Tyrone Staten says he watched, helpless, as two pit bulls ripped his daughter's Shih Tzu apart on Ramsey Street on the evening of Sept. 15. His daughter "dropped the leash, she dropped her phone and ran home," Staten tells the city's Animal Matters Hearing Panel (formerly known as the Vicious Dog Hearing Board) on Oct. 15. "The dog had a broken leg, fractured ribs, a punctured lung, contusions—I mean, I'm trying to get these medical terms. Neck severe, severed."
The Shih Tzu's name was Bronx. He was 2 years old. Staten took him to an animal hospital where a staff member told him it was going to cost "like buying a house" to try to save him. "She said she looked in the dog's eyes. They were so red. The dog was bleeding in its brain. It was suffering."
Staten gave the okay to euthanize Bronx.
The dogs that allegedly attacked Bronx are named Tank and Cookie. They have been kept in kennels in this building at 301 Stockholm St. since the attack. Their owner, Michael Johnson, wants them back.
Staten wants them killed and Johnson barred from owning any animals.
The board will likely make its decision this week.
On any given Wednesday morning this windowless, 30-by-30-foot storage room at the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS) becomes the court for dogs impounded by the city's Bureau of Animal Control and accused of capital crimes.
It is here that their owners come, acting as their dogs' lawyers in front of three of the four members of the board: lawyer Ruth Canan, former police officer Ronald Savage, and, depending on the week, either Joy Freedman or Aja Brown, who are animal behaviorists.
The proceedings are tape-recorded. The decisions can be appealed. And the process is about to be sped up, if a bill currently before the Baltimore City Council is passed.
On Sept. 22 City Councilman Robert Curran (3rd District) introduced as bill that would make it harder for people denied pet licenses to regain the right to keep animals.
The bill goes into detail about how a transfer could be managed and policed, requiring detailed descriptions of the animal(s), the new owner's contact information, and a promise that the new owner will not return the animal(s) to the old one once the heat is off.
City agencies have until Oct. 25 to submit their reports on the bill. Public hearings will follow.
"It's a remake of a bill I put in in August," Curran says. "That one didn't meet equal protection issues."
The reason for the bill, Curran says, is that the hearing and appeals process takes up to three months, and that forces the city animal shelter to keep too many vicious dogs for too long. He says people suspected of fighting dogs are especially cumbersome. "That makes a capacity issue for the people who give up adoptable or socialized dogs," Curran says. "Sometimes they're put down to save the dogs that are mandated because of the hearing process."
And at the end of that, of course, the vicious dogs are euthanized anyway. The law mandates that.
"So what this is an attempt to do is amend the code so the process can be a little less encumbering," Curran says, "so the attack dogs . . . can be euthanized and we're saving the adoptable dogs."
Mary Beth Haller, the assistant commissioner for the Bureau of Environmental Health, says that the capacity issue is not necessarily central. "The impetus behind this is not so much that [vicious dogs are causing nice dogs to be euthanized], but because when animals are confined for lengthy periods of time, it's very detrimental for the animal," she says.
"The animal that is confined for 30 days may not be the same animal it was when it comes out as when it went in," Haller says. They bite themselves, they bite the cage . . . they may hurt their teeth. They circle and circle."
These days, most of the impounded dogs do go back to their owners. Since 2008 the Animal Matters Hearing Panel has the option to deem an animal "dangerous," and return it to an owner that agrees to certain conditions, such as keeping it leashed or caged at all times and keeping its license and shots up to date.
In the mid-2000s the city's animal shelter was killing about 80 percent of all the dogs brought in the doors. Now, with the nonprofit structure and a network of volunteers, that figure is closer to 20 percent, says Curran, who as chairman of the council's Health Committee has made it his business to understand animal cruelty and control issues in Baltimore.
"I found out we are euthanizing adoptable animals," Curran says. "It's an issue for the animals, and it's an issue for the handlers. Some of the more vicious or seized animals are a danger to themselves and to others, because of the actions of their owners."
City Paper watched three hearings over two weeks. In two of the cases, pit bulls had attacked Shih Tzu dogs, killing one. In the other hearing a pit bull attacked the ex-girlfriend of the dog's owner. The woman, who did not attend the hearing, allegedly entered the apartment despite the dog's owner shouting at her not to. That dog had previously bit the landlord who allegedly did the same thing.
There were no indications of fighting dogs in the cases we observed, and the hearing officers say those cases are extremely rare.
The hearings themselves are actually rare, given the number of dog attacks in the city. The animal control officer who attends the hearings, Sandra Carrigan, says she investigates about 1,600 cases each year.
The board has heard about 40 cases this year so far, members say. And Staten's case is a tough one.
Johnson, who moved to the 1900 block of Ramsey Street about three months before the attack, says only one of his dogs, Tank, ever got hold of Bronx. "Cookie didn't have nothing to do with it," he says, adding that it all happened because Bronx was off leash and "ran up to Cookie," who was chained to his porch railing. "I screamed 'Please, get your dog,'" Johnson tells the board. "Because Cookie is the one that would attack a dog."
In Johnson's telling, he was sitting on his stoop with Tank in his arms when Bronx (who weighed about eight pounds) approached Cookie "aggressively" with no leash on. He says Cookie was at first stunned, but then broke free, ripping two of the balusters off the porch. Johnson caught her and got her inside but by then Tank was on Bronx. "Everything went haywire," Johnson testifies. "Tank did get the dog. I'm sorry about the dog. OK. I'm sorry."
Johnson, in his mid-50s with short cropped hair and glasses, says he yelled at Tank, and Tank let go of Bronx, who ran back to his owner while Tank ran in his house. "It's like déjà vu to me," Johnson says.
And that's the problem.
Tank and Cookie have bitten before, records show. In 2011 this board deemed them dangerous and released them back into Johnson's care, but only on the condition that he keep their shots and licenses current, keep them leashed or tied at all times they are outside, and inform the department any time he moved or the dogs moved.
Johnson did none of those things.
He kept the dogs even though Cookie was accused of biting a 5-year-old child in 2012. At the time, he had three dogs living in a rooming house, and one of them—Marlowe, who he since had to put down—bit one of the other residents' children. It was not Cookie, he insists.
One of the kids was teasing the dog, Johnson tells the board.
The board members show him the conditional release he signed in 2011. He admits he signed it. He admits he violated it by not getting Cookie's shots up to date. He also sent Tank to live with a relative in Pennsylvania without informing the Health Department. And he moved from his old place to this new one on Ramsey without informing the department as required.
"It got by me," he says of the expired shots and license. "They're big dogs and I don't have transportation."
After reviewing the evidence, hearing testimony, and asking questions, the board can find that the accused animal is wholly innocent, that it is responsible for the attack and thus "dangerous," or that the dog is "vicious."
The board cannot, by law, deem the same dog "dangerous" more than once. So in this case they could either find Tank and/or Cookie innocent, or vicious.
If they are vicious they will be euthanized.
"They don't like other dogs, but they're not vicious," Johnson pleads. "They're my babies."
Johnson knows the odds are against him. "They're gonna put Tank down," he predicts after the hearing. "The law states I can't get him back. But Cookie had nothing to do with it."