Owner claims mistaken identity in 'dangerous dog' appeal

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BRATTLEBORO — A local woman used what the town attorney called a "mistaken identity defense" when appealing the police chief's decision to declare one of her two pitbulls dangerous after an attack led to the death of a cat.

Nina Kunimoto, who lives on South Main Street, said it was Buddy — not Dozer — who bit a cat on Valgar Street when she walked her two dogs on leashes in August. The cat died from the injuries two days later.

Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald said he sent Kunimoto a notice in October after learning Dozer bit the cat. He reported the dog had bit his owner in October and also ran loose "barking and terrifying children" in December.

His declaration means Kunimoto must keep the dog in a secure enclosure when outside and unleashed to prevent an escape. Also, the dog must be muzzled when being walked and insurance of no less than $50,000 on the animal must be maintained.

The dog that was declared dangerous doesn't warrant the label, said Kunimoto's attorney Margaret York of Corum Mabie Cook Prodan Angell Secrest & Darrow of Brattleboro during an appeal to the Select Board on Tuesday night.

Kunimoto claimed a cat had run up to Buddy and gotten in his face.

"And immediately, he bit down," she said. "Dozer was nosing the cat."

Kunimoto said she screamed at the top of her lungs, hoping someone would help get the dog off the cat but eventually succeeded doing so herself.

"I was frazzled," she said. "It wasn't a pleasant thing to see this happening."

York said that since the incident, Buddy participated in rehabilitative training in New York. Kunimoto said she continues training the dog with five daily exercises.

Select Board Chairwoman Kate O'Connor said Buddy had not been declared a dangerous dog.

"We're here tonight on the appeal hearing with regard to Dozer," said Bob Fisher, town attorney. "I appreciate you trying to preempt, to not have to come twice."

Kunimoto denied telling the animal control officer Dozer had attacked the cat, although that dog's name appeared in the officer's report.

"I didn't say anything," she said. "She didn't actually ask me. She just had me sign the citation. I signed it really quickly and I explained the cat came out towards the dog. I was in a hurry so I just signed the paper."

Fitzgerald said it was his first time hearing that Buddy was the culprit.

"Every situation is different," he said when asked whether Buddy might be declared dangerous. "I would have to judge it on its merits."

The case was the first time in Fitzgerald's five years as chief that resulted in such a declaration. Pointing to a large presence of young families and pets on Valgar Street, he said his decision had to do with the community's safety.

Select Board members shared that concern.

"A cat is dead," board member Tim Wessel said. "I'm not convinced training can turn it around."

But board member Brandie Starr also worried about a bias against pitbulls.

"My concern is actually what I hear at this table," she said, wondering whether she would hear similar responses if a dog of a different breed had attacked the cat.

Ultimately, the board continued the hearing until Jan. 8. The plan is to hear from other witnesses.

"I want the dog to be part of the community and not have to be muzzled and not have the stigma of being declared a danger," said Kunimoto.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.

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