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2007-04-18 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

by Joanne Anderson

Duke is a model prisoner, a victim of mistaken identity and one helluva dog according to all who really know him. He has no idea a judge sentenced him to death for "alleged" attacks on animals, or that his supporters have been

Duke's press conference at Islip Shelter on April 9

trying desperately to save him or, worse, that despite rallies, petitions, media attention, and numerous court dates, two pending decisions from NYS Appellate Courts are his last chance.

Although the Pit Bull has spent 3 _ years (and 4 Christmases) in solitary confinement at Islip Town Shelter, his attitude remains positive and upbeat. Just ask the shelter personnel who have filed affidavits testifying to his exemplary manners, the well-known trainer who's demonstrated Duke's rapport with people and other dogs, and the crowd of reporters and photographers the big galoot showered with kisses at a press conference last week.

The ordeal began for Denise Menendez and Duke her now 5 year old Pit in Oct. '03 when a neighbor filed a complaint alleging her dogs strayed from her Hauppauge yard, chased his horse and attacked his Bulldog. When Denise's husband failed to appear at the correct court, a judge declared her dogs "dangerous" based solely on the neighbor's testimony. Later, although the Menendez dogs were muzzled and leash walked in their fenced yard, the accuser saying his dog was attacked again fingered Duke as the culprit. A judge ordered him euthanized for his "second" offense. Animal control seized Duke in Dec. '03 to wait at the shelter where he has been ever since.

A series of missteps trampled Duke's defense. First there's the misconception that Duke has to be guilty because he's a Pit. Though it should be the deed, not the breed, a judge wouldn't have been as quick to condemn Duke if he were a chocolate Lab rather than a cherry nose Pit. Breed specific stigma is damning. Pit prejudice jeopardizes Duke's fate although he's never shown any aggression during his long shelter stay. Jeff Kolbjornsen of Elite Animal Trainers says Duke's temperament is super sound. He has manhandled him for reporters, and paraded the unfazed Pit Bull past friendly as well as truly aggressive dogs.

Most dogs would be showing neurotic and stressed behavior after being kenneled so long. Not Duke. Over the years, the peaceful prisoner and I have shared many a biscuit. The Islip staff adores him. His weekly family reunions with Denise and her kids are a joy to watch. This winter Team Vivi rescued dogs from a hoarder that were caged right near his "cell". Duke looked on patiently while we were trying to socialize these frightened pups. Not convinced yet? Watch the video of Duke calmly walking past shelter dogs on his websitewww. saveduke.homestead.com.

Denise says that it's a case of mistaken identity- her 2 Pits were in the house. Prior to the complaint the shelter has no record of her dogs running loose. Owner responsibility is a 2 way street. Just wondering, if the neighbor's pets were ever picked up by Animal Control? According to court transcripts Duke's accuser had difficulty describing the canine criminal. When presented with a photo, he arbitrarily pointed to the dog with more white on his chest- which seems similar to the erroneous police line up assumption that one choice has to be the bad guy.

Denise admits that they goofed about going to the wrong court but miscommunication added to the problem. She said they received 2 confusing notices with 2 court dates at 2 courts. They also misinterpreted the "dangerous dog" stipulations. They thought they had a choice either to put up an outside pen or crate the dogs inside. That's why they were late building a pen. A request for postponement of a Christmas Eve hearing led to the seizure 2 days later. Despite 3 years of legal battles, Denise vows: "I will continue to fight to bring Duke home. I'll do anything required by law to spare his life."

Duke's attorney, Amy Chaitoff, sees additional judicial snafus. She claims Duke's order of destruction is based on a misapplication of our state's dangerous dog law. Dog to dog incidents were excluded from the law at the time of the alleged incidents. Therefore, Duke would be punished too severely based on a law that didn't come into effect until after the complaint against him. Amy is hopeful a Brooklyn judge will cancel the euthanasia order for this reason and that a White Plains judge will vacate the first hearing because of defective notice. You can help. The Save Duke website (click "Current News") has the judges' addresses to write brief letters in support of him.

Crucial lessons stem from Duke's dilemma. With pet ownership comes vigilance and responsibilities. Secure fencing, training, and supervision outdoors are crucial to the safety of everyone's pets. A similar "attack" scenario could plague anyone with a dog. Both sides need to be heard during neighborhood disputes. Owners must know their rights when defending their pets since judges decide these cases based merely on paper complaints. They never meet the dog in question. Each case is different, all factors must be considered. Finally Town animal control officers, often at the scene, need peace officer authority to help the police clarify the law and to aid all pets and parties involved. The SPCA has this status, yet can't respond to dangerous dog claims as fast or as often.

In recent national news the name "Duke" became synonymous with "unjustly accused" while locally Duke the Pit could be a canine client for the Innocence Project. Isn't shadow of a doubt or legal error just cause to release this lovable lug? You betcha'. Duke's life rests on whether a judge ultimately agrees.

Speaking of Islip Shelter (224-5660) Denver Ave. Bay Shore, 2 lovely adoptable dogs are waiting long for new homes. "Hank" is a 2 yr. friendly Pit with 1 blue eye while "Petie" is a 10 mon. Foxhound mix with unusual double back dew claws. Daily News photographer, shown sitting on the shelter curb, is thrilled with "Maggie May" a tiny dog he adopted not long ago at Islip.

Back at Babylon Town Shelter (643- 9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon, "Sunny" a darling yellow Field Lab in Cage 73 really needs a family. This young dog just wants to pal around with someone.

Other females: a Mama brindle Pit in Cage 51. She seems to enjoy the company of other dogs and is ambidextrous.

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