Manatee lawyer tries to save dogs from euthanization for biting boy

See related documents with this report.

ejohnson@bradenton.comMarch 13, 2013 

MANATEE -- A local attorney is doing what she can to save two dogs that are on Death Row in Manatee County after biting a teenage boy.

Colleen Glenn has filed legal documents establishing a trust to represent Buck and Bill, two Australian Shepherds, through the Lexus Project, Lexus Project, which offers pro bono legal defense for dogs.

"I don't represent the owner in any capacity," Glenn said. "My representation is tailored directly toward these dogs and saving their lives."

Buck, 10, and Bill, 6, have been kept at Manatee Animal Services in Palmetto since Dec. 24 after biting a 13-year-old boy who was riding a bike in the Panther Ridge subdivision in East Manatee.

Glenn said the dogs' owner, Karen Erskine, was staying with a friend in Manatee County and wasn't at the home when something apparently startled the dogs, causing them to jump out of a window.

The boy, who tried to shield himself with his bicycle and run from the dogs twice, was retrieved by a neighbor driving by. The boy was taken to Lakewood Ranch Medical Center and then All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg “to minimize the risk of permanent impairment to the use of the minor child’s legs,” state facts in a recommendation for the dogs to be euthanized.

The boy required sutures for at least seven bites on his leg, thigh and buttocks. One wound behind his knee exposed muscles and live nerves, requiring surgery. According to the recommendation, the wounds showed the dogs "ferociously and with force attempted to tear away the minor child's flesh."

The boy is expected to recover full physical ability, though he sees doctors regularly and is currently limited from strenuous activity, according to the document.

“Those injuries to that boy were extremely severe,” said Chief Deputy County Attorney Jim Minix.

Glenn said the dogs never showed signs of aggression before the incident, nor since being contained at Animal Services. The dogs act as therapy dogs for those in need.

"There was not a single complaint ever made about these dogs," Glenn said. "They're not bad dogs. This was an isolated incident. It's sad the child got bit. I'm not saying he did anything wrong. We're just saying these dogs don't need to be killed -- there are lots of options."

It is unclear what caused the dogs to escape the home and attack the boy.

The boy's family has sued Erskine and the owners of the home where the dogs escaped in a personal injury civil case. The family is asking for $15,000 incurred in medical expenses and additional costs, citing Erskine's negligence to restrain the dogs.

The complaint, filed Feb. 6, states that in addition to physical injuries, the boy lost "the capacity to lead and enjoy a normal life."

No decision has been made in the case.

Minix represented the county in front of hearing officer Douglas Peebles who ordered the victim suffered severe injuries because the wounds required sutures, and as a result recommended the dogs be euthanized during a hearing with Animal Control.

“In the current case, the dogs committed, as their first offense the infliction of severe injury, as defined by statue and ordinance, and as such, there is no option for second chance and the dogs must be humanely destroyed as the only legally available option,” the recommended order states.

Judge Douglas Henderson upheld the decision, stating it was thorough and that Erskine was given “full due process and the right to be heard.”

"That being said, the state statutes say when a dog who has caused death or severe injury should be immediately confiscated, held for an appropriate period of time, then humanely and expeditiously euthanized," said Joel Richmond, Animal Services enforcement supervisor.

According to Florida statutes, there are two options: A dog can be registered as "dangerous" or euthanized. A "dangerous" animal is quarantined for a certain period of time. This requires the owner to keep the dogs supervised and secure at a fenced-in property.

“The fate of the dog is determined with finality the moment that the dog inflicts a severe injury or death,” the county’s recommendation states.

"This happens frequently," Richmond said. "The difference is typically the owners do not dispute the outcome and will voluntarily surrender the animal. The last hearing process was many years ago.

"No-kill does not apply to dangerous animals, unfortunately," he added.

Glenn does not believe the dogs' actions warrant death.

"In this particular case, even though the dogs never had problems before, even though the injuries were not severe and even though they are therapy dogs, they still decided to execute," she said.

Erskine, who lives on a large farm in Sumter County, has agreed to return the dogs home immediately and never bring them to Manatee County in the future. She lives on a triple-fenced property where she trains dogs for a living, Glenn said.

“In the instant case, Erskine makes a compelling and convincing heartfelt plea that if the dogs were just given a second chance, that if county would simply declare them as dangerous and place upon the dogs the strictest statutory limitations and restrictions that go with such a declaration, that she would take the dogs out of Manatee County to live with her on a farm or ranch property,” the recommendation states, adding that state law does not offer that “flexibility.”

“To do so would simply be to shrink from one’s responsibility to others whom might be harmed in the future in order to travel a less difficult path now.”

For now, the dogs are sharing a kennel at Animal Services where they sometimes see Erskine who is serving community service hours there for having dogs at-large.

"We do allow her to see and visit the dogs and socialize with them," Richmond said. "It's a humane effort to the animals."

Calls to Erskine and the victim's family attorney were not returned Tuesday.

"They've been ordered to be executed," Glenn said, though a date is not set. "Every second is really against us."

Elizabeth Johnson, Herald crime reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. Follow her on Twitter @EJohnsonBHcrime.

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