SAN ANTONIO, Texas––A City of San Antonio “Audit of Animal Care Services Dispatching & Operations” released on March 13, 2015 has identified critical deficiencies in animal control officer “compliance with guidelines related to aggressive and dangerous dogs, bites, and permits.”
San Antonio has over the past 10 years led U.S. cities in human fatalities from dog attacks, all of them involving pit bulls; has consistently been among the cities with the most dog attacks on U.S. Postal Service letter carriers during the past five years; and led the U.S. in 2014 in fatal dog attacks on other dogs, according to data tabulated by ANIMALS 24-7.
ACS annual report barely mentions safety
Yet, while the San Antonio Animal Care Services annual report for 2014 leads with a mission statement declaring as first priority “protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the residents and pets of San Antonio,” the report includes little specific data pertaining to dog bites and attacks, and no description of anything done specifically to prevent bites and attacks.
Instead, boasted Animal Care Services director Kathy Davis, “ACS achieved a Live Release Rate of over 81% for the year….The last few months of the Fiscal Year brought the ASPCA Rachael Ray $100K Challenge,” an adoption contest sponsored by pit bull advocate Rachael Ray, whose own pit bull Isaboo has reportedly twice injured other dogs and once injured Ray herself.
“While we came in 3rd for the greatest number of pets rescued above last year’s amounts,” Davis continued, “we saved far more lives than any other participant in the Challenge.”
Saved some dogs at what cost?
The “Audit of Animal Care Services Dispatching & Operations” indicates that much of the alleged lifesaving may have been accomplished at the expense of the health, safety, and welfare of the residents and pets of San Antonio, when dangerous dogs who might have been euthanized were not impounded, and some dangerous dogs who were impounded were returned to their homes or adopted out.
Opened San Antonio city auditor Kevin W. Barthold, “This audit began in July 2014 and concluded with an exit meeting with department management in February 2015. We identified the following areas that need improvement,” including “Supervisor review over daily activities including investigations, inspections, and responses to 311 calls for service,” as well as compliance with aggressive and dangerous dog procedures.
Explained the audit report, “Officers are responsible for following up on specific types of calls including dangerous dogs, animal bites, and animal cruelty. Officers investigate aggressive and dangerous dogs when citizens submit an affidavit stating that an aggressive or dangerous act has taken place. If a dog is designated as dangerous, the dog is monitored annually to ensure public safety. Two officers focus on these tasks. Similarly, officers investigate reported bites and cruelty towards animals. Four officers are assigned to bite investigations; they are responsible for documenting the incidents and quarantining the animals.
73% noncompliance with ACS’ own policies
“We tested random samples of 25 cruelty investigations, 25 bite investigations, and 25 dangerous or aggressive dog investigations,” the audit report continued, “to determine if officers followed departmental policies. We also tested a random sample of 15 dogs who have been designated as dangerous or aggressive to determine if they were adequately monitored by officers. Officers do not consistently follow guidelines related to aggressive and dangerous dogs, bites, and permits.”
In specific, the auditors found, “Annual inspections are not current for 11 of 15 (73%) aggressive or dangerous dogs tested. Additionally, officers are not presenting unfounded cases to management.”
The latter is a particularly serious breach of attention to public safety, because a case determined by an investigating officer to be “unfounded” may later turn out to be part of a pattern of dangerous behavior.
This is especially likely in cases involving pit bulls, who notoriously do not display indications of aggressive or dangerous behavior before exploding into all-out attack.
“A lack of inspections increases the risk of harm from aggressive and dangerous dogs,” the auditors wrote. “Additionally, having only one person review the affidavits and other evidence increases the chance that a dangerous or aggressive dog might not be categorized as such, possibly causing harm to the public.
Citations not issued for 45% of unprovoked bites
“Citations related to bite incidents are not consistently issued,” the auditors continued. “Specifically, citations were not issued for 5 of 11 (45%) incidents of unprovoked bites tested. To align officer actions with the strategic goal of enhanced enforcement, citations should generally be issued when responding to a biting animal. Officers were provided additional guidelines in April 2014 to address this issue. These guidelines require the responding officers to fully investigate and take enforcement action for any related violations.”
Attacks during audit period
Several serious dog attacks occurred in San Antonio during the audit period.
For instance, reported Tyler White of the San Antonio Express-News on December 16, 2014, “Desiree Zertuche had to have pins and stitches put into her hand after a dog bit her, breaking three bones in her ring finger. The 9-year-old San Antonio girl was walking with a friend to her grandmother’s house on November 9 when a 3-year-old pit bull mix crossed the street, pushed her into a metal fence and bit her on her hand and leg. A neighbor saw the dog attack and intervened before it got worse, said the girl’s mother, Samantha Berlanga.”
The attack was compounded, White continued, when “Some time after the attack, Zertuche was roller skating near her home, saw a dog nearby, and fled. She fell and broke her right ankle.”
Interviewed by White about the Zertuche case, San Antonio Animal Care Services spokesperson Lisa Norwood also “described a December 6 case,” White wrote, in which “an unsterilized dog bit an 11-year-old girl, causing gaping wounds on the victim’s arms and chest. The girl may lose an arm and will be in the hospital through Christmas.”
Also during the audit period, local activists pursuing open record requests obtained documents indicating that Animal Care Services director Kathy Davis on an earlier occasion returned a dog to the rescue organization San Antonio Pets Alive despite a determination––following three bite incidents––that the dog was dangerous. All three bite incidents reportedly occurred while the dog was kenneled in a building used by San Antonio Pets Alive, but located on Animal Care Services property.
Audit followed attack on 5-year-old
The audit of San Antonio Animal Care Services began in July 2014, two weeks after a tethered pit bull severely mauled a five-year-old boy in a San Antonio apartment house courtyard.
Animal Care Services field operations manager Shannon Sims attributed the attack to “irresponsible ownership.”
“Not only was the dog not supervised, not only was the dog tethered to a public area, but,” since the apartment complex prohibited dogs weighing more than 25 pounds, “the dog was also not even supposed to be there,” Sims told Joe Conger of KENS-5.
Sims said the case would be referred to the Bexar County District Attorney’s office for review, Conger continued, “because of all of the surrounding facts about the dog and because the child will be scarred for life as a result of the pit bull attack. The pit bull’s owner has been cited for not getting a license with the city for her pet, for not getting the dog a rabies vaccination, and for a dog bite. Felony criminal charges against the owner are possible.”
Attacking pit bull returned home
San Antonio Animal Care Services’ handling of the mauling of the five-year-old appeared to be “by the book,” but media coverage of that dog attack soon brought forward accounts of others––and indications that Animal Care Services had been less than responsive to some dog attack victims.
For instance, reported Jozannah Quintanilla of News 4 San Antonio on June 19, 2014, “Savannah Gomez said she and her small dog were attacked by a pit bull last month…She claims the dog’s owner let the dog loose and saw it running toward them. When he finally pulled the dog off her, she said he walked away and didn’t even help or apologize to her. Savannah says Animal Care Services picked up the dog, but is upset because she has seen the dog back at the house and on the street. She also claims Animal Care Services never called to give her an update on the pit bull’s rabies tests and she has since had to have a series of 13 painful rabies shots.”
Added Quintanilla, “News 4 San Antonio called Animal Care Services to find out what they are doing about this case, but we have not heard back from them.”
The KENS-5 and News 4 San Antonio investigations followed earlier probes by Drew Joseph of the San Antonio Express-News and Cory Smith of KSAT-TV into the deaths of pit bull attack victims Betty Clark, 75, and Petra Yanez Aguirre, 83.
Clark was attacked by two pit bulls in Canyon Lake, Comal County, while delivering Christmas presents on December 21, 2013, but died from her injuries at University Hospital in San Antonio on January 6, 2014.
The owners of the pit bulls who mauled Clark, Peter Lucas, 49, and Rachelle Lucas, 47, both of Canyon Lake, were on June 10, 2014 “each booked into the Comal County Jail Tuesday on a charge of attack by dog resulting in death, according to jail records. Their bail was set at $15,000 each,” wrote Joseph.
Aguirre, Joseph reported, was on March 31, 2014 “feeding her cats in the backyard of her West Side home when Skirtgles––a neighbor’s dog with a history of biting—managed to crawl under a fence and maul the 83-year-old ‘from her scalp to her toes,’ according to her family and authorities.”
Aguirre died from her injuries on April 11, 2014.
Killer pit had been returned home
Skirtgles, an unspayed black-and-white 2-year-old female American Staffordshire, was surrendered to San Antonio Animal Care Services and euthanized five days after the attack. Owner Perla Rojas-Ibarra was cited for the bite.
Animal Care Services spokesperson Lisa Norwood called Aguirre’s death “a tragedy that could have been prevented with very simple action on the dog owner’s part,” but the circumstances suggested that some very simple action on the agency’s part could also have prevented the death.
Summarized Joseph, “Skirtgles, along with two other dogs belonging to Rojas-Ibarra, also had been involved in a bite incident in May 2013, when a 13-year-old boy was attacked while walking” near Rojas-Ibarra’s home.
“Information provided by ACS does not indicate if all the dogs were found to have bitten the boy,” Joseph wrote, “but he was treated for multiple bites on his legs and buttocks. Per state law, the three dogs were quarantined, according to Animal Control Services. Rojas-Ibarra then paid for their release after they had been licensed, vaccinated against rabies and given microchips.”
Said Petra Aguirre’s nephew, Simon Yanez, to Cory Smith of KSAT-TV, “Animal Care Services should have come and investigated and seen if those dogs were properly tied up.”
Multiple bites but not designated “dangerous”
Norwood told Smith that Animal Care Services lacked the authority to investigate whether Skirtgles was properly secured, since Skirtgles was not designated as a dangerous dog.
The “Dangerous dog” designation is not “something that cannot be self-initiated by Animal Care Services,” Norwood told Smith. “It’s something that’s driven by a complaint, by a citizen affidavit.”
Unclear, however, is whether Animal Care Services advised the first attack victim’s family about what would be necessary to secure a “dangerous dog” designation for Skirtgles.
Reported Conger of KENS-5, “I-Team review of records shows that dangerous dog investigations in San Antonio have nearly doubled in the last three years. In 2012, Animal Care Services reviewed 35 cases. The numbers jumped to 42 in 2013. And,” halfway through the year, “ACS investigators have been busy with 60 cases already in 2014.”
Learned Joseph from University Hospital staff, “In 2013, staff there treated 50 dog-attack patients, according to hospital data. That’s about the same as in 2012, when 52 were treated, but much higher than in 2011 and 2010, when doctors saw 40 and 30 patients, respectively. In 2009, the number was 48, almost as many as in 2013, the data show.
“San Antonio consistently has been one of the worst cities in the United States for attacks on postal carriers,” Joseph continued, “according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Postal Service. In fiscal 2010 and 2011, 39 letter carriers were attacked here, placing San Antonio among the top six cities both years. And in fiscal 2012—the year with the most recent data — 42 letter carriers were attacked, tying San Antonio with Seattle for second place behind only Los Angeles, which had 69 attacks.
Three deaths in two years
Concern about San Antonio Animal Care Services’ handling of dangerous dog cases had already built for a decade, punctuated by the pit bull attack deaths of 64-year-old Roberto Aguilera in 2005, 10-year-old Amber Jones in January 2007, and 90-year-old Celestino Rangel in May 2007.
Jones’ death was particularly poignant: seconds after she freed a pit bull whose collar was caught in a chain link fence, the pit bull disemboweled her.
Jones’ death came soon after the Texas legislature sent to the governor a bill named Lillian’s Law, after Lillian Stiles, 76, who in November 2005 was killed by six runaway pit bull/Rottweiler mixes while driving a riding lawn mower in Milam County, Texas.
Texas state law prohibits cities and counties from enacting ordinances that prohibit specific dog breeds. Lillian’s Law, advanced as an example of the “punish the deed, not the breed” legislation favored by pit bull advocates, provides felony penalties for negligent dog owners whose dogs kill or disfigure people.
Lillian’s Law won gubernatorial approval, but in the first courtroom test of the law, Fannin County Judge Lauri Blake in January 2010 held it to be unconstitutionally vague. Blake dismissed all charges against John Hardy Taylor, who in August 2008 transported four pit bulls through downtown Bonham, Texas in an open vehicle. Two of the pit bulls leaped out to attack an 11-year-old girl and a 44-year-old woman.
In a second test of Lillian’s Law, Nancy Hayes, 30, of Arlington, in August 2010 reportedly plea-bargained four years on probation, after her two pit bulls attacked passers-by on two separate occasions.
California dog law attorney Kenneth Phillips predicted when Lillian’s Law passed that it would prove ineffective both in preventing dog attacks and in winning felony convictions after severe attacks occur.
“There are three glaring errors in Lillian’s Law,” Phillips posted to his web site, www.dogbitelaw.com. “The first one preserves the defense that enabled [dog owner] Jose Hernandez to escape conviction for the death of Lillian Stiles herself. Conviction is not possible unless there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the dog owner knew or should have known that his dog was going to cause death or severe bodily injury. In the Lillian Stiles case, Hernandez convinced the jury that he did not have the necessary culpability because he was unaware that his six pit bull/Rottweiler mixes were dangerous.
“Secondly,” Phillips said, “Lillian’s Law deals only with a dog running at large, or a dangerous dog who is not confined. If one of those conditions are not met, the law does not apply.”
Finally, Lillian’s Law “requires proof that the dog already had its ‘one free bite.’ This,” Phillip opined, is “more restrictive than the common law doctrine established by English judges in the 1600s. Under the ‘one bite rule,’ there is no automatic defense,” Phillips explained, “if the vicious dog is in an enclosure.”
Lillian’s Law has been successfully prosecuted in some cases. Recounted Dogsbite.org founder Colleen Lynn in a March 2013 review of 34 Texas dog attack fatalities between 2005 and 2013, “In 2011, the 11th Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of Jack Wayne Smith and Crystal Michelle Watson in the death of Tanner Monk,” a seven-year-old who was fatally mauled by two pit bulls in Breckenridge, Texas, in 2008. Pit bull owners Smith and Watson each drew seven years in prison for Monk’s death, plus a fine of $5,000.
“Since the appellate ruling,” Lynn added, “several convictions under Lillian’s Law in cases of nonfatal dog attacks have been made, including two in Travis County” in 2012.
“Mortality, Mauling, & Maiming by Vicious Dogs”
Meanwhile, on March 31, 2009, seven-month-old Izaiah Gregory Cox of San Antonio was killed in his great grandmother Irma Garcia’s home, after Garcia’s two pit bulls broke down a baby gate to attack him.
University of Texas Health Science Center surgery professor Stephen M. Cohn pronounced Cox dead, then assigned John Bini, M.D., now chief of surgery at the Wilford Hall Medical Center, to research the forensics of fatal dog attacks.
Bini, Cohn and four colleagues released their findings in a paper entitled “Mortality, Mauling, and Maiming by Vicious Dogs,” published in the April 2011 edition of Annals of Surgery.
Bini, Cohn, et al “reviewed the medical records of patients admitted to our level one trauma center with dog bites during a 15-year period,” they wrote. The center in that time treated 228 patients for dog bite injuries. Breed-specific information was not routinely recorded, but the breed of dog was available in the treatment records for 82 patients, 29 of whom were injured by pit bulls.
“Compared with attacks by other breeds of dogs, attacks by pit bulls were associated with higher morbidity rates, higher hospital charges, and a higher risk of death than attacks by other breeds of dogs. Strict regulation of pit bulls,” Bini, Cohn et al concluded, “may substantially reduce the U.S. mortality rates related to dog bites.”
San Antonio dog court
The Cox death appeared to bring some reforms to San Antonio. Recounted Colleen Lynn of Dogsbite.org, “In 2011, San Antonio created a special court that hears all canine related crimes…The most important aspect for dog bite victims is that their case now only appears before a judge who has a deeper understanding of the issue. For instance, the seriousness of dog bite injuries and the common excuses recited by irresponsible dog owners.
“In 2012,” Lynn continued, “San Antonio went even further by deploying ‘one of the most proactive approaches in the state to support dog bite victims,’ according to the San Antonio Express-News. The new program specifically tackles the process of a dangerous dog or an aggressive dog investigation by making it more efficient and favorable to dog bite victims.”
But then reported dog attack injuries increased by about 10%.
Shelter killing down 95% in 20 years
While complete San Antonio dog bite and attack records are unavailable, dog attacks and fatalities appear to have exploded even as the city made dramatic progress in reducing shelter killing.
From 1995 through 2004, San Antonio Animal Care Services killed as many as 20,000 more dogs and cats per year than the New York City Center for Animal Care & Control, serving a city seven times larger.
The San Antonio shelter killing toll began to fall abruptly during the tenure of former Animal Care Services director William Lammers, DVM, a 19-year employee who resigned in April 2005, four months after he was succeeded as director by Sam Sanchez.
Retiring just a year later, Sanchez was succeeded by Craig Brestrup, previously executive director of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society in Lynnwood, Washington, and author of Disposable Animals: Ending the Tragedy of Throwaway Pets (1997). Brestrup introduced the departmental drive toward no-kill animal control pursued since his six-month tenure by successors Jef Hale, Vincent Medley, Gary Hendel, and since 2013 by Kathy Davis.