Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

San Francisco Dog Court 

Due process, under the law, for every canine

Wednesday, Feb 16 2005
The stories you are about to read are strange but true. The names have not been changed to protect the innocent.

Case 1: A Radical Problem

This is the city, San Francisco, Calif. Thursday, Jan. 6. 2:05 p.m. It's cold. In City Hall Room 408 a hearing officer is working the "vicious and dangerous dog" shift. He carries a badge. His name's Herndon. He's the cop who decides if dogs are a threat. Later, he decides what to do with them. Today, he's got a case about a pit bull and a breast implant. His job? Keep a straight face.

Bill Herndon, 51, stretches his lean 6-foot frame and folds his hands behind his head. Witnesses file into the sunny courtroom. Normally, Herndon tucks his Beretta into his waistband, but in court he wears his sergeant's uniform and holsters his piece. Today, there will be 20 witnesses, maybe 30. Herndon already suspects the well-dressed couple in the back will make trouble.

For 12 years, Herndon has presided over Dog Court, San Francisco's forum for vicious and dangerous dog hearings. He knows what to expect: breathless tales of attacks and maulings; stories about big dogs, little dogs, and fugitive dogs; tales of dogs named Hitler and Saddam. He gets the occasional fistfight. Man's best friend can bring out man's basest feelings, and Herndon deals with them almost every week. There are no attorneys here to filter emotions. It's just Herndon and the dog stories, and he wouldn't have it any other way.

"When you work at a station, you get an alarm call, a petty theft, a lot of the same old garbage," he says. "When I started doing this, I saw I could really make a difference, administer the law, administer justice, be fair to people, do what a cop is supposed to do. It's the hardest job I've had to do in the Police Department, but if I wasn't doing this, I wouldn't be here. I'd retire."

Today, for a second week running, Herndon must confront a particularly raw case, the bizarre and troubling saga of Radical Scott. Like many dogs involved in the hearings, Radical is a poorly socialized, undertrained pit bull. She's a pretty black-and-white pit. Richard Scott rescued her from the street in September. A month later, he was walking her in SOMA when she slipped her collar and attacked a small retriever. Bystanders tried to stop her. She bit one of them. Radical was placed in custody at the city shelter, pending a hearing and a behavior assessment.

What makes the case unusual is an injury the retriever's owner suffered in the struggle to break up the dogs: She ruptured a breast implant. Now the woman and her husband want to find Richard Scott and make him pay for replacing the implant. And although it's well beyond the scope of the court, they want Herndon's help. In fact, they're demanding it.

"We don't really care what you do with [the dog]," the husband shouts, stepping up to the dais that serves as the judge's bench and slamming down a folder like a cheap TV barrister. "I gotta take care of my medical bills!"

Herndon's seen a lot during 28 years on the force. He worked the SWAT detail in the 1980s, later chasing junkies and gangbangers in the Bayview. He got used to keeping extra bullets next to the loose change in his desk drawer. But he's never been yelled at in Dog Court about a fake boob. He doesn't like it. The couple is urged to leave.

"They started talking about an implant," Herndon says. "I thought they meant a microchip in the dog. Then, they told me it was a breast implant." He pauses. "No wonder the husband was so upset."

Yeah, it can get wacky in here, and at first glance, that's what Dog Court looks like -- a wacky legal outgrowth on the far liberal end of the political spectrum, where San Francisco's natural absurdities congregate. But the court is decidedly prosaic in its purpose: to safeguard the community and to protect a person from the seizure of property -- a dog -- without due process. Over the last decade, the laws of Dog Court have been tweaked, but only to give the hearing officer more flexibility in his rulings. The court remains an institution that aims to safeguard individual rights and dispense individual blame. Herndon's idea of justice coincides with this aim. Whenever possible, he hammers home the point that the court is less about dogs than people. "It's about re-educating the person," he says. "It's about individual responsibility."

But Dog Court is also, of course, about the animals, and it reflects a fundamental ideological shift in how San Franciscans, in general, have come to look at their pets. Under the law, San Franciscans who keep dogs are no longer just dog owners. They're guardians. San Franciscans no longer take a bad dog behind the woodshed and shoot him. They listen to his story and then shoot him. Or not, depending.

Legally, even in San Francisco, a dog is still personal property, not much more than a living, breathing suitcase. When Herndon declares a dog vicious and dangerous, legally he is allowed to seize it, to restrict its activities, or to order it destroyed. In concept, however, animals' rudimentary rights have been expanded in recent years to encompass the idea that every dog has its day, or, rather, gets its day, in court. When rendering his decisions on dangerous dogs, Herndon takes into account the same things he would for a human being -- situational factors, behavioral history, even feelings.

Of course, for the system to work, the dog owner has to show up in court, to accept, as Herndon puts it, personal responsibility. Radical is a threat to public safety, and Herndon must declare her vicious and dangerous. If Richard Scott doesn't appear, that decision is tantamount to a death sentence. The shelter rarely adopts out vicious and dangerous dogs, and the SPCA won't take them. Rescue organizations are swamped, and with the number of pit bulls that need help in San Francisco, Radical won't stand a chance.

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.

"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.

The pig should probably be thinking along the same lines, but when she emerges slowly from her refuge in the park, she is chirping and grunting happily. The pig, named Potsticker, is 33 pounds and has a long tail that wags as she walks. A few weeks ago, she was munching on grass, minding her own business, when, from across the park, Sweet Pea charged and bit her on the ham. Now Guldbech and Duford will reunite the animals to observe their reactions in a controlled experiment.

The pig moves into position and starts eating grass. More, Sweet Pea's owner, tightens her grip on the dog's leash. The other dogs in the park are baffled by the pig but not antagonistic. Sweet Pea, on the other hand, bucks and whines and struggles to break loose. She knocks More down. Duford takes control of the leash and walks the dog closer to Potsticker. Amazingly, the pig continues eating. Twenty feet, 10 feet, five feet. The closer Sweet Pea gets, the more aggressive she gets. It's starting to feel like Lord of the Flies. But Potsticker doesn't even look up. It should come as no surprise that the pig just wants to eat.

Behavior assessments like this provide valuable pieces of information. Duford conducts them regularly for Dog Court. "Bill will ask me to do an assessment to get a deeper picture," she says. Herndon also sends dogs to UC Davis' School of Veterinary Medicine for a similar, if pricier and more pedigreed, evaluation. But Duford does the bulk of the assessments. Usually, she conducts an extensive interview with the owner and runs tests to get a sense of the animal's history and how well the owner understands her pet. "I want to know about the human element," Duford says. She listens carefully to what owners say. She writes most of it down.

This evening, after the assessment is over, More says all the wrong things.

"You know, we were hoping this would all be resolved on Christmas day," she says. "The people around the corner were having a barbecue, and it was a pig. But we didn't know its name." Duford gasps in shock and covers her mouth. This attempt at humor falls very flat around people who have dedicated their lives to working with animals.

More is highly defensive about the assessment. She knew Sweet Pea would act up, and the dog did. Like most owners who appear in Dog Court, the gorilla in the bedroom of More's mind is the possibility that Sweet Pea will be seized and destroyed. If Herndon orders the dog euthanized, More's the type of person who might appeal by filing a lawsuit. If Herndon deems Sweet Pea vicious and dangerous and places restrictions on her, More might contest that decision. The vicious and dangerous label carries hidden costs. The animal must be registered as a public threat. Some counties won't allow dangerous dogs into their jurisdictions. Insurance companies may reject claims. Landlords often won't rent apartments.

Dog owners have exerted their right to take Dog Court rulings into the human civil court system five times in the past, most notably in the Whipple case. Five times, such "habeas canus" appeals have failed. Each time, the argument has been about due process. Without any lawyers, subpoenas, or swearing in of witnesses, Dog Court is designed to be less formal and more accessible than the real, human court system. Cross-examination happens through Herndon.

"We're not trying to punish people," says Herndon. "We're trying to protect them. We don't want an average guy to go to the trouble and expense of getting an attorney."

But without normal legal procedures, Dog Court is vulnerable to criticism. Herndon's not an official judge. He's an administrative hearing officer. He's also a cop with an office in the shelter, which raises other questions.

"I don't like it at all," says Kenneth Phillips, the Los Angeles-based attorney for Shawn Jones, a Richmond boy who lost his ears in a pit bull attack in 2001. "What safeguards are there for privacy?"

Phillips practices dog law in counties all over the country. He's seen how much procedures vary, if they exist at all. The regulation of dangerous dogs doesn't happen on a federal level. But, Phillips says, there has been a noticeable and general change in attitude about dog attacks. "People and governments and industry have become less tolerant of bad dogs and irresponsible owners," he says. He attributes it to progress made by the animal rights movement. Strangely enough, the shift toward viewing dogs as something more than property may actually be the same as an increased emphasis on owner responsibility, the conservative maxim Herndon holds dear. "Dog owners just have to be more responsible," Phillips says, sounding familiar.

Herndon's concern with Laurie More and Sweet Pea, naturally, focuses on what steps More, who has two small children at home, will now take to make her dog safe for the community. Since the attack happened on federal parkland, Dog Court's legal authority over More is tenuous. But More, if a bad comedian, is a responsible owner. She showed up at the hearing. She showed up tonight. She agreed to abide by Herndon's decision, and she's willing to put Sweet Pea on a leash in off-leash areas. She's even willing to cede the park to Potsticker and walk her dog somewhere else.

In the end, Herndon decides that Sweet Pea, while aggressive and high-strung, is not vicious and dangerous. He hopes More will seek out a dog trainer to modify Sweet Pea's behavior.

"I just hope we got through to her," Herndon says. "I hope it makes sense."

Case 4: Poppa Gets Mad

Jan. 20; 12:35 p.m. The city shelter. Every animal that comes through here has a past. Not all of them have a future. A woman shows up for a behavior assessment on her dogs. Her name's Telsee. She's trying not to cry.

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.

"There are two sides to every story," he says. That's Herndon's catchphrase. He uses it at every hearing, and he means it.

In the case of the Telsee dogs, Herndon makes use of the new flexibility afforded him under the code.

A decade ago, it wouldn't have mattered that Telsee is a responsible and concerned pet owner. Her dogs -- her babies -- would have been destroyed. Now, Herndon can, in a sense, reward her for being responsible. She gets to keep her dogs, but she must muzzle them outside and take them to obedience school, which could cost her $1,000. "They tell me to be happy that my dogs weren't put to sleep," she says. "But that's a lot of money. Abiding by the law, I got kicked in the butt."

Me? I'm just glad her dogs are pit bulls, not springer spaniels.

About The Author

Luke O'Brien


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"