2007-12-19 / Columnists
Pets, Pets, Pets
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa and sometimes he comes disguised as a State Supreme Court Judge. Duke will be home for the holidays. The Pit Bull spent the last 4 Christmases in court-ordered solitary awaiting a death sentence for a crime supporters say he did not commit. Thanks to a Brooklyn Appellate Court decision, Duke is now free to return to his family. Forget champagne. I brought filet mignon to Duke's release from Islip Shelter for a victory celebration long overdue.
The dog's saga began in 2003 when a Hauppauge neighbor accused Duke of attacking his Bulldog and chasing his horse. His owner, Denise Menendez, maintains Duke's innocence. She says her 2 Pits were at home, calling it a case of mistaken identity. (My Record "Pets" 4/18/07 archived online details Duke's judicial journey.) Duke, now 6, will live under "house arrest" since his reprieve was based on the fact that a dog-on-dog attack was not part of the NYS dangerous dog law at the time of the "alleged" incidents. Although he's not exonerated, all who know Duke are thankful for the verdict.
Rather than rehash the dispute, it's time to focus on lessons derived from Duke's debacle. First the dog himself proved to be remarkable. He spent two thirds of his life in the pound, yet kept his cool, never becoming stressed or cage crazed. I saw him in his pen and during family visitations. He'd ignore dogs that passed and would greet all visitors with a wag.
The press dubbed him- "Duke the Death Row Dog" but his breed's stigma, the undeserved Pit prejudice sullied his chances. Despite his sound temperament, presumed innocence, and exemplary behavior while incarcerated, Duke's life would never have been spared without the tireless efforts of his advocates and owner. The Islip Shelter staff adored Duke, caring for the big galoot as if he were their own. Former shelter supervisor Matt Caracciolo believed in his peaceful prisoner and took every opportunity to sing his praises despite the Town's official policy of "no comment". Duke's attorney, Amy Chaitoff, well versed in animal law, left no legal stone unturned. Supporters took up Duke's cause with contributions, rallies, websites, and letter writing campaigns.
Duke owes a huge debt of gratitude to behaviorist, Jeff Kolbjornsen of Elite Animal Trainers. Jeff has defended high profile dogs before; he has protected others put in perilous situations. Once Jeff evaluated Duke and saw that his temperament was sound- this Pit was unfazed by even the most aggressive dogs- Jeff dedicated himself to winning Duke's pardon. Jeff will also guide Duke and family, if need be, as the canine ex-con reacclimates to civilian life.
Jeff says we must always protect our dogs; understand our legal rights, know our neighbors. That's Duke's legacy. This caveat also encompasses the full spectrum of owner responsibility. We alone orchestrate our dogs' welfare plus the well-being of the people and animals they encounter. It's not enough to profess we love our dogs. We need to protect them via adequate socialization and training, constant supervision ("It's 10 PM, do you know where your dog is?"), secure fencing and ID tags, proper nutrition and veterinary care, and in most cases- spay/neuter.
As for Duke, the photogenic Pit grew accustomed to press conferences. He knew the drill. On at least 3 previous occasions, he had been paraded before the media and then back into Islip Shelter. Friday's hoopla, however, was different. Some weird woman was waving a steak. Better yet- he got to take the juicy treat home with him- finally free after 4 years behind bars. That's 28 long ones in dog years.
In some respects the many adoptable dogs and cats this week at Babylon Town Shelter (643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon are not as fortunate as Duke is now. They do not have a home or family waiting patiently for them to return. Cats do not get any cuter than this 8 week old male Siamese mix kitten in C-9. His eyes are baby blue. He even helped me calm one of the frightened puppies found in the cemetery. Meanwhile "Rodolfo", a young Shepherd mix in Cage 39 was picked up near the Islip border. He's presently an understudy for Santa's team. See more photos on the shelter's Petfinder site.