West Tisbury dog owner questions why pet was shot

Chi, a mixed breed pet dog, was shot an killed by a landowner protecting his chickens. — Photo courtesy of Matt Gordon

An unnamed West Tisbury resident shot and killed a pet dog named Chi on the afternoon of Veterans Day, November 11. He later notified town assistant animal control officer Allen Healy and brought the dead animal to him. The shooting left the dog owner shaken and questioning state laws that allow a landowner to kill a dog attacking fowl or livestock.

The dog, a 25-pound mixed breed, part Sheltie and part border collie, was chasing chickens, according to West Tisbury animal control officer Joan Jenkinson.

Ms. Jenkinson said the landowner was well within his rights.

“The farmer does have every right to kill a dog if it’s worrying, wounding, or killing his livestock,” Ms. Jenkinson wrote in an email to The Times. She said the farmer did the right thing by notifying the assistant animal control officer.

Ms. Jenkinson would reveal little to The Times about the circumstances of the shooting. She has not prepared a written report on the circumstances surrounding the incident.

Town administrator Jennifer Rand said in an email to The Times that town officials are not required to file one.

“There is no written report on the recent dog incident,” Ms. Rand wrote. “Neither the Animal Control Officer (ACO) nor I are of the opinion that G.L. c. 151A (as recently amended) requires that any written report be made, as the animal was never in the control of the ACO.”

Matt Gordon, the dog owner, said he has many unanswered questions. “I’m not really satisfied with the law, and this being okay,” Mr. Gordon told The Times in a telephone conversation Tuesday. “On one side, I completely understand. I grew up on a farm. We lost sheep to dogs. But I also grew up with dogs. These kinds of things happen. Growing up as a farmer, it’s not something that would be my first reaction. I’m not satisfied that the person just shot my dog. Where is this person? Is the house close to somebody else’s house? Despite all the rights they have to protect animals, do they have a right to shoot a gun based on the proximity of their house to someone else’s?”

Afternoon gunshots

Mr. Gordon, who moved to Martha’s Vineyard in September, described the incident in a phone interview. He said he had just arrived that Sunday at the home he shares with his girlfriend in Vineyard Meadow Farms Road, a housing development off Edgartown-West Tisbury Road. The two were returning from an afternoon hike with their dogs.

“I opened the door, turned my back to talk to my girlfriend, and both dogs ran off,” Mr. Gordon said. “It’s something they’ve done before, but they just ran off to a neighbor’s house. I called the dogs. They didn’t come back.”

A few minutes later, Mr. Gordon said he heard gunshots. “I got concerned,” he said. “You can’t hunt on Sunday. We’re in a residential area.”

He walked to several homes to ask about the dogs, growing increasingly concerned, while his girlfriend called the animal control officer. A few minutes later, Mr. Healy called back to tell Mr. Gordon that the person who killed Chi was bringing him to the animal control officer.”

Mr. Gordon said the other dog returned to their house with a wound on its neck, but he wasn’t sure what caused the wound.

Little information

Ms. Jenkinson refused to identify the person who shot the dog.

“I got a dozen phone calls from newspapers, and I refuse to reply to them,” Ms. Jenkinson said Tuesday in a brief phone interview. “They never get it right, and the people involved don’t want it spread all over the paper. Two dogs went onto this man’s property, they chased the chickens, he tried to call them off, they would not budge.”

She said it is a very sensitive subject, and the dog owner did not want to know who shot his dog.

“I may have said that when I was talking to her,” Mr. Gordon said. “I was kind of hysterical when I picked up my dog, and I didn’t want to speak to anybody, but I would love to know as much as I could.”

The law is clear

Massachusetts law puts a heavy burden on dog owners to control their dogs, and imposes heavy penalties for those who do not. It also affords residents wide latitude to kill dogs that threaten their fowl or livestock.

Massachusetts General Law gives residents the right to kill a dog under specific but wide-ranging circumstances.

“Any person may kill a dog found out of the enclosure of its owner or keeper and not under his immediate care in the act of worrying, wounding, or killing persons, livestock or fowls,” the law reads. “He shall not be held liable for cruelty to the dog unless it shall be shown that he intended to be cruel to the dog, or that he acted with wanton and reckless disregard for the suffering of the dog. Prompt killing of a wounded dog, or a prompt report to the owner or to a dog officer of the wounding of the dog, shall be considered evidence of sufficient regard for the suffering of the dog.”

Anyone can file a written complaint with the board of selectmen against a dog that is harassing or killing livestock. Selectmen are required to hold a public hearing. They have three general options. The board can dismiss the complaint, declare the dog a nuisance, or declare the dog dangerous. If they declare the dog a nuisance or dangerous by formal vote, they can impose sanctions, ranging from various methods of restraint, all the way to euthanasia.

Under recent changes to the law, selectmen cannot order the dog banned from their town. Either party may appeal the selectmen’s decision to Edgartown District Court.

If a dog is declared dangerous and a law enforcement officer finds the animal loose, in violation of any restraint ordered by selectmen, the law requires that he kill the dog immediately. “Any police officer, constable or dog officer shall kill a dog which the selectmen of a town, chief of police of a city, or the county commissioners, or, upon review, the district court, shall have ordered to be restrained if such dog is again found outside the enclosure of its owner or keeper and not under his immediate care,” the law reads.

In cases where a dog is caught attacking livestock or fowl, the dog owner can be liable for triple the damages caused.

West Tisbury has a town bylaw regulating control of dogs. “All dogs owned or kept within the limit of the Town shall be restrained from running at large or shall be kept within the immediate control of their owners and keepers,” the bylaw reads.