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A tough decision in canine court

Jeff Schmucker Hernando Today
Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 06:11 PM

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The bodies lay lifeless in a shed. The accused perpetrator was found inside.

To some, it was an open and shut case.

But even when the victims are cats and the accused a dog, nothing is clear cut.

And for a three-paneled 'jury' deciding the dog's fate, they had many questions before determining the dog's guilt or innocence.

Welcome to a Hernando County Dangerous Dog Hearing, a sort of doggie court where a panel of three decide the fate of canines accused of attacking domestic animals or people.

The hearings are overseen by Assistant County Attorney Richard Appicello inside the Animal Services building.

On Thursday morning, the accused before them was a pit bull/Labrador mix named Sweety who was found inside a neighbor's shed where a mother cat and its kittens were mauled.

Marie O'Neill, known as the helpful "Plant Lady," said she came home and found one cat dead on her car port from various puncture wounds and the other cat and kittens similarly mauled inside.

A deputy called to the scene entered the shed and found the pit bull mix inside.

"Let's face it, these cats didn't commit suicide while this dog was watching," O'Neill said. "They were mauled.

"The evidence is right there. The dog was caught in there with the dead kittens — like a criminal with a smoking gun."

But the dangerous dog jury wasn't so sure. All three members — Mary Peter, owner of Stillwater Dog Training; Terah Dunham, owner of Legacy Bulldogs; and Joanne Schoch, executive director of the Humane Society of the Nature Coast — had concerns about whether there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt whether Sweety was the cat killer.

The group learned that the pit bull mix was running around the property with a bull mastiff whose owner admitted it would kill a cat.

The pit bull owner, Nicole Hartough, argued that it's possible a smaller animal also could have gotten into the enclosure and killed the cats as well and somehow escaped before her dog had gone in there.

She added into evidence affidavits from witnesses who claim that her dog has been around cats and wouldn't harm them.

"If I thought my dog was dangerous, I would have him put down myself," Hartough said. "I just don't believe Sweety would do this."

But unlike the people's court, animal court doesn't go by the same rules.

Appicello told the hearing committee that they don't need proof beyond a reasonable doubt to determine if Sweety is a dangerous dog.

As long as they agree that a reasonable person would feel that the dog was responsible, then they could vote that the dog was dangerous.

That didn't sit well with any of the three members, who said they felt that there should be more proof.

"I don't think we should take lightly deeming a dog a 'dangerous dog,'" Peter said. "I wish the evidence wasn't so circumstantial."

However, all three agreed that they felt their hands were tied by the statutes and unanimously agreed that Sweety was dangerous.

That means the dog owner would have to pay $500 for a license and expenses involved with keeping the dog in an approved enclosure.

All three hearing committee members weren't happy with the decision either, agreeing it was one of the hardest they've ever had to come up with.

"It's heartbreaking. But I had no choice," Schoch said. "There are still a lot of questions, but only the animals know what happened that day."

Like any justice system, there is an appeals process to Thursday's decision and Hartough said she plans to do just that.

Meanwhile, O'Neill said she only hopes that some form of justice is done.

"Nothing can bring back my cats," O'Neill said. "But why should I have to live in fear because people don't take care of their pets? At least make sure the dog can't get out and harm any other animal."

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