San Francisco Dog Court

Due process, under the law, for every canine

Over the years, she has helped expand the range of what the hearing officer can order in his decisions. At one time, it came down to a choice between destroying an animal and letting it live. Now, there are other possibilities, from a number of levels of obedience classes to restrictions that require a dog to be, for example, muzzled, or kept on a leash, with violations of the restrictions constituting misdemeanor crimes punishable by six months in jail or a $1,000 fine. A new ordinance passed last month allows Herndon to prohibit a person from owning dogs for up to three years. This is a big step forward for Dog Court. In the past, Herndon would seize someone's dog on a Monday and see the same guy with a new dog on Tuesday. "Now we can put a leash on the person," Herndon says.

In her time at Animal Control, Guldbech has stood up to some of the city's most unsavory characters. She's had her life threatened more times than she can remember, and she gladly recounts the hearing when she was convinced the city's most notorious dogfighter was going to kill her in the courtroom. Guldbech probably knows more about vicious dogs and their owners than anyone in town. She thinks Sweet Pea is a little high-strung and a little dangerous.

The pig should probably be thinking along the same lines, but when she emerges slowly from her refuge in the park, she is chirping and grunting happily. The pig, named Potsticker, is 33 pounds and has a long tail that wags as she walks. A few weeks ago, she was munching on grass, minding her own business, when, from across the park, Sweet Pea charged and bit her on the ham. Now Guldbech and Duford will reunite the animals to observe their reactions in a controlled experiment.

The pig moves into position and starts eating grass. More, Sweet Pea's owner, tightens her grip on the dog's leash. The other dogs in the park are baffled by the pig but not antagonistic. Sweet Pea, on the other hand, bucks and whines and struggles to break loose. She knocks More down. Duford takes control of the leash and walks the dog closer to Potsticker. Amazingly, the pig continues eating. Twenty feet, 10 feet, five feet. The closer Sweet Pea gets, the more aggressive she gets. It's starting to feel like Lord of the Flies. But Potsticker doesn't even look up. It should come as no surprise that the pig just wants to eat.

Behavior assessments like this provide valuable pieces of information. Duford conducts them regularly for Dog Court. "Bill will ask me to do an assessment to get a deeper picture," she says. Herndon also sends dogs to UC Davis' School of Veterinary Medicine for a similar, if pricier and more pedigreed, evaluation. But Duford does the bulk of the assessments. Usually, she conducts an extensive interview with the owner and runs tests to get a sense of the animal's history and how well the owner understands her pet. "I want to know about the human element," Duford says. She listens carefully to what owners say. She writes most of it down.

This evening, after the assessment is over, More says all the wrong things.

"You know, we were hoping this would all be resolved on Christmas day," she says. "The people around the corner were having a barbecue, and it was a pig. But we didn't know its name." Duford gasps in shock and covers her mouth. This attempt at humor falls very flat around people who have dedicated their lives to working with animals.

More is highly defensive about the assessment. She knew Sweet Pea would act up, and the dog did. Like most owners who appear in Dog Court, the gorilla in the bedroom of More's mind is the possibility that Sweet Pea will be seized and destroyed. If Herndon orders the dog euthanized, More's the type of person who might appeal by filing a lawsuit. If Herndon deems Sweet Pea vicious and dangerous and places restrictions on her, More might contest that decision. The vicious and dangerous label carries hidden costs. The animal must be registered as a public threat. Some counties won't allow dangerous dogs into their jurisdictions. Insurance companies may reject claims. Landlords often won't rent apartments.

Dog owners have exerted their right to take Dog Court rulings into the human civil court system five times in the past, most notably in the Whipple case. Five times, such "habeas canus" appeals have failed. Each time, the argument has been about due process. Without any lawyers, subpoenas, or swearing in of witnesses, Dog Court is designed to be less formal and more accessible than the real, human court system. Cross-examination happens through Herndon.

"We're not trying to punish people," says Herndon. "We're trying to protect them. We don't want an average guy to go to the trouble and expense of getting an attorney."

But without normal legal procedures, Dog Court is vulnerable to criticism. Herndon's not an official judge. He's an administrative hearing officer. He's also a cop with an office in the shelter, which raises other questions.

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