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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 5 of 6

Lisa Telsee drives a Muni bus all day. She sits with perfect posture on the bench in the shelter lobby. In her right hand, she clutches a y-lead, a leash designed for walking two dogs at the same time. Telsee owns pit bulls -- Tag, an intact male who goes by "Poppa," and Sheera, a spayed female.

In December, Telsee was walking her dogs on the y-lead near her house in the Bayview when a neighbor's 124-pound Malamute mix approached. The Malamute was off leash, and a fight broke out. Tag and Sheera got the better of it. Although Telsee didn't break any laws, the incident has alerted Herndon to a public safety issue. He has ordered behavior assessments for all three dogs.

Telsee is upset. She didn't go looking for a fight. The Malamute was off leash, not her dogs. "If I had two poodles, I wouldn't even be here," she says. "The whole situation has got me so stressed out." She's scared Herndon will order her pits euthanized. "I love my dogs," she says. "That's all I have. Normally, I'm a pretty tough person, but this is getting to me." Her posture goes. The tears begin to flow.

More than half of the cases Herndon hears involve pit bulls. Their tough-guy cachet makes them popular in San Francisco. The thug wants them for fighting. The animal lover wants them because they're misunderstood. The hipster wants them because they're, well, hip. And some people just really like pit bulls.

But the wrong pit in the wrong hands can be a disaster. Pits were bred for fighting other dogs, and they usually have a high prey drive. For many, it's a genetic inevitability. The dogs are known for both their powerful jaws and their obstinacy in letting quarry go once they "lock on." Animal Control officers trade countless tales about the different items they've seen applied to pit bulls' heads to force the dogs to release -- hot water, two-by-fours, tire irons.

"People have broken furniture over pit bulls' heads," Guldbech says.

In the scuffle with Telsee's pits, Norma Hotaling, the owner of the Malamute, used her fist. She beat Tag so hard on the head, she broke her hand.

"I started screaming," Hotaling says in court. "I saw both dogs go for my dog's neck, and they were just viciously, viciously attacking my dog's neck. He was wailing and crying." Hotaling starts crying, too.

Emotions run high in Dog Court. Dogs are like family members to many owners. In the hearings, people talk about their Shih Tzu taking them for a walk, or their Rottweiler having dinner with them. When Herndon asks Telsee if she has any children who might be at home with Tag and Sheera, one of Telsee's friends answers for her. "Those are her children," the friend says.

No wonder Telsee is so worried about the behavior assessment. She brings her dogs into Duford's office. The muzzles come off. Telsee answers Duford's questions. Yes, she knows her dogs are poorly socialized. They both had parvo, a potentially fatal and highly contagious virus, as puppies. They missed out on playing with other dogs. Telsee admits that Tag is aggressive with other dogs. She can't take him to the pet store, and she wants to get help. Duford nods and takes notes, explaining about breeding and aggression and training techniques. She talks about testosterone and suggests neutering. She wants to bring a few dogs with different personalities into the room to meet Telsee's pits.

Tag seems friendly enough with people. He jumps on Duford and licks her face. He likes petting and scratching. "He loves love," Telsee says.

But he's also a pushy dog and, when he jumps on the SF Weekly photographer shooting the scene, she tries to get him off. She puts her arm in his chest to move him away. He doesn't budge. I'm sitting next to her. Gently, I tap my thigh with my hand and say, "Come here," to the dog.

Suddenly, I'm 12 inches away from the snarling mouth of an angry pit. His jaws are huge. His teeth are bared. He could bite my face off. Something made him mad and started a rumble in his throat that turned into explosive barking. Was it a noise in the hall? The movement I made with my hand? It doesn't matter. Right now, all that matters is that I stay still. No eye contact. No running for the closest indoor tree. Stay calm and try not to think about filling out paperwork for Dog Court without a face.

Telsee springs to her feet. "Poppa! Come here! Get over here!" Tag obeys and calms down. He looks ashamed of what he's done.

I've always wondered if I'm afraid of dogs. When I was 2 years old, my mother's springer spaniel tried to attack me. I wasn't hurt. I don't remember anything. My parents gave the dog away. But the story they told me when I was older stayed with me. We moved to a new city. Our neighbor had a springer spaniel. I would eye the dog warily over a bush and wonder if he was dangerous.

I imagine Herndon wonders, too. When he was 3, a dog belonging to his parents' friends bit him in the face underneath his left eye. The unprovoked attack ripped open a tear duct. He still has the scar. Herndon is reluctant to share the story. He worries that people will view him as biased because of it. But Herndon has been an animal lover and a dog owner most of his life. He was also the victim of a serious dog attack. He understands both the dog owner's and the victim's perspectives in an intimate way.

About The Author

Luke O'Brien

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