Hillary and Kaitlyn Seaton and their attorneys went before Superior Court Clerk Joseph Sollitto on Thursday to appeal the Oak Bluffs selectmen’s unanimous Dec. 12 vote to euthanize their dogs, Sasha and Rosie.
The Seatons had 10 days to appeal the selectmen’s decision.
The pit bull–mix dogs have a troublesome history in the Worcester Avenue neighborhood, according to numerous residents who testified before selectmen. The final straw was a near fatal attack on a 10-year-old cockapoo, Toby, owned by John Stevenson, who was walking his dog by the Seaton house on Nov. 24 when the two pit bulls escaped the house at 23 Worcester Ave. and viciously attacked.
Toby’s injuries were deemed life-threatening at Vineyard Veterinary Clinic, and he was transported to Bourne’s Cape Cod Veterinary Specialists for extensive surgery. Toby had numerous puncture holes on his back, his front right leg, and his left hind leg. Much of the skin was torn off his back, and half of his left ear was bitten off. He is recovering at home. At the time of the incident, Hillary was watching Rosie while Kaitlyn was away on a two-week vacation, and the dogs escaped when she was taking groceries into the house.
Thursday’s proceedings went for three and a half hours.
Hillary Seaton was represented by local attorney Matt Jackson. Kaitlyn Seaton was represented by Falmouth-based attorney Michelle Brennan.
Michael Goldsmith represented Oak Bluffs and the board of selectmen.
The Seatons said they did not know that euthanasia was a possible outcome of the selectmen’s meeting and therefore had not sought legal representation for the hearing.
Opening the proceedings, Mr. Sollitto informed the attorneys that only people who had testified before the selectmen, and only evidence presented to the selectmen, would be admissible. Mr. Sollitto cannot amend the selectmen’s vote, only uphold the decision or overrule it. He said he will decide within 10 days. If Mr. Sollitto upholds the selectmen’s decision, the Seatons can petition for a trial in district court, which would allow new witnesses and new evidence to be introduced.
Under questioning from her attorney, Kaitlyn Seaton said Rosie is a loving dog, who had never attacked or acted aggressively with other dogs or people before the Nov. 24 incident. She said Rosie currently lives with two other dogs, one a pit bull–mix, at her Tisbury home. “She’s my best friend, I couldn’t imagine life without her,” she said. “She’s the best part of my life. Anyone that knows her knows she’s an amazing, loving dog.”
After the attack, certified professional dog trainer Karen Ogden evaluated Rosie and noted she showed “conflicting behavior.” Mr. Goldsmith was not allowed to cite a more detailed report from Ms. Ogden, because it was done after the selectmen’s Dec. 12 vote.
Ms. Brennan said that although selectmen cited numerous complaints about the dogs, her client’s dog had only been cited once for being off leash, which was a case of mistaken identity by former Animal Control Officer (ACO) Anthony BenDavid.
At the Dec. 12 selectmen’s meeting, Kaitlyn promised that Rosie would not be left with her mother again. Also at that meeting, she promised to pay for the veterinary bills if selectmen spared her dog.
On Thursday, she modified that statement, saying she “wished” she could pay the bills, which, according to Mr. Stevenson, total about $8,800, not including the care he received at Falmouth Hospital for injuries to his hand.
On cross-examination, Mr. Goldsmith noted that Ms. Ogden’s report noted Rosie would need substantial training, and that she questioned if Kaitlyn, who is visibly pregnant, would be able to spend the required time with Rosie while raising a newborn.
Hillary Seaton said Sasha, a pit bull/American bulldog mix, was likewise a loving dog, and had helped her through the loss of a family member. A number of the complaints cited by selectmen involved a pit bull/chocolate Labrador mix, Bruin, which she said had a new home with a friend off-Island. She described Bruin as a “goofy old Lab” that was never aggressive to people.
“He was hard to handle, he was hyper, and I couldn’t take care of him,” she said. “I gave him away because of complaints in the neighborhood. He deserved more than I could give him.”
Hillary said her job as a home health aide allows her the flexibility to stop at the house and tend to Sasha during the day, and that her boyfriend, Jason Reagan, also helps care for the dog.
“They’re very loving dogs, they love people,” she said. “Lots of friends have visited my house with dogs and been fine.”
Hillary said she was open to all options to save Sasha’s life, and that she has contacted pit bull sanctuaries in and out of state, and investigated adopting her to a no-kill shelter. “I feel terrible. This is devastating. I hope Toby will be OK,” she said.
On cross-examination, Mr. Goldsmith established a pattern of problematic behavior by the Seaton dogs in the Worcester Avenue neighborhood.
Hillary did not recall an incident in January 2015, when Bruin got out and cornered a woman. On April 18, Oak Bluffs Police Officer Daniel Cassidy reported three dogs running loose in the neighborhood. Less than a week later, a woman walking her dog said two of the Seaton dogs aggressively approached her and she fell, grabbing her dog to protect it. The next week, Officer Cassidy got another complaint that Bruin and Sasha were running free and had scared a family walking on Worcester Avenue.
On May 18, she was issued an order that required a fence and that the dog be leashed at all times. On June 4, the fence had not been built, and ACO BenDavid captured Rosie and Bruin, at which point Hillary decided to adopt out the dog.
Mr. Jackson pointed out that the letter from the town that mandated the fence did not specify a deadline.
Hillary said she couldn’t afford the fence at the time, but has since installed a six-foot “stockade fence.”
Mr. Goldsmith cited that the fence was not six feet all the way around the yard, and that a section was about four feet high, constructed of posts, wire, and lattice.
Oak Bluffs ACO Patty Grant said prior to the Nov. 24 attack, numerous complaints had been made about Sasha and Bruin for roaming free in the neighborhood, aggressive behavior, and excessive barking. She cited a March 2016 complaint by Oak Bluffs Police Sergeant Nick Currelli, who stated the dogs approached him aggressively when he was jogging by the house with his child in a stroller.
Ms. Grant said after an incident involving Bruin, Hillary Seaton was given an order to put up a fence and put up a $200 bond with the town. She said she paid the bond, but did not comply with the fence order for some time.
Citing a bite mark on Sasha’s leg, Ms. Brennan stated that Ms. Grant’s report did not state which dog started the melee and how Mr. Stevenson responded to Sasha and Rosie, and that nervous human behavior can trigger canine aggression.
On cross-examination, Mr. Jackson questioned Ms. Grant’s experience as an ACO, citing she’d been a part-time ACO since October 2016 before taking over full-time in July. He also questioned her use of the Dunbar Scale, which determines the severity of dog bites.
Ms. Grant said the veterinary liaison at Cape Cod Veterinary Specialists had informed her of the Dunbar Scale determination. Mr. Jackson said that the scale requires accurate measures of the attacking dog’s teeth to measure the depth of the bites, which had not been made by Ms. Grant or Cape Cod Veterinary Specialists.
Mr. Jackson stated there are eight possible nonlethal options, and asked why none had been presented to the selectmen by Ms. Grant.
“It would not have been effective,” she said. “Hillary has proven not to follow court orders.”
Ms. Brennan also highlighted Ms. Grant’s lack of professional experience and formal training. She stated that there had been no formal procedures in Oak Bluffs against Rosie prior to the Nov. 24 attack. She established that there was no certainty that Rosie had ever bitten a human. She asked Ms. Grant if she was going to use the Dunbar Scale, why she had not measured their teeth.
“After what I saw they did to Toby, I did not want to get near the dogs,” Ms. Grant said.
“But Rosie has never bitten a person, as far as you know,” Ms. Brennan asked.
“As far as I know,” she said.
John Stevenson emotionally recounted the attack with a shaky voice. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “Toby’s legs were opened up, his ear was bitten right off, his back was one big gash, both sides of his belly were torn up, and his back left leg was opened up. It was brutal. I wrapped him up in my sweatshirt. His skin peeled off when the vets peeled off the sweatshirt.”
In her closing argument, Ms. Brennan restated that Rosie had never been cited by the animal control officer before except for a case of mistaken identity, and that euthanization was an “extreme remedy.” She cited Ms. Ogden’s first evaluation, which was presented at the selectmen’s meeting, which stated she believed Rosie could potentially be rehabilitated with extensive training. “My client is willing to do that,” she said.
“Generally speaking, euthanized animals have killed something,” Mr. Jackson said in closing. He again raised questions about Ms. Grant’s experience and the proper use of the Dunbar Scale. “These are lives that are worth saving.”
Mr. Goldsmith said Toby is only alive because a passerby pulled the dogs off Toby and Mr. Stevenson. “There hasn’t been efforts to train these dogs in the past, and we question if they will be properly trained in the future. No court, or selectman or clerk, wants to do this. But I regrettably ask you to affirm the selectmen’s ruling.”
A Dec. 14 email from Ms. Ogden to Ms. Grant was not allowed at the hearing, because it hadn’t been presented at the selectmen’s Dec. 12 meeting. In the email, Ms. Ogden described her interactions with both Toby and the Stevensons, and with Rosie and Kaitlyn Seaton.
She recommended the Stevensons keep Toby’s life “as stress-free as possible, which may include changing where they walk the dog (associative learning connected to the event location), avoiding areas where the chances of meeting off-leash dogs is a certainty, and trying to keep the dog’s life as normal regular patterns as before.” She also recommended that they monitor Toby’s behavior around other dogs, and that it’s likely he will exhibit “stress-related behaviors when in the presence of other dogs, which can escalate into reactivity or aggression.”
Ms. Ogden was not optimistic about Rosie’s future: “Aggression is a very complex series of behaviors, and given what I had seen in the behavior assessment, I do not believe that Kaitlyn has the skill set required to adequately manage nor consistently work with Rosie. In addition, she is expecting, and the addition of a newborn into her life will demand all of her time,” she wrote. “Rehoming the dog is not a viable option in my opinion either. The severity of the bite indicates a complete lack of bite inhibition — dogs who bite this severely are poor candidates for rehabilitation, especially in light of the number of incidents to degree of damage. It is never an easy decision to come to — but I feel that you [and] your board, given the information supplied, have acted in a manner which protects public safety both physically and psychologically.”