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December 08, 2015

Are Philadelphia's 'dangerous dog' citations still lagging?

Nine city canines are included on state registry compared to 191 from smaller Allegheny County

Public Safety Dogs
01-120715_DogBitesDog_Carroll.jpg Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

South Philly resident, Lorie Henninger with her dog Oliver.

Anthony Cramutolo was walking his family's cockapoo, Oliver, near his South Philly home late last month when a loose dog attacked Oliver, sinking its teeth into Oliver's neck and nearly piercing a major blood vessel, according to Cramutolo's, wife, Lorie Henninger.

Cramutolo punched the dog three times before it released Oliver, Henninger said. He then grabbed Oliver, darted home and rushed the ailing canine to Bree's Animal Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia, where Oliver underwent emergency surgery that totaled about $1,000.

"He was really, really lucky to even live," said Dr. Marc C. Roblejo, who performed the surgery. "When we explored some of the wounds of the neck area you could see the bite wound was about a centimeter from the jugular, which is the largest vein in the neck."

Two weeks later, the 15-year-old Oliver is expected to make a full recovery. But Henninger is fearful that another dog — or even a child — could be victimized by the same dog that bit Oliver. She wants the dog to wear a muzzle when taken for a walk by its owner, a woman whose name Henninger does not know.

"I'm just very lucky my dog survived," Henninger said. "I really feel it's her responsibility. I don't want the dog dead — that's not my goal. I love all animals. I want her to be responsible with her dog."

Henninger contends the aggressive canine should be declared dangerous under Pennsylvania's dog law, a distinction that would require it to be muzzled and leashed when taken off the owner's property. The declaration also places the dog on a state registry designed to alert residents to any dangerous animals living in their neighborhood.

To be declared dangerous, a judge must determine that an unprovoked dog has attacked, inflicted severe injury or killed a human or domestic animal while off its owner’s property. The owner then must either euthanize the dog or adhere to a set of strict and costly regulations.

To date, the "dangerous dog" designation has not been applied to Philadelphia canines as frequently as it has elsewhere in Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia has only nine dangerous dog cases listed on the state registry kept by the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement. That pales in comparison to Allegheny County, which has 191 cases despite having 55,000 fewer households. Allegheny County had 157 animals on the list in March.

The four suburban Philadelphia counties – each with at least 250,000 fewer households than the city – combine for 51 dangerous dog cases. In March, the suburban counties totaled 37.

Until PhillyVoice inquired about the registry in March, Philadelphia did not have any cases listed because the information was not being sufficiently reported to the state. The bureau subsequently mailed letters to the Philadelphia Police Department and District Attorney's Office reiterating their roles in reporting dangerous dog cases.

Two dangerous dogs have been added to Philadelphia's portion of the registry since PhillyVoice last reported on the issue in April, and both of those animals already had been on the list in the suburbs then relocated into the city.

Another dog on the list in April has since been removed, but no new cases originating in Philadelphia have been added.

A Philadelphia police spokesperson did not respond to an inquiry seeking comment. Earlier this year police said every attempt is made to secure vicious dogs with the assistance of animal control. Police noted they respond to about 3.5 million service calls per year, and they rely on both animal control and dog owners to ensure their pets are properly secured.

The bureau now is working with Animal Care and Control Team, a nonprofit agency contracted by the city to ensure notification of dangerous dogs in Philadelphia, said Logan Hall, a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture.

"Since strengthening communication and collaboration between ACCT and the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, the Bureau has received an updated list from the Philadelphia officials, which is reflected on the registry," Hall said in an email.

ACCT Assistant Director of Operations Tara Schernecke said ACCT is in the process of holding meetings with the various agencies responsible for determining and regulating dangerous dogs. That includes police, who are responsible for issuing citations, and the District Attorney's Office, which must notify ACCT of any dangerous dog declarations.

ACCT is responsible for ensuring dangerous dog owners meet various stipulations.

"There's only so much that we can do," Schernecke said. "We can't do any kind of follow-up if charges aren't filed. We can't make sure that they pay a fee or that they have a dog neutered."

Regulations for maintaining a dangerous dog include a $500 annual registration fee, restitution and a $50,000 liability insurance policy to cover any injuries inflicted by the dog. The dog also must have a microchip implanted and be spayed or neutered.

Owners additionally must post warning signs on the property, confine the animal to a proper enclosure and keep it muzzled and leashed when off the property. Dangerous dogs cannot lose that distinction except through a legal appeal.

ACCT can cite dog owners for regulatory violations and nuisance issues, Schernecke said, but it cannot issue summary citations such as harboring a dangerous dog. That authority is left with police.

"The police must file the charge," Schernecke said. "If they don't file the charges the only thing animal control can do is to follow up with the dog owner to make sure they have a city license and current vaccines."

Police have not issued a citation in relation to the Nov. 20 incident that nearly killed Henninger's dog. A police spokesperson said officers cannot cite a dog owner unless they witness the incident, but that Henninger could consider filing a private criminal complaint with the District Attorney's Office.

Community members helped Henninger locate the suspected address of the woman whose dog bit Oliver, but Henninger said no one has answered the door when she and police have knocked.

"At some point, I was just hoping for an apology," Henninger said. "It doesn't even seem like that is going to happen."

Henninger has met with several Philadelphia police officers but said that has brought little benefit.

The first police officer she met essentially told her that "dogs will be dogs," Henninger said. Another officer said she could not cite the owner unless she answered the door. She pointed Henninger to animal control.

"There's no help for this sort of thing," Henninger said. "I'm really going to a computer trying to figure this out, finding people's names and places. I've just come to dead end, after dead end, after dead end."

Third District Community Relations Officer Juan "Ace" Delgado, who also assisted Henninger, was unable to be reached for comment.

Henninger said she has not sought the assistance of a lawyer because she is less interested in restitution than ensuring the safety of other animals.

"My motivation is, God forbid this happens to another pet owner," she said. "I'm just lucky I have a strong 15-year-old (dog)."