Cooper, a 5-year-old, 49-pound black-and-tan coonhound mix, likes to lay back on his back, tail wagging and paws in the air, across the lap of his handler at the Humane Society. He reacts little to visitors — too busy nuzzling lead animal care attendant Jason Moreland or Humane Society Director Amy Carotenuto for a pat.
And yet Cooper bit and injured a man who’d arrived to clean his Palm Coast owner’s carpets Feb. 24, and the city of Palm Coast’s hearing officer has ordered him to be euthanized. Nor was it the first bite for Cooper, who had been officially declared dangerous in the city of Port Orange on Feb. 21 after a bite there.
Cooper’s owner, Dottye Benton, is appealing the hearing officer’s order to have Cooper put down.
She cited the dog’s behavior at the Flagler Humane Society, where he’s being held since the bite, as evidence of his lack of aggression.
“Everybody that works there would tell you he doesn’t have an aggressive bone in his body, that all he wants to do is hug and kiss everybody,” she said.
Humane Society staff confirmed that although Cooper was briefly “barky and growly” at the cage gate when he arrived, he has since been fine and not aggressive.
“(Staff Trainer) Lauren Driscoll did an evaluation on Cooper,” Carotenuto wrote in an email. “In her opinion, he shows no signs of being aggressive.”
THE RESCUE RANCH
Benton doesn’t deny the occurrence of the bites, but in both cases, she said, the dog had bitten unfamiliar people who’d approached it on its owner’s property.
In addition, the owner of the Florida Rottweiler Rescue, Joe Pimentel, confirmed that he would be willing to house Cooper permanently, even though the dog isn’t a Rottweiler.
He’d read the details of the case and sat in on the Palm Coast Animal Control hearing in which hearing officer Nicole Turcotte ordered Cooper to be put down. He said he didn’t believe the dog was truly aggressive.
“Am I worried about Cooper coming to my facility? Absolutely not. I don’t believe in killing the dog just because no one really understands why he bit,” said Pimentel. “The dog was protecting his home. ... He didn’t know the (carpet cleaner), the guy got in his face ... and the dog reacted. ... I don’t think the dog should be penalized or put down for it if somebody’s willing to take the dog and take full responsibility.”
A truly vicious dog, he said, “would be trying to eat everybody, even in the shelter.”
Pimentel’s willingness to take Cooper factors prominently in the appeal filed on Dottye Benton’s behalf by attorney Marcy LaHart.
The government body, in this case the city, must take the least restrictive means available to enforce the public interest when property rights are at issue, as they are when the government interferes between a dog owner and his or her dog, LaHart argues, citing other cases as precedent.
“A dog rescuer with a proven track record of caring for dogs that have a history of aggression stands ready to provide Cooper a loving home, and provided uncontroverted testimony that he had a secure enclosure in which to house Cooper,” LaHart wrote in a writ of certiorari filed on the case with the Circuit Court. “Here, the Petitioner proved that there is a less restrictive alternative to executing Cooper that will serve the public safety.”
Dottye Benton did not own Cooper when he bit the first time, in Port Orange. At that point, Cooper was owned by Benton’s daughter, Dawn Benton.
About a year after she adopted him, Michelle and her daughter Brittany were preparing to take Cooper to a dog park and had loaded up their SUV with the dog when a neighbor came over to talk.
There’s a dispute about the details of what happened when Cooper bit the neighbor: The neighbor said she was standing on the sidewalk near the family’s house talking to Brittany, who was in the SUV, when the dog jumped out of the car and bit her.
Dottye Benton said the SUV was in the family’s yard, and that the neighbor was in the yard and had reached her arm around the back of the car when Cooper jumped out and got her.
But Dawn Benton did not fight Port Orange’s determination that Cooper was dangerous.
Following a legal procedure for the transfer of a dangerous dog, she gave the dog to her mother, Dottye, in Palm Coast.
Dottye Benton said the bite in Palm Coast happened after a carpet cleaner, who she’d informed about the fact that Cooper was dangerous, opened a door from the home into her yard, where the dog was, against her instructions, then leaned down in the dog’s face.
The man had been friendly with her two smaller dogs, she said, and kept asking to let Cooper in, saying he was wagging his tail and looked friendly.
Then, she said, “He opens my sliding glass door, and said, ‘Oh he’s not dangerous,’ and he bent down in Cooper’s face.”
The bite victim told a city Animal Control officer differently, saying that he’d asked to meet the dog, and asked if he was friendly, and that Benton had said “Yes,” and let the dog in. He said Cooper went straight for his face, then got his hand and his leg three times as he tried to kick the dog off him.
The bite on the man’s lip was expected to require reconstructive surgery.
Turcotte wrote in her ruling that Florida law didn’t allow her any discretion: A dog already declared dangerous that causes severe injury in a second bite must be put down, she wrote. And even if she had discretion, she wrote, she determined that euthanizing the dog would be in the best interest of public safety.
Carotenuto said the time to fight for a dog is during the initial hearing. “If your pet is being declared dangerous, the time to fight it is early,” she said. “Once an animal is declared, it’s much more difficult to go backwards.”
State law, she pointed out, also allows an owner to be charged with a felony if a dog previously declared dangerous bites again.
The case next moves to circuit court.
Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that Dottye Benton stated that in the Port Orange bite case, the bite victim had reached around the rear of the family's vehicle.