Fitchburg pit bull attacks raise the question
FITCHBURG, Massachusetts––From Fitchburg to Leicester, Massachusetts, both outer suburbs of Boston, is just 24 miles as a fox runs, over hills and through fields, woods, and low-density residential neighborhoods.
A rabid fox bit two Leicester residents in March 2016, causing public health authorities to reissue periodic warnings that rabid foxes, skunks, and raccoons all may still occur in Massachusetts, and that pets should be kept indoors, under observation and control when outdoors, and up-to-date on rabies vaccinations.
From Fitchburg to Plainfield, Connecticut, where Plainfield Animal Control picked up a rabid cat on July 5, 2016, triggering reminder warnings throughout the region, is 71 miles––a little more than an hour’s drive at turnpike speeds.
Pit bull attacks twice in three days
A pit bull kept in a Fitchburg back yard injured three residents in two separate early July 2016 attacks, but despite the regional rabies alerts, Fitchburg police chief Ernest Martineau and animal control officer Susan Kowaleski did not investigate either attack or impound the pit bull until after Anna Burgess of the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise exposed the case on the morning of July 7, 2016.
This was three days after the first pit bull victim received 21 stitches at a local hospital and two days after the second victim received 11 stitches.
Only then was the two-year-old pit bull impounded for the 10-day quarantine required by Massachusetts state law, and––presumably––for behavioral assessment before being either euthanized, returned to the owners, or otherwise placed.
Had the pit bull been in the furious phase of rabies and inflicted a facial bite, either victim might have been dead before the Fitchburg authorities responded.
Pit bull belonged to homeless couple
While the pit bull was temporarily in custody of Fitchburg residents David Boucher and Kelly Wright, “The dog belongs to Boucher’s friends Steven Chabot and Lyn Egan, who recently lost their home,” Burgess explained. “They [Chabot and Egan] were staying with extended family, but on Monday night (July 4, 2016), the dog attacked a 9-year-old girl at the home where they were staying. Her mother posted on Facebook that she was injured as well, when she tried to pull the dog off the child.
“After the attack,” Burgess continued, “Chabot said he called Kowaleski, and then asked Boucher and Wright to keep the dog overnight when he didn’t hear back.”
“We had no information”
Martineau told Burgess, she wrote, that “Department call logs show no record of a call to animal control from anyone.
“We had no information that the dog bit a child,” Martineau said. “We weren’t aware until we received the hospital fax 24 hours later,” when the hospital notified law enforcement, as is required by the Massachusetts rabies control statute.
Martineau did acknowledge receiving a message from Egan on Tuesday, July 5, at 2:38 p.m., stating “We have a dog who is a biter and we need information on getting rid of the dog,” and a second message left at 4:00 p.m., saying, “We need help, please call back.”
“We had no record of two people being bitten by the same dog,” Martineau said.
Regardless of how many people were bitten by any dog, however, Massachusetts rabies control protocol and common sense in any region known to have rabies at large should have required prompt investigation of the report of a “biter,” followed in the case of a recent bite by impoundment.
“On Wednesday morning,” continued Burgess, “the dog attacked Boucher’s tenant, Sheila Norton, in the doorway to Boucher’s apartment.
Norton, who lives with her two young grandchildren on the first floor of Boucher’s Blossom Street home, was bitten on her left hand, stomach, and left thigh. Her grandchildren, a 5-year-old and a 4-year-old, were standing behind her when she was attacked.”
No room at the pound
“Boucher immediately took Norton to the hospital.” Burgess wrote. “After that, he put the dog in a cage in his back yard. Boucher and Wright, desperate to get the dog out of their possession, then went to Fitchburg police and to city hall.”
After Boucher spoke to chief deputy Paul Bozicas, Kowaleski “called Boucher back to say the city didn’t have kennel space for the dog,” Burgess summarized.
But this should not have been Kowaleski’s call to make. Massachusetts law states that in the case of a “visible bite or scratch from a dog or cat, which has been identified and is available for quarantine, biting animal will be placed under strict confinement for 10 days.”
Animal owners may be allowed to practice home quarantine, or to place animals in quarantine at a veterinarian’s office or boarding kennel, but Boucher and Wright were neither the legal owners of the pit bull nor, at that point, in willing possession of the pit bull, who should have already been quarantined after the first attack, let alone the second.
Martineau told Burgess that Kowaleski “followed procedure,” Burgess wrote. “He took issue with the claim that it was Kowaleski’s job to take the dog away, because according to police procedure, a properly registered dog that has bitten someone but is secured in a cage will be told to quarantine the dog for 10 days at the owner’s home.”
“If this dog was loose on Main Street”
Said Martineau, “If this dog was loose on Main Street, it would have been a different story. But they were supposed to be a responsible dog owner, they were a licensed dog owner, and even if there was proper notification (about the bites) we still would have told them to quarantine the dog for 10 days. If they were afraid of the dog, they could have taken it to an animal hospital and surrendered it. It is my opinion that we handled this appropriately with what we knew.”
All of that, however, overlooks that neither Boucher nor Wright were in truth the pit bull owners, licensed or otherwise, and that their home is not a secure rabies quarantine facility. Neither does a travel cage in a back yard meet the requirements of Massachusetts humane law for keeping a dog, quarantined or not.
Failure to impound at issue in 2015, too
Fitchburg already had a long history of questionable responses to pit bull incidents. Fitchburg residents alleged repeatedly in 2015 that Kowaleski was unwilling to impound pit bulls, after pit bulls attacked at least four other dogs between May and mid-July, killing a Chihuahua named Bentley in his own fenced yard.
Bentley was in custody of Fitchburg citizens Jerry and Eileen Kimber, who were keeping him for their adult daughter Stephanie.
The pit bull who killed Bentley was home-quarantined, like the pit bull who attacked twice in early July 2016.
“Continuing danger to residents & pets”
Reported Chris Camire of the Sentinel & Enterprise, “Donna Pawlak, a Fitchburg attorney representing the Kimbers, called the city’s response to the attack ‘entirely inadequate.’
Wrote Pawlak, “(It) allows continuing danger to the health and well-being of the residents and their pets to exist. There are children in the neighborhood and my client calls upon the city…to take proper action to protect the innocent residents and children who are right now susceptible to a potentially deadly attack by this dangerous animal.”
Flunked state inspection
There had been many previous incidents occasioning concern about Fitchburg animal control.
In 2014, summarized Worcester Telegram & Gazette staff reporter Paula J. Owen, the Department of Agricultural Resources Division of Animal Health “alleged the [Fitchburg] shelter was actively soliciting pit bulls from other shelters,” filling shelter space with pit bulls of unknown history from other jurisdictions, instead of keeping space available for local impoundments, and “cited poor conditions at the shelter, including leaky roofs, dysfunctional doors that allowed cold air into the kennels, broken runs and an inefficient heating system.”
The report also found, Owen said, that former shelter manager Amy Egeland “and the former assistant animal control officer conspired to euthanize [a two-year-old pit bull/German shepherd mix named] Capone in violation of state law requiring that strays be held for seven days and the owners be notified. The report alleged that the two city employees tried to involve other people and agencies as a means to ‘deflect responsibility.’”
Former Fitchburg animal control officer Carol Stacy, who served from 1976 to 2011 and then served as a volunteer, told the Lowell Sun that, as the Sun paraphrased, “Capone was a vicious, aggressive dog who indirectly caused Egeland to be injured and was a known problem animal in another city.”
This was disputed by Capone’s owner, Maghan Moynahan, and by the Fitchburg couple who found Capone running at large without a collar.
Fitchburg shelter closed
The 38-year-old Fitchburg Animal Shelter, leased from Stacy, was reportedly closed in June 2014, in part because of liability concerns associated with pit bulls.
“The dogs were transferred to other facilities and Egeland was let go,” wrote Owen. Egeland was said by the Department of Agricultural Resources Division of Animal Health to have had a relationship with animal control officer Kowaleski which was “problematic,” ranging “from non-communication to hostility.”
“Balance Your Bully”
Egeland and partner Sean Stanton then “operated a business called Balance Your Bully Canine Training, where they trained dogs with behavioral issues,” initially in Fitchburg, but they moved to Worcester in 2015 after they encountered problems renewing their license,” summarized Burgess earlier in 2016.
The “problems,” reported Owen at the time, apparently originated when Kowaleski and police “inspected the business, but were denied access to some of the kennels,” and were not given health information they had requested about the dogs.
“Egeland is also facing an investigation into animal cruelty and neglect allegations,” Owen said.
Philosophies & practices
Fitchburg police chief Martineau told Owen that the investigation had been turned over to the Massachusetts SPCA “because of allegations of bias by Egeland,” Owen wrote.
The background issue, Owen continued, was that “Some who worked with Egeland, volunteering at the shelter when she was manager through the Animal Care Education program, allege her philosophies and practices with at-risk animals posed a danger to the public.”
For one, “Kellie L. Ward from Leominster, a former Animal Care Education volunteer who also worked as an animal care technician at the Worcester Animal Rescue League for two years and is trained through the state to evaluate dogs,” alleged that Egeland as Fitchburg shelter manager would “adopt out violent dogs who bit people and attacked other dogs without reporting it.
Injuries to dogs allegedly not reported
“Additionally, on numerous occasions dogfights broke out and injured dogs were denied veterinary care because Ms. Egeland did not want to file a report,” Ward alleged to Owen.
Eventually, on June 7, 2015, Fitchburg resident Monique Tagliavia suffered a severe facial bite, injuring both lips, during a “Whisker Walk at the Bolton fairgrounds by a dog Mr. Stanton was rehabilitating,” Owen learned from a police report.
Egeland and Stanton were back into the news on June 17, 2016, after arraignment in Worcester Superior Court on one count each of felony animal cruelty for “allegedly keeping a dog muzzled for multiple days,” reported Burgess of the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise.
The charges resulted from the MSPCA investigation.