Oak Bluffs selectmen took on the somber duty of deciding the fate of a 14-month-old German shepherd named Litchfield at a dangerous-dog hearing during their regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday night. The hearing followed the dog’s deadly attack on a Jack Russell terrier on Sunday, March 8, on Olinda Avenue.
“It’s the most gruesome attack I’ve seen in my short time with the town,” Oak Bluffs animal control officer Anthony BenDavid told selectmen. “It was severe, it was quick, it was brutal, it was bad. It’s a tragic situation, and I don’t think it should happen again in this town.”
Mr. BenDavid unequivocally recommended that the selectmen vote to euthanize the German shepherd. However, during the course of a lengthy and at times emotional discussion, selectmen were informed by the dog’s owner, Rosemary Kaszuba, that she had already shipped her dog out of state.
“He was already scheduled to leave on April 1 for training,” Ms. Kaszuba said, adding that Litchfield is from world-champion lineage. “Out of respect for the community I sent him out of the state. He won’t be coming back to the state of Massachusetts.”
Edgartown attorney Rosemarie Haigazian, representing the Jack Russell owners Gary and Nora Jardin, asked Ms. Kaszuba to reveal the trainer’s identity and exactly where she sent her dog. Ms. Kaszuba said it was a trainer somewhere in upstate New York and that she didn’t know the exact location, to the audible disbelief of many at the well-attended hearing.
Ms. Kaszuba expressed deep regret for the Jardins’ loss, and proceeded to read letters from several dog trainers who said Litchfield was not a danger to humans.
Dr. Bridget Dunnigan, the Island veterinarian who performed triage on Callie after the attack, strongly disagreed. “Any dog that has the propensity to inflict such life-ending wounds is a danger to society,” she said. “Since this dog also bit the owner, Gary Jardin, I am also very concerned what injuries this dog could inflict on other humans. I will flatly state that such a dog should never be allowed around children.”
In her absent dog’s defense, Ms. Kaszuba, who by her account has been training German shepherds for 17 years, said her dog has never had issues with humans. She suggested the attack was likely triggered in part by a toy poodle attack that Litchfield had suffered as a puppy.
Recalling the incident, Mr. BenDavid told selectmen he received a call at 3:30 pm on Sunday, March 8. When he arrived, he met Nora Jardin, who was holding her badly bleeding Jack Russell, Callie. Ms. Jardin’s husband Gary had already been taken to the hospital for bite wounds on his left hand.
In a statement to Mr. BenDavid, Mr. Jardin said he had just left his house with his two leashed Jack Russells when he saw Litchfield and another German shepherd with Ms. Kaszuba in her driveway. Mr. Jardin said he thought about taking his dogs back inside, because he had seen the German shepherds roaming the neighborhood unleashed in the past. After he thought Ms. Kaszuba had taken her dogs inside, Mr. Jardin walked his dogs in the opposite direction and said that approximately 75 yards down the road he heard Callie yelp and saw Litchfield with his teeth clamped into her abdomen. Mr. Jardin picked up his other dog and tried to free Callie, and said it took several attempts, including hitting Litchfield, before he released his 23-pound terrier.
Callie had suffered a punctured lung, broken ribs, and serious internal injuries. After emergency care by Dr. Dunnigan at Vineyard Veterinary Clinic, Callie was rushed off-Island to Cape Cod Veterinary Specialists for treatment. She died two days later.
The in-absentia vote highlighted several loopholes in the state’s dangerous-dog laws. Under Massachusetts law, the offending dog must go through a 10-day rabies quarantine, but can do so while still in the owner’s possession. There is no regulation that prevents an owner from taking the dog to another state, as Ms. Kaszuba did.
“One of the things that struck me was vets who treated the dog said that we should take this very seriously, this was a dangerous dog,” chairman and dog owner Greg Coogan said. “In light of the fact that the dog isn’t in the state, we’re in a difficult situation.”
“If the dog is out of state, we have no jurisdiction,” selectman, dog owner, and lawyer Gail Barmakian said. “How can we ensure the dog is not coming back to the commonwealth?”
Since selectmen have to make the final ruling at a public hearing, there can be a considerable gap between the day of the incident and the day of reckoning. In this case, the attack took place on March 8, Mr. BenDavid submitted a public hearing request to the selectmen on March 10, and the first available time was March 24.
“I can’t see why we can’t have a special meeting within that 10-day period if something this horrific happens again,” selectman Kathy Burton said. “I am a dog owner, and I find this very, very upsetting. There are some dogs that you just can’t fix.” Ms. Burton said that years ago she was attacked by a Great Dane that her parents had rescued. “If it was my mother, she probably would have been killed. They did the responsible thing and put it down.”
About 20 friends and neighbors showed up to give moral support to Mr. and Mrs. Jardin, who did not speak during the hearing, but were visibly aggrieved. One neighbor said she feared taking her baby for outdoor strolls because she is terrified of Ms. Kaszuba’s remaining German shepherd.
Ms. Kaszuba maintained that she had kept strict watch over her dogs since the incident. However, Mr. BenDavid said Ms. Jardin had contacted him again on March 16, eight days after the fatal attack, saying that Ms. Kaszuba’s unleashed German shepherd was looking into her front porch window. “The snow showed tracks from Ms. Kaszuba’s house to the Jardins’ front porch,” Mr. BenDavid said.
Oak Bluffs resident Sarah Adams asked what the consequences are for an unleashed dog. Mr. BenDavid said he is limited to a warning, then fines of $25, $35, and $50 for subsequent offenses.
“The leash law in Oak Bluffs is pretty loose,” he said. “It just says that the dog has to be in control by voice command.”
Mr. Coogan said that any changes to town bylaws would have to be taken up at town meeting in 2016.
Ms. Kaszuba said that she came to the Island under a one-year contract to cook for the United Methodist Church. “When the contract is up, I will be leaving, and my dog will join me out of state,” she said.
Selectman Walter Vail moved that Litchfield be deemed a dangerous dog and that “it be euthanized, to the extent we can accomplish that.” Selectmen voted unanimously and quickly, 4-0. Selectman Michael Santoro was absent due to illness.
On Wednesday, Ms. Haigazian told The Times that the Jardins’ veterinary bills exceeded $10,000, and that she would file a civil suit against Ms. Kaszuba. “I respect the selectmen for making a difficult decision and doing what had to be done,” Ms. Haigazian, a former dog breeder, said. “The selectmen may want to consult with town counsel to see if they can make some changes.”