No decision after testimony in dangerous dog case

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The saga of Sasha and Rosie, two pit bull-mix dogs that were ordered to be euthanized by Oak Bluffs selectmen on Dec. 12, opened a new chapter in Dukes County civil court before Judge J. Thomas Kirkman.

The civil court trial is the last recourse owners Hillary and Kaitlyn Seaton have to keep their dogs alive. After Oak Bluffs selectmen unanimously backed the recommendation of Animal Control Officer Patty Grant on Dec. 12, the Seatons filed an appeal. Superior Court Clerk Joseph Sollitto upheld the board of selectmen’s decision after a Jan. 11 appeal hearing.

Judge Kirkman has three options — to dismiss the order, to change the dog’s classification from “dangerous” to “nuisance,” or to uphold the selectmen’s vote and Sollitto’s decision.
The dogs have been quarantined at Animal Health Care Associates since Dec. 12.

In his opening statement, attorney Michael Goldsmith, representing the town of Oak Bluffs, recapped the gruesome details of the 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 on Worcester Avenue and viciously attacked.

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 was transported to Bourne’s Cape Cod Veterinary Specialists for extensive emergency surgery. “Ten thousand dollars later, amazingly, Toby is still alive,” Goldsmith said.

The key issue is whether the Seaton dogs acted without provocation causing physical injury or death to a domestic animal, and/or behave in a manner that is threatening to people, he said.

Goldsmith also cited six past citations from police and animal control about the Seaton dogs, one of which, Bruin, the dog who sired Rosie with Sasha, is no longer on-Island.

Goldsmith suggested neither Seaton had the wherewithal or resources to properly handle their dogs, should they get a reprieve.

Oak Bluffs Police Officer Devon Balboni testified about a January 2015 incident when a neighbor of the Seatons called about Bruin barking and cornering a woman. Balboni said when he arrived, the dog ran at him when he got out of his police cruiser, and he had to block him with the door, after which the dog still stalked him until Hillary Seaton called him off.

“She said, ‘He doesn’t bite,’” Balboni said.

Oak Bluffs Police Sgt. Nicholas Curelli, a resident of the neighborhood, testified that in March 2016, one of the Seaton dogs charged him when he was jogging by their house and pushing his 5-month-old son in a jogging stroller. He said the dog responded to Hillary Seaton’s command to return.

Attorney Matt Jackson, representing Hillary Seaton, said the mauling incident was an anomaly, “a tragedy that sprung up after a long and peaceful history.”

Falmouth-based attorney Michelle Brennan, representing Kaitlyn Seaton, was not in court because she said she’d been delayed in Barnstable Superior Court.

Judge Kirkman said since Brennan had plenty of warning and had not filed for a continuance, the trial would proceed. “[Kaitlyn] will be fairly protected with Mr. Jackson,” he said.

Jackson said that since Toby did not die in the November incident, that remedies are available other than euthanasia, namely to install a six-foot fence, and muzzling and leashing the dogs whenever they are outside.

On cross-examination of Animal Control Officer Patty Grant, Jackson, as he had done in the Jan. 11 appeal hearing, established Grant’s lack of experience as an ACO — after less than a year working part-time, Grant became full-time ACO in July 2017. Jackson also questioned Ms. Grant’s assessment of the dog bites using the Dunbar Bite Scale, because the length of the dogs’ teeth and the depth of the wounds were not measured. Jackson also established that the attack was not on a human, and that John Stevenson had been “mildly nipped.”

Kaitlyn Seaton asked Grant if she’d ever had any specific complaints about Rosie. Grant said she hadn’t, other than the mauling incident.

Under questioning from Goldsmith, Grant said expert opinions she’d received concurred with her order to euthanize. She also said she was concerned that Kaitlyn Seaton has an infant child at home, and that she lives close to Tisbury School.

The afternoon session began with Goldsmith calling Dr. Roger Williams, owner of Vineyard Veterinary Clinic in Edgartown, to the witness stand. Williams is Toby’s regular veterinarian, and he happened to be on call in the Island rotation when John Stevenson called for emergency help.

Williams said there was a “vast amount of trauma” and “tremendous blood loss,” with multiple lacerations including one that went from one armpit to the other, puncture wounds in the chest, face, neck, and buttocks, and half of an ear bitten off. He said there were two major avulsions, large patches of the dog’s coat pulled from the surface tissues. “Basically, it’s a scalping,” he said.

“Toby was clearly in a life-threatening condition,” he said. “He needed 24-hour ICU and advanced surgical services beyond any services we have here on the Island.”

On cross-examination, Jackson again brought up the vagaries of the Dunbar scale. Williams said he was not aware of the Dunbar scale when he treated Toby, but once he became familiar with the criteria, he rated the severity of the attack a five out of six.

Williams said the most likely cause of death for Toby would have been shock, which Jackson pointed out was not measured by the Dunbar scale. Williams said he didn’t measure the depth of the bites because that is not part of emergency care protocol. Additionally, he said tissue is very elastic, and an accurate measurement “wouldn’t make sense.”

Under cross from Kaitlyn Seaton, Williams said he could not discern which dog inflicted which wound.

Certified dog trainer Karen Ogden testified that a month before the attack, Kaitlyn had contacted her with concerns about Rosie, but she didn’t hear from her again until shortly before the Dec. 12 selectmen’s meeting.

Ogden said Kaitlyn asked her to evaluate Rosie, which she did on Dec. 9. She said Rosie was “generally an anxious dog,” and she had concerns that Kaitlyn couldn’t properly handle her.

Ogden, a dog trainer since 1992, said she wouldn’t take Rosie on, but would refer her to a behavior specialist at Tufts University Veterinary Clinic.

“Very rarely do you see this level of damage done by another dog,” she said. “This was not an argument between dogs.”

Even with progress at Tufts, Ogden expressed doubt that Kaitlyn would be up to the “24-hour, 365-day-a-year commitment required to train Rosie,” especially given that she has a 1-month-old son.

According to the “fight to bite ratio,” which factors the number of fights with the severity of the injuries, Ogden said Rosie is classified as a dangerous dog. “To do such serious damage in one bite incident shows a considerable lack of bite inhibition,” she said.

Under cross from Jackson, Ogden said she believes that any dog can be trained to wear a muzzle, but it requires a keen assessment of the dog’s emotional state. “You can be teaching the dog to avoid you, or worse, to attack,” she said.

Debra Stevenson testified that her family had five minutes to decide whether to attempt the lifesaving surgeries at Cape Cod Veterinary Specialists. The veterinary bills have totaled a little over $8,300 since then. She said prior to the attack, she had spoken to Hillary Seaton when she saw her struggling to walk Sasha on a leash. “I asked her to watch ‘Dog Whisperer,’” she said. “I said, If you don’t control your dog, she’s going to control you.”

Goldsmith noted that the Seatons told Oak Bluffs selectmen they would pay the veterinary costs for Toby at the Dec. 12 hearing. Stevenson said she had not received any money from them.

In cross-examination, Kaitlyn established that Rosie had not been back to Worcester Avenue since the incident.

John Stevenson recounted the details of the attack as he has done at the previous hearings. He said Rosie did not respond to Hillary Seaton’s command, and set upon Toby, then Sasha attacked Toby’s back legs.

“Is it fair to say you weren’t the target?” Jackson said.

“When you’re in that zone, you’re a target too,” Stevenson said.

Derrick Devine, Kaitlyn Seaton’s boyfriend of four years and father of their son Jackson, was the last person to take the stand on Thursday.

Devine described Rosie as a lovable, playful dog with unusually high energy. He said he never had trouble controlling her, and that he was “completely surprised” about the attack on Toby, and that Rosie had never been aggressive to another dog. At the time, he said, he and Kaitlyn were in Kentucky, and it was unusual for Sasha and Rosie to be in Hillary Seaton’s care, which he said would never happen again. He said he is supporting the family so Kaitlyn can be a full-time mother and also have time to work with Rosie.
“I believe there’s no dog that can’t be trained,” he said, “My family has had dogs worse than that which were trained.”

The day ended with Kaitlyn cross-examining her boyfriend.
“I’m absolutely comfortable having Rosie with Jackson,” he said.

 

Day 2

The trial resumed on Friday at noon, and ended late in the afternoon.

Michelle Brennan, attorney for Kaitlyn Seaton, was present this time.

The proceedings began with Judge Kirkman denying her motion for a continuance, which she requested because she was without power from the storm the previous day and could not email the court in time.

Kaitlyn and Hillary Seaton both testified that neither dog had shown aggressive behavior to people or animals before the Nov. 24 mauling.

Hillary said that Bruin was the source of most of the neighborhood complaints, and she had given him away to a friend after selectmen deemed him a nuisance dog in May 2015. She said she didn’t know where the friend lived, but thought it might be somewhere on-Island.

Kaitlyn again testified that Rosie had never been cited by the town of Oak Bluffs, except in a case of mistaken identity.

She also testified that she lived in a house on Look Street in Tisbury for over a year, and that the house was full of animals — two dogs, two cats, rabbits, chickens, and a pet rat — and that Rosie had never shown any aggression, even after one of the dogs nipped her. She reiterated she was totally comfortable having Rosie around her infant son. “I want them to be together,” she said.

Kaitlyn told the court she would diligently train Rosie if she got her back, and would work out a payment plan with the Stevensons for Toby’s veterinary bills.

The landlord, Samantha Green, corroborated Kaitlyn’s account of Rosie’s demeanor, and said she was completely comfortable with Rosie in her house, and that her 10-year-old daughter preferred Rosie to her own dogs.
“Compared to my dogs, Rosie is very laid-back,” she said.

Green also said she thought Kaitlyn was an attentive owner.

“If this court finds Rosie mauled Toby within inches of his life, would you still have Rosie as a tenant?” Goldsmith asked.
“I’d have to think about it,” she said.

Kaitlyn said she, her boyfriend, son, and Rosie recently moved in with her grandmother in Lambert’s Cove, in a more rural setting.
“I’m on the housing list with the tribe, so hopefully I won’t be there too long,” she said.

Hillary said she would take any step with Sasha to prevent another attack. She also said she would pay the Stevensons in installments, and that she would get guidance from a trainer on muzzling Sasha. She said she would never put Sasha with Rosie again, and that she would take out a $100,000 insurance policy on Sasha.

Goldsmith pointed out that she has not followed through on promises in the past, stating that after selectmen ordered the fence for Sasha in May 2015, it was not installed by the deadline, and additionally, there was a complaint about the two dogs escaping her house weeks later, on June 4, 2015.

Hillary did not recall the incident.

Goldsmith put Debra Stevenson back on the stand as a rebuttal witness; however, she was not allowed to discuss multiple accounts from neighbors who had been threatened by the dogs, which was dismissed by Kirkman as hearsay.
Jackson closed by saying Hillary would be happy to abide by any remedy the court imposes, if Sasha’s life is spared. He again hammered at the vagaries of the Dunbar Bite Scale, and that the test wasn’t “fairly and properly applied.” He contended that the attack was an anomaly, and that Rosie had been the primary attacker in the fray.

He asked that Sasha be classified as a nuisance, not dangerous, and asked the judge to choose one of many nonlethal options available.

Brennan said Kaitlyn would do anything to spare Rosie’s life, including giving her away. She also said she had found no case where a dog had been euthanized in a nonlethal incident, and that euthanizing was “an irrational decision made by the town.”

“Please give my client the opportunity to do the right thing,” she said.

Goldsmith reminded the court that a “dangerous dog” is defined as a dog that “attacks a person or animal with no provocation, causing severe injury or death.”

“The burden is on them to show the selectmen’s order is inappropriate,” Goldsmith said. “The town has produced credible evidence that they are dangerous.”

Goldsmith again questioned the contrition and promises made by the Seatons.

“It’s a little late to be coming in and making promises,” he said. “If they were sincere, I would think the evidence would be brought here to show the court.”

Kirkman gave attorneys from both sides until Friday, March 30, to file memoranda to support their cases.