Court swipes Tisbury bulldog from jaws of death

Monday, Edgartown District Court clerk/magistrate Liza Williamson reversed a decision by the Tisbury selectmen that ordered a bulldog that killed a cat in front of its horrified owner be euthanized. In her decision, Ms. Williamson outlined significant procedural faults committed by the Tisbury selectmen and the animal control officer.

Town officials’ failure to provide sufficient documentation gave Boomer, an 82-lb. American bulldog, a new leash on life. Boomer belongs to Ed Staruk-Gillies of Bernard Circle in Vineyard Haven.

Ms. Williamson said the town provided insufficient evidence to support its decision, and there may be reasonable alternatives to killing the dog.

Boomer has quite a rap sheet, according to testimony presented to Ms. Williamson on August 11 and described in Ms. Williamson’s decision. The testimony was by Tisbury animal control officer Laurie Clements and Joyce Staruk-Gillies, Ed’s mother.

Ms. Clements said she received 17 loose-dog calls on Boomer in 2008. Ms. Staruk-Gillies testified that on January 14, 2010, Boomer attacked another dog, but she said the dogfight was mutual because the other dog also was unleashed.

On March 2, Boomer attacked a cat. On April 15, Boomer was loose again, and Ms. Clements picked him up on East Chop.

But it was an incident on May 28, when Boomer killed a cat owned by Nancy Smith and Gordon Massingham on Leland Avenue “in a brutal manner,” that sounded his death knell. Tisbury selectmen held a dog hearing on July 6.

Acting on the recommendation of Ms. Clements, Selectmen Jeff Kristal and Geoghan Coogan voted to order Boomer euthanized. Selectman Tristan Israel abstained.

Joyce Staruk-Gillies, Mr. Gillies mother, filed a petition with the court to overturn the selectmen’s order.

As Ms. Williamson explained in her “memorandum and order on petition to review,” dated August 16, “The role of the Magistrate is narrow in scope and the hearing is not a de novo [from the beginning] hearing. That being noted, however, the burden upon Tisbury is to present sufficient evidence to the Court that proper cause was found for the order during the selectmen’s hearing, and that it was conducted in good faith.”

Ms. Williamson outlined the weak documentation the town relied upon for its decision and presented to the court.

“No written citations had ever been given to the petitioner, and no log of any type was submitted with regard to oral warnings,” Ms. Williamson wrote. “Apparently there were conversations between Clements and Staruk-Gillies about Boomer’s behavior, but no official ‘plan’ had ever been suggested, except an oral suggestion to muzzle Boomer, and no bond had ever been ordered posted on Boomer due to his behavior.”

Tisbury presented two exhibits to the Court at the August 11 hearing.

“Those exhibits consisted of the letter informing Staruk-Gillies of the euthanization order and a letter from a ‘concerned resident,’ post-Selectmen’s hearing, who was not concerned enough to either sign the letter nor authorize Tisbury to disclose their name at the hearing,” Ms. Williamson wrote.

She also noted that no minutes of the selectmen’s July 6 hearing, town by-laws nor documents indicating the process governing the town with regard to authorization to euthanize a dog were provided to the court.

Ms. Williamson was also critical of of Mr. Israel’s decision to abstain from the vote (July 6, “Tisbury selectmen sweat agenda of decisions“).

“The Court is further troubled that testimony was presented that although all three Selectmen took part in the hearing, two of the selectmen voted to euthanize Boomer and one abstained, apparently stating that he had a moral issue with the euthanization of dogs,” she wrote.

“The Court finds it odd that, in effect, a ‘recusal’ occurred after the Selectman took part in the hearing. Although no documentary exhibits were provided to the Court indicating whether or not a vote by Selectmen in Tisbury to euthanize a dog must be a unanimous one, or a vote by majority, certainly it is prejudicial to the petitioner that had this Selectman voted, it would have been a vote favorable to the petitioner (in that it would be a vote not to euthanize) … Tisbury did not present whether or not a vote to euthanize must be unanimous or simply by a majority. so there is no way of knowing whether his abstaining vote was fatal or not to Boomer.”

In conclusion, Ms. Williamson said, “This Court finds there may be reasonable alternatives to killing Boomer; insufficient evidence supporting proper cause and good faith was presented, and hereby reverses Tisbury’s decision to euthanize Boomer.”