Here’s yet another story about a Pit Bull-type dog facing euthanasia because of exaggerated fear over a breed. We recently reported on the case of Lennox, a friendly dog who was put down in Northern Ireland simply because the Belfast City Council mistakenly believed all Pit Bulls are dangerous. Meanwhile, in Colorado, the O’Brien family is trying to save their Pit Bull, Dre, from court-ordered euthanasia for escaping from the family garage. Dre did not bit anyone when he got out, and he had no record of aggressive behavior.
The case of Charlie the 18-month-old Staffordshire Terrier is different, in that he attacked and injured a police horse. What’s more, a U.S. Park Police officer was injured when he was thrown from the horse. But we believe Charlie deserves another chance. The young dog had never seen a horse, and he overreacted. Charlie, who has no history of aggression, made a mistake — and his owner, David Gizzarelli, is willing to accept any restrictions the city sees fit in order to save his beloved pet’s life.
It was a typical summer day at San Francisco’s Crissy Field for Gizzarelli and Charlie. There was a light breeze coming off the bay, and after their run, Gizzarelli chatted with some other dog owners while Charlie romped with about 25 other dogs in an off-leash area of the national park.
Just as Gizzarelli was heading home, U.S. Park Service mounted police Officer Eric Evans appeared on his horse, Stoney. Charlie, who had never seen a horse, became excited and ran toward them, with Gizzarelli in pursuit. “Me and Charlie had been enjoying ourselves like we always do, and then in an instant there was just fear,” he says.
Charlie’s barking spooked the horse, who threw Evans. Charlie then chased Stoney through the park, biting him on the belly and legs, causing several gashes and possible tendon damage. A motorcycle officer finally stopped the attack more than a mile away. Evans received a concussion and an injured shoulder. Charlie had chest injuries from being kicked by the horse.
On Aug. 23, San Francisco Animal Care and Control held a vicious-dog hearing to determine Charlie’s fate. After receiving testimony and reviewing photos of Stoney’s injuries, hearing officer John Denny ordered Charlie to be destroyed within three days, even though the dog had no record of aggression and displays no aggressive tendencies. Gizzarelli hired an attorney and filed a writ, which stayed the euthanasia. The case is now in administrative review while Charlie awaits the determination of his fate in an isolation kennel.
The park service came down hard on Gizzarelli. Evans issued him four federal tickets, including failure to control an animal, assault on a police horse, and assault on a police officer, which could send him to federal prison for up to a year if he’s convicted.
In Charlie’s case, the park service is no longer involved, according to spokesman Howard Levitt. “Whatever happens to the dog will be up to the city of San Francisco,” he says.
Nonetheless, the park service gave conflicting information about the extent of Stoney’s injuries. At the Aug. 23 hearing, a tearful Evans testified that Stoney would possibly have to be retired. But several days earlier, park service police officer Austin King told KTVU News that Stoney had already been cleared for “light work.” Six days later, Levitt said the horse was still out of service and its future was uncertain.
Gizzarelli was unfamiliar with the hearing process, and his testimony might have damaged his case. He said that given the unpredictability of dogs when they encounter horses for the first time, it might not be a good idea to have mounted patrol routes so close to an off-leash area.
“They’re putting farm animals together with domesticated animals,” he told hearing officer Denny. “Any dog, not just a Pit Bull, not just Charlie or my dog, could have chased after that horse, could have caused a problem.”
Nationwide, mounted police units have been cut or reduced because they are expensive and add limited value to daily policing. It is widely agreed that police horses are most useful for crowd control and for public relations. But in the animal world, horses are prey and dogs are predators. The species have an uneasy relationship, particularly if dogs are unfamiliar with horses, so routing horse patrols near off-leash areas could be considered tempting fate. Nonetheless, the park service has no intention of curtailing the mounted patrols near Crissy Field because of the presence of dogs.
“The national parks have used horse patrols for more than 100 years, and for many, many years Crissy Field has been part of a patrol route,” Levitt says. “We are not going to change that.”
Gizzarelli’s comment was not what Denny wanted to hear, either. Denny believes horse patrol routes are not really the issue, but rather that it is critical for dogs to be under control at all times in public. Dogs can be spooked into attacking by any number of things, Denny says. He has seen cases where dogs were provoked by shopping carts, mechanized wheelchairs, bicycles, and children who were screaming or running.
“If horses are not allowed near off-leash areas, where do we draw the line?” he says. “There are a lot of bicyclists and children who use Crissy Field — do we ban them as well? If the horse was under control, it’s not too much to ask the dog to be under control.”
Denny says Gizzarelli has to understand he now has a different dog. With a record of violent attack, Charlie has to be kept under close control. Denny adds that too many dog owners tend to blame those who are attacked: “If only the mailman didn’t start waving his arms, or if the little kid down the block didn’t start running, my dog would have never reacted like that.”
Denny says dog attacks on police horses are very rare. There have been two in the past 10 years, and in both cases the offending dogs were not put down.
“This incident with Charlie is a first-time accident, I get it,” Denny said. “But if it happens again, it won’t be. We can correct it, but the owner has to be willing to take precautions.”
Gizzarelli says he did not mean to sound unremorseful at the hearing. He says he feels terrible about what happened and has always been willing to take responsibility. He wishes he had been advised by an attorney. “I thought I was just fighting for my dog’s life,” he says. “I’ll accept any restrictions to prevent Charlie from being euthanized.”
Meanwhile, Gizzarelli and Charlie have received a great deal of public support. More than 8,000 people have signed a petition to save Charlie, and some people have contributed toward Gizzarelli’s legal fees. You can read more about the story at the Help Save Charlie Facebook page.
Gizzarelli’s attorney, Christine Garcia of the Animal Law Office, hopes that Charlie will be spared.
“I think we can come to an agreement with Animal Care and Control,” she says. “After all, I think everybody wants to find a way to keep this little guy from being put down.”