. The vicious dog ordinance does not apply to dogs attacking other dogs.

"Therein lies the rub," Stearns explained. And $50 for the death of a beloved family friend might be seen as too slim. Ultimately, Stearns believes that the Select Board is interested in holding animal owners accountable.

"If you're going to have and maintain an animal you have to maintain control," he said.

No matter what the Select Board decides there still remains the issue of enforcement. Putney does not currently have an animal control officer.

"We haven't met the person who meets the qualifications that they're looking for," Stearns said of the Select Board.

Currently, the Windham County Sheriff's Office serves as animal control; in its absence, the duty falls to the town manager, and if the manager is not available, it goes to the health officer.

The situation makes Mrowicki nervous. "A lot of kids walk around downtown," he said.

Mrowicki intends to reintroduce his bill sometime this week. He doesn't expect much backlash.

"I'm a dog owner and I think it's important to keep owners responsible," he said. He thinks most other dog owners feel the same.

The bill Mrowicki is introducing won't mandate that dogs get euthanized in instances like this. He believes it's up to individual municipalities to determine what constitutes a vicious dog, but he wants a financial mandate for humans to take responsibility for their dogs.

Cooper-Ellis believes that in the case of what happened to Posy, putting down the dogs who attacked her dog is appropriate. She's worried that the dogs could hurt another dog or a person.

Some people might argue that just because the dogs were able to kill another dog doesn't mean that they would attack a human, but Cooper-Ellis believes violence is a slippery slope. She said she might not care that much if her dog killed a rat, but it could be a red flag.

"You have to be really careful about the training for aggressive behavior," she said.

Despite her belief that putting down the dogs is, in this instance, the safest option, she also believes that the attack wasn't the dogs' fault but the owner's.

"There's some controversy in the dog owner community," Cooper-Ellis explained. Big dog owners want their dogs to be allowed to roam free, and there's a stigma about little dogs. They're seen as annoying, Cooper-Ellis said, which can be true.

Cooper-Ellis also is trying to be careful about the language she uses for the attack.

"We are aware that there is some prejudice about pit bulls," she said. The attack, Cooper-Ellis said, wasn't because the dogs were pit bulls, it was a failure on the owner's part to train her dogs correctly.

All dogs have the potential to be violent, Cooper-Ellis said. Her dog, she said, wasn't perfect.

"She could growl," she admitted. "Dogs are entirely dependent on their human owners."

Harmony Birch can be reached at hbirch@reformer.com, at @Birchharmony on Twitter and 802-254-2311, Ext. 153.


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