Dead Dogs Don't Lie

If your pet escapes in Austin, pray for Animal Control

Shelicia Fowler and Sylvester Easley with Moka
Shelicia Fowler and Sylvester Easley with Moka (Photo by Todd V. Wolfson)

Shelicia Fowler and Sylvester Easley did everything right. From Sept. 11, 2005, when they adopted Butter, an American Bully puppy, they raised him to be good-natured and obedient. (The American Bully is a hybrid of the American pit bull terrier and the American Staffordshire terrier.) They exercised him regularly with daily walks around their East Austin neighborhood and frequent playtime tussles with Sylvester. They disciplined him with a firm hand. They registered him with the city of Austin and made sure he had all his proper vaccinations. Just in case he ever got lost, they had him implanted with a microchip.

Butter grew to be a healthy adult of 65 pounds and a treasured member of the family. He was a thick, muscular dog with a reddish coat and haunting golden eyes, which perhaps made him look menacing to strangers, but the couple says he never showed aggression toward a human or another dog.

"The only one he ever fought with was me," says Easley. "I was his toy."

As conscientious as Lisa and Sylvester were, they couldn't help Butter on the morning of Feb. 11, when, sometime around 9am, he escaped through a hole in the backyard fence. He trotted down the street and encountered a neighbor dog he often passed on his daily walks. The dog usually ran loose in an unfenced front yard and would run into the street barking at Butter as Easley ran interference. On Feb. 11, both dogs were loose, and they fought, resulting in Butter lacerating the neighbor dog's chin. The dog has since fully recovered from the injury.

Butter proceeded down the street to a house where two pit bull/shar-pei mixes about his size lived in a yard behind a chain-link fence. The three dogs were fighting, apparently through an opening between the fence and the gate, when Austin Police Department Officer John Bryant arrived on the scene. Bryant says he tried to break up the fight by shooing Butter away. According to Bryant, Butter had one dog's muzzle in his mouth, then turned on the officer and growled at him, prompting Bryant to shoot the dog three times, killing him instantly. Animal Protection & Control was called after the dog was killed.

The owner of the two dogs, neighbor Maria Alvarez – speaking through her son, who translated her words from Spanish – says her dogs were not hurt in the fight, and she did not take them to a veterinarian.

No people were in immediate danger of Butter that day. According to Bryant's report, the person closest to the dogs – besides himself, another armed officer, and Alvarez, who was standing by her door yelling at her dogs – was an unidentified boy Bryant had passed in his car a block away from the scene.

Meanwhile, Butter's owners noticed he was missing about 20 minutes after he left the yard, they estimate. They jumped in the car and started canvassing the neighborhood. Within minutes they drove by two cops standing in a yard.

"Have you seen a red pit?" Easley asked them. "Is that him?" one of the officers answered, pointing to Butter lying on the ground, riddled with bloody bullet holes. Fowler fell to the ground, sobbing.

Four months later, Fowler continues to grieve. "I miss him every day," she says. "He was like a son to me."


Limited Choices, No Policies

Bryant says he feels bad for Butter's owners but he does not regret the decision to shoot the dog. "If a dog's coming at me," he says, "I have to do what I can to defend myself." Bryant says he could have tried pepper-spraying the dog, but that doesn't work on all people or all dogs, he says, especially one in fighting mode. And it's difficult for an officer to get close enough to Taser a small, fast-moving target.

Bryant's supervisor, Sgt. Robin Orten, echoes Bryant's lack of faith in nonlethal options when faced with an aggressive dog. "Our choices become limited real quick," he says.

Family photos of Butter
Family photos of Butter (Photo by Todd V. Wolfson)

In the past five months, at least three dogs have been killed by local law enforcement officers. In addition to Butter, a dog was shot to death by an Austin Park Police officer on Memorial Day in Emma Long Park. The dog was chained but reportedly pulled his chain and lunged at the officer, who shot the dog in front of its family, including several children. The incident remains under an internal review. And a dog in Pflugerville died from a Travis Co. deputy sheriff's bullet on June 5. An internal investigation prompted by the dog's owner is currently under way. All three dogs were pit bulls.

How often police officers resort to shooting dogs is hard to determine. Neither the APD nor the sheriff's office keeps statistics on dogs shot by law enforcement officers. A public records request for weapon discharge incidents investigated by Internal Affairs turned up two animal shootings by police officers in the past two years, but the information proved incomplete – two animal shootings already known to the Chronicle were missing from the list. APD confirmed last week that not all animal shootings are investigated by IA – "It depends upon the circumstances," said an APD spokesperson, adding that direct supervisors may review the incident instead. Neither APD nor the sheriff's office provides training on handling dogs (although, Bryant says, there is an APD course on dealing with snakes).

Bryant has had his share of experiences with calls involving loose dogs, which he says occur on the Eastside anywhere from once a week to once a day. He's been bitten by a seemingly friendly mutt. He has shot a dog running amok in a back yard, killing chickens. He has also grabbed with his bare hands a dog that was chasing children down the street.

"Every dog you come across is different," he says. "You have to take it on a case-by-case basis. [But] if it was my dog in the yard and [it was] being attacked, I would want the officer to take some sort of action."

The use of deadly force is justified if a law enforcement officer needs to protect himself or another person – particularly a child – from bodily harm. No reasonable person would disagree. But when family pets are involved in a scuffle among themselves, what should be done?

The Town Lake Animal Center website instructs owners of injured dogs to take their animals to the veterinarian and report the dog bite, for purposes of rabies control, to the center. Problem is, when someone calls 911 about a dogfight, the police are compelled to respond, whether the call is a true emergency or not. And when it comes to dog-on-dog violence, officers have little procedural guidance. Neither APD nor the Travis County Sheriff's Office has a written policy guiding patrol officers on how to deal with loose pets, nor do they offer training on how to handle animals. After multiple requests, APD did provide a policy statement from its "General Orders – Administrative Only" manual, described as the handbook that applies to all APD employees, not just officers. The brief section in question addresses "humane destruction of a seriously injured animal" and related reporting-to-supervisor procedures but provides no express policy governing the shooting of aggressive or dangerous animals. (Bryant and Orten both told the Chronicle that APD doesn't have a policy regarding loose dogs.)

City and county code offer little counsel for officers. City of Austin Code of Ordinances, Chapter 3-4-7, states that an owner may not keep a dog within the city limits if the dog has killed or maimed a domesticated animal, provided that the victim dog is restrained according to city law. (By being loose in an unfenced front yard, Butter's first victim was in violation of that provision.) Chapter 52, Section D.1 of the county code specifically addresses "attack by a dangerous dog" on another animal. It requires that the first attack be registered with the county. If the dog, after a public process, is determined to be a "dangerous dog" and a second attack occurs, a hearing is scheduled to determine whether or not the dog should be "humanely destroyed."

City of Austin Code 3-5-4 (B) does empower officers to destroy dogs threatening human life: "A peace officer may destroy a dangerous animal if the peace officer reasonably believes that the animal presents a threat to a person's life." The code does not address less extreme circumstances, and neither city nor county ordinances specifically address how officers in the field should handle dogs at the time of a fight. Local law enforcement officers are left to their own devices as to whether or not a dog is acting dangerously enough to warrant a bullet. And in the absence of any explicit policy, each shooting is reviewed by APD on an ad hoc basis – with no permanent record or public disclosure.

An APD Internal Affairs investigation, initiated by Fowler, cleared Bryant of any wrongdoing. Still, Easley and Fowler believe their dog was killed without just cause. The dogs behind the fence, they point out, were not hurt – they believe the fight probably sounded worse than it really was. Bryant, they say, should have never approached Butter; rather, they believe, he should have called Animal Control.

"Why would you approach a dog you know is being aggressive?" Easley wonders. "If he's not bothering anyone but another dog through a fence, he shouldn't have shot him. He should not have gotten out of the car if he's not properly trained to deal with an aggressive dog."


Out of (Animal) Control

Anyone familiar with Animal Planet knows it's Animal Control, not the police, who are trained and equipped to deal with dogs on the loose, even aggressive ones. In Travis County, Town Lake Animal Center holds joint agency agreement to provide animal-control services for Travis County and the city of Austin.

So why, in Butter's case, was Animal Control not involved? According to Officer Bryant and Sgt. Orten, Animal Control won't respond unless the officer already has the dog contained. The irony is not lost on Orten. "How are we supposed to [contain a dog] safely for ourselves and the dog?" Orten ponders. "We have brought up that issue again and again."

Dorinda Pulliam, director of Town Lake Animal Center, disagrees. She says her Animal Control officers are fully trained and armed with equipment – such as nets and devices called catch pulls and break sticks – to break up dogfights and contain aggressive dogs. Many times Animal Control officers will simply use a nearby water hose, Pulliam says, to break up a fight. "It is our job to respond to animal calls, and it's our job to pick up loose dogs," Pulliam says. "The more likely case is that we can't get there fast enough. If it's an immediate concern, APD can get there faster."

Philip Redmon and Champ
Philip Redmon and Champ (Photo courtesy of Philip Redmon)

Animal Control responds to about 25,000 calls a year in Travis County, an average of nearly 70 per day. With 18 Animal Control officers, about half of whom are on duty for any given shift, the agency is stretched thin. The city of Austin, for which 16 officers are allocated, budgeted $1.45 million for Animal Control this fiscal year, up from $1.17 million for 2006-07. Even so, this year the city will spend less on Animal Control than it will spend on tree maintenance ($1.5 million) or environmental education ($1.47 million).

The response-time goal for Animal Control is 40 minutes, Pulliam says, but that goal is not always attained. And 40 minutes is a long time for an officer to sit and wait for Animal Control to show up while a potentially vicious dog is roaming a neighborhood. "It seems like it takes forever" for Animal Control to arrive, Bryant says. Meanwhile, he says, officers might have to leave the scene to respond to another call.

The sheriff's office shares Bryant's frustration. "While Animal Control is usually sent to loose animal and dangerous animal calls, the problem is that there are very few Animal Control officers and they work in the city and the county," Roger Wade, public information officer for the sheriff's office, said in an e-mail. "Often times the responding deputies have to handle the situation without Animal Control, by attempting to locate an owner or finding someone who will agree to hold the animal until Animal Control shows up."

Pulliam says her officers try to respond to a loose-dog call as quickly as possible and handle the situation with nonlethal means. But in the case of a dogfight, it's appropriate for the police to take the call, she says, because owners will often try to break up the fight, putting themselves at risk.

"We don't want to see animals being hurt or killed in our community," she says. "[But] our first priority and the police's priority should be protecting humans."


Barking for Change

In a June 5 incident eerily similar to Butter's, Philip Redmon's American pit bull terrier Champ was shot to death by a Travis County Sheriff's Office deputy. Champ (the product of champion bloodlines, purchased by Redmon for $2,000 from a breeder in Colorado) and Redmond's other pit bull, Duke, had escaped through a hole in the fence. Champ was fighting with two dogs through an iron gate when Senior Deputy Ralph Cisneros arrived at the scene, responding to a 911 call reporting two pit bulls roaming the area.

Cisneros wrote in an incident report that he feared that Champ was severely injuring one of the dogs behind the gate. He also feared for the safety of a man who was trying to break up the dogfight and for the safety of children who might be in the area; an elementary school is down the block, three-tenths of a mile away. Cisneros attempted to pepper-spray the dog, but it had no effect, he reported. (Redmon disputes this detail, saying Champ's body had no odor.) So he fired his gun at Champ. Red­mond, who had been searching for the dogs, arrived minutes later. Champ died shortly thereafter. The owner of the two dogs, Belinda Yantis, says neither was injured. "They were behind the gate," she says.

A heartbroken Redmon is now working to promote enforceable public policy under which officers would be compelled to exhaust nonlethal means before pulling their guns on dogs. "Immediately there needs to be a protocol change on how to handle animal control situations in regards of public safety," Redmon says. "In case of a loose animal, immediately Animal Control should be called; that's why we have that institution in place. ... They are trained and given the means to deal with those situations."

"Obviously, if there is a life-threatening circumstance, law enforcement should be involved," he adds.

Redmon – a 24-year-old carpenter who describes himself as a "very aware taxpayer" – has launched a web site, www.champthedog.com, to publicize Champ's plight. He also plans to circulate a petition and is working on a presentation about pit bulls for the Travis Co. Animal Advisory Commission. And he's just beginning. "I'll take this to the 2009 legislation session if I have to, to enact a policy in Texas to protect animals in situations like these." (The Lege may not be all that receptive; last year it passed a high-profile bill increasing the penalty for owners of dogs that seriously injure or kill people in unprovoked attacks. The measure grew out of the case of an elderly Milam woman who was killed by a pack of pit bull/rottweiler mixes.)

Redmon believes a bias against pit bulls led to his dog's death, and he's determined to change the public's view of the breed. Pit bull attacks are sensationalized by the media, he says, and are the result of bad owners, not a bad breed. A pit bull properly raised by a responsible owner, he says, is no more dangerous than any other breed of dog.

Easley also believes his dog was prejudged based on his breed. Officer Bryant, he says, assumed his dog was dangerous because he was a pit bull. "That's like saying all black people steal," says Easley, an African-American. "That's a big stereotype to overcome."

Bryant says Butter's breed did not play into his decision to shoot. (Even if it had, dogs don't have constitutional rights, and there's no law against "breed profiling.") Stopping short of condemning the breed as a whole, Sgt. Orten points to pit bulls' physical agility and the breed's growing popularity as likely factors influencing officers' decisions. "I think it's just that we see so many of them; the breed has become more popular," Orten says. "As strong and as fast as they are, we don't have a lot of time to make choices. ... We try to make sure that the public is safe, and ourselves as well."

In Fowler and Easley's living room, Butter's collar, bearing his shiny tags, rests on the couple's coffee table. Moka, their 7-month-old American pit bull pup, appears happy and healthy. At first he's shy but soon warms up to a visiting reporter, licking her toes and soliciting pats. He's young, certainly, but in any case seems unlikely to grow into a public menace, even should he inadvertently go exploring his neighborhood one day. Yet barring some change in city policy and more resources for animal welfare, the fate of Butter will continue to cast a shadow over Moka, as well.

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