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San Francisco Dog Court 

Due process, under the law, for every canine

Wednesday, Feb 16 2005
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Page 2 of 6

But Richard Scott isn't here when it matters most. He missed the previous hearing, too. Three weeks have passed since the incident, and no one has spoken on Radical's behalf. No one has written a letter. No one has even called Herndon. In the end, no one really cares, and Radical runs out of time.

Before Herndon took over the court in 1993, almost all the hearings resulted in destruction. Now, out of the more than 100 cases each year, Herndon decides on euthanasia about 25 percent of the time. He is called cruel and reactionary, an animal killer. Yet he has a farmload of rescued animals on his ranch near Half Moon Bay.

A week later, behind locked metal doors, where the public doesn't go, Herndon moves slowly down the rows of custody dogs. These animals don't get many visitors. They aren't up for adoption. Many of them have a date in Dog Court. Many of them will be euthanized.

Radical is in the second row. She is terrified. She shakes uncontrollably, the skin tensing over her thick muscles. Her ears droop as she tries to disappear into her doggy bed. Herndon crouches low in front of her.

"There are so many pit bulls like this," he says. "You can't save them all. I don't know Radical's past. I don't know where she came from. Who's going to adopt her? Who am I going to give her to that's going to make a good home for her? If only the guy who owned her had come in. There was a very good chance I'd give Radical back to him with restrictions."

But Scott didn't come in and, in just days, Radical will be led from her kennel to a small room with a blanket on the floor. She will be held down while one of her forelegs is shaved and swabbed with alcohol. A veterinarian will inject nearly 6 ccs of sodium pentobarbital into a vein, and her body will go limp. She will slip into unconsciousness, but her heart will not stop. An intracardial injection will be needed. Moments later, Radical will be dead.

Case 2: Caluha and Mail

Saturday, Jan. 15. Noon. An investigator from the vicious and dangerous animals squad is chasing down a pit bull that attacked a Yorkie and fled the scene. The pit is at large. The Yorkie is dead. The investigator's name is Denny. He's a cat guy, but he's got to find the pit before something else gets hurt.

Officer John Denny, 46, slices through traffic with a practiced hand. Denny plays hockey, and he drives a squad car like he skates, minus the body checks. No time for the slow lane. Denny must crisscross the entire city on his rounds while he investigates Dog Court cases. The information he gathers will determine which cases go to hearing. After the hearings, the information Denny has gathered helps Herndon make decisions.

Denny and Herndon share an office at the shelter with the animal control officers who help them enforce city ordinances. The squad-room mascot is a parrot named Edith who chirps and preens for guests. The old parrot, Archie, would bite and swear. The two cops have been partners for years. They used to work together at Candlestick Park. Although their desks are adjacent, they maintain a professional distance now. Dog Court requires a separation of powers. Herndon doesn't investigate cases with Denny. Denny doesn't talk about investigations with Herndon until after the hearings. He doesn't want to "taint" Herndon before a decision.

So Denny usually cruises the streets alone, which is a shame. He's a talkative guy with a sharp sense of humor. Sometimes, he'll go out with animal control officers. If not, he has them on the radio all day, requesting information on owners and doggy rap sheets or, in Dog Court parlance, "bite histories." Once a week, Denny visits his sources and tracks down leads in person. He hits up dog runs like the one in Golden Gate Park. "The holy grail," Denny calls it. "Some of my best contacts are there." He talks to people who work in neighborhoods where incidents have been reported -- to garbage collectors, meter readers, mailmen. Especially mailmen. "We used to get three or four cases a month from the post office," he says.

Mostly what Denny does is knock on doors, hoping dog owners are home. There are five doors today. He'll save Bill Hay's for last.

Hay's dogs have been in trouble before, but the latest incident was ugly. One of his pits, Caluha, killed a Yorkie in front of its owner in Bernal Heights. Caluha was off leash, and, according to witnesses, Hay fled with her back to his house, telling onlookers to "worry about your own dogs." Hay would later state tearfully in court that, after the attack, he turned the corner and scolded and beat his dog. Not used to such treatment, Caluha ran off. Now, Hay says, he can't find her to comply with the seizure order Herndon has issued.

Denny doesn't buy it.

"We've had problems with him before," he says. What makes him think Hay's lying? Denny squints: "His lips were moving."

In court, Herndon reaches the same conclusion. "I believe you know where the dog is," he sternly tells Hay. "And I believe you've taken the dog, and you've hidden the dog, because you don't want to accept the liability for this."

The process of investigating a case and bringing it to court has evolved considerably since 1993, when Herndon and Denny started as the Police Department's two-man vicious and dangerous animals unit. Back then, the police didn't even take complaints of dog-on-dog attacks, which often presage dog-on-human violence. Hearings took place at the Health Department, where drug lords and their lieutenants would stroll through unprotected doors with weapons. As far as the police brass were concerned, Dog Court was an arcane and unwanted distraction.

About The Author

Luke O'Brien

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