Couple questions Chilmark's leniency in dog decision
A recent dog hearing in Chilmark illustrates the complex and very personal issues town officials face in making decisions about heartbreaking incidents involving beloved family pets.
Although Massachusetts General Laws (MGL) address specific penalties for various dog infractions, ultimately the decisions are left to selectmen, animal commission officers, or county commissioners [See "Dog laws offer town officials wide latitude," MV Times, Nov. 12].
On the morning of October 9, Jim Morgan let his dog Maisy, a 7-year-old Pointing Griffon, run loose while he was working in the woods on a property near his house, according to Chilmark dog officer Chris Murphy.
In the meantime, Linda Zeltzer happened to be walking down Prospect Hill Road, which abuts her property, with her two Yorkshire terriers, both on leashes. All of a sudden Maisy ran out of the woods and savagely attacked Chipper, fatally injuring the small dog at Ms. Zeltzer's feet as she screamed and tried to pull Maisy off of him.
A workman came running from another property, gave Ms. Zeltzer a tee-shirt to wrap Chipper in, and drove them to a veterinary clinic. The dog had to be euthanized due to the severity of his injuries.
Mr. Murphy responded to the incident and documented the details in a written report to the Chilmark selectmen.
"I also gave a recommendation, which they didn't ask for and don't have to follow, that the dog be put down," Mr. Murphy told The Times. "I look at it as a public safety issue. If a dog would do that, I can only picture a child in the same situation. My answer is that the dog needs to be euthanized."
However, Mr. Murphy added, Maisy had no previous history of vicious behavior complaints. Immediately after the incident, he said he talked to some of the Morgans' neighbors, who own chickens, dogs, sheep and goats, and that they told him Maisy visited their properties often and had not been a problem.
The Chilmark selectmen scheduled a dog hearing at their October 20 meeting. Ms. Zeltzer told her husband, Bob, who was out of the country at the time, that Chilmark executive secretary Tim Carroll notified her about the hearing on their answering machine.
Ms. Zeltzer did not attend the hearing, because she was too upset to stay on the Island and had left a few days sooner than planned to teach a course in Boston, her husband said in a phone call last week.
At the dog hearing, Mr. Murphy said the Chilmark selectmen reminded Mr. Morgan, who attended with his wife Diane, about the seriousness of the incident. Mr. Morgan asked the selectmen for permission to take Maisy off-Island to the Monks of New Skete dog training program.
The selectmen ordered Maisy restrained, in keeping with the town's dog bylaw, and to be trained off-Island for two weeks, according to Mr. Carroll. When Mr. Morgan went to pick Maisy up, the instructors recommended additional training, Mr. Carroll said. An instructor has since provided Maisy's follow-up training at home in Chilmark.
In speaking about the death of the Zeltzers' dog and Maisy's involvement, Ms. Morgan said in a phone call, "It's a dog owner's worst nightmare. It's not our dog's fault. It's our fault."
Ms. Morgan said the dog-training program utilizes an electric collar and voice commands. "We're doing now what we should have done long before," she said.
Mr. Zeltzer said Mr. Carroll has been very sensitive and compassionate, arranging for him to view a videotape of the dog hearing when he returned from his trip. In follow-up, Mr. Zeltzer asked the selectmen to reconsider their decision at their November 3 meeting.
In addition to concerns that Maisy might harm a child on one of her hunting runs, Mr. Zeltzer said he had reservations about how well the training would work long-term. He told the selectmen he did not want the dog put down, but thought she should be sent to a no-kill refuge. The selectmen said their decision stood.
According to MGL Chapter 140, section 157, dogs that are a nuisance by attacking or biting other dogs may be ordered restrained - or disposed of - as deemed necessary by selectmen.
"I'm comfortable with the selectmen making the decision and the decision they made, even though it doesn't agree with my recommendation," Mr. Murphy said in retrospect. "You have to say no to somebody, and it's a no-win situation for everybody."
Mr. Zeltzer, however, objected to the selectmen's decision as being too lenient. "I think their priorities were out of order," he said in a phone call. "Their first priority should be public safety and their second priority to be attentive to the wants of long-time Chilmark residents. I think they reversed the order there."
Mr. Zeltzer said he wanted to make it clear, however, that he thinks Mr. Morgan is a very nice man and that he knows and is quite fond of his parents. "This is not a personal vendetta," he said. "Nobody wants to put down a dog, nobody wants to hurt a family and their children, but public safety should be an overriding concern. I don't want anybody else to go through what my wife went through or something worse. I've watched the pain she's gone through, and part of my pain is sharing hers."
Although it's been a month, Mr. Zeltzer said his wife continues to wake up in the middle of the night with flashbacks and nightmares.
Mr. Zeltzer publicly said he would consult a lawyer as a next step. When asked last week if anything had resulted from such a consultation, he declined to discuss it.