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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 3 of 6

"They wanted to phase it out," Denny says. Instead, almost as an afterthought, they assigned Denny and Herndon to it. The two started part time, keeping the court afloat with the help of Heather Fong, the current police chief. Fong had adopted a pit bull and recognized the value of the civil hearings.

Then Diane Whipple was ripped apart in January 2001 by two Presa Canarios in her Pacific Heights apartment building. She died in the hospital the same day.

"That was a huge wake-up call," says Carl Friedman, the director of Animal Care and Control. "We needed to have a mechanism in place to allow citizens to have a hearing immediately."

Herndon and Denny went full time, instantly becoming one of the best-known and most scrutinized examples of dog justice in the nation. Since the Whipple case, San Francisco has remained in a state of heightened canine alert. The number of hearings Herndon presides over has increased by about 60 percent, and Denny now investigates a dozen incidents a week, most of them dog-on-dog. Today, though, he's only got one on his mind.

Denny slides his car into a spot on the steep hill in Bernal Heights where Hay lives. He knocks on Hay's door. No answer. Denny questions two neighbors. They can't help. Then he sees what he's been looking for -- a mailman. Several of the mailman's co-workers say they've been attacked by Hay's dogs. The postal worker tells Denny that Hay receives certified mail at an address two blocks away. Denny hustles up the street. Another letter carrier confirms the address. This is the third mailman Denny has questioned today. They are his secret weapon, his clearinghouse for information on poorly mannered dogs. A mailman being attacked is a regular occurrence. Dogs chew up nearly 4,000 of them around the country each year. The Whipple dogs went after a mailman, Denny points out. The mailman fought them off with his pushcart.

But the U.S. Postal Service can only get Denny so far. He knocks on the door of Hay's second house, a dilapidated wreck where Denny suspects Caluha may have been stashed. Nobody's home. There are no signs of the dog, although a neighbor reports that Hay frequently comes and goes with pit bulls. Denny decides to make the house a regular stop on his rounds.

As he skates back into traffic, he comforts himself with the thought that he's one step closer to Caluha and that, once again, Denny's Law -- "Cop is to doughnut as dog is to mailman" -- has proved true.

Case 3: Fight at Sutro Heights

Jan. 12; 5:03 p.m. Very cold. This is the park. It's the same old story. An adopted Taiwanese street dog bites a surprisingly svelte Vietnamese pig. The pig doesn't like it. Now the dog's in trouble. An expert is called in. Her name's Duford. She's a behaviorist. Her captain is Guldbech. They'll reintroduce the dog to the pig and see if they make bacon.

The wind whips through the trees in Sutro Heights Park, a chunk of federal land perched on cliffs above the Pacific. The sun is about to set, and the temperature has dropped quickly. Drums bang in the distance. Somewhere in this park a pig is waiting to be attacked.

The pig will soon face its nemesis, a 3-year-old basenji mix named Sweet Pea. The basenji is a barkless breed from Africa, but something doesn't add up here. Sweet Pea's owner, Laurie More, rescued the dog off the streets of Taiwan. Also, the dog won't stop barking.

She barks at cars, at bikes, at other dogs, at people. When Donna Duford, the city shelter's behavior assessment specialist, and Capt. Vicky Guldbech of Animal Control show up, Sweet Pea barks at them. Guldbech kneels down to say hello. Sweet Pea lunges. Guldbech jerks away.

"Whoa! She almost got my hand," she says. "I'm a little concerned."

Guldbech has been working in Dog Court since before the hearing process began. As Animal Control's representative to the court, she sets the schedule, makes recommendations to Herndon, and provides him with information. She also collaborates with him and the City Attorney's Office to make revisions to the city code. "I've been here so long, I see what doesn't work," she says. "I get to tug on the law."

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.

About The Author

Luke O'Brien

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