After attack, Westport declares two dogs dangerous

Pair gravely wounded another dog; Select Board holds lengthy hearing

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 6/29/21

 WESTPORT — In the wake of a public hearing on June 10, the Select Board voted unanimously on June 21 to declare two golden retrievers dangerous. The two attacked and …

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After attack, Westport declares two dogs dangerous

Pair gravely wounded another dog; Select Board holds lengthy hearing

Posted

WESTPORT — In the wake of a public hearing on June 10, the Select Board voted unanimously on June 21 to declare two golden retrievers dangerous. The two attacked and nearly killed another dog in April at the entrance to Westport Woods and there are past attacks on record as well, witnesses said.

That ‘dangerous’ finding brings requirements, also decided unanimously, that the dogs be kept securely at home. They will be allowed to taken out for walks but must be “humanly restrained” with short leashes and muzzles. Board members also agreed with Town Administrator Tim King (but did not include in the motion) that, when walked, the dogs should each be controlled by one adult.

The board (Brian Valcourt did not vote because he did not attend the hearing), opted for a verdict of “dangerous,” instead of the less serious finding of “nuisance” (or neither dangerous nor nuisance).

But their penalty fell short of more severe available options including perpetual home confinement or euthanasia.

They said they are encouraged by the fact that the owners have already agreed to secure the home to prevent escape, that they would welcome town officials to inspect those precautions, and that they will provide the dogs with specialized obedience training.

The board discussed the matter of insurance and asked fellow board member Ann Boxler, an insurance agent about the situation.

“I find it hard to believe that at this point they will be able to get insurance for these two dogs,” she replied. In her experience, she said, any dog bite has been followed by the insurer cancelling coverage for the dog in the homeowner’s policy.

Hearing into April attack

That attack by two dogs that left a third dog near death and in need of five hours of surgery was the focus of a 2 1/2 hour special meeting of the Select Board on June 10.

During that session the owners of the three dogs involved — the victim and her two alleged attackers — offered testimony. 

Complainants Stephen and Diane Bird, represented by attorney Michael O’Shea, described what happened to their 11-year-old golden doodle Molly on the evening of April 12.

James and Laura Mullin of 6 Stoney Brook Court, formerly of Cherry & Webb Lane, owners of the accused attacking dogs, golden retrievers Grizzly and Bella, were represented by attorney Brian Corey Jr.

Mr. Bird said he and Molly were setting out from their 1 Quail Trail house off Adamsville Road (where they had moved on March 10) for a walk in the Westport Woods conservation area when he paused to look at a new trail guide sign at the entrance.

“At that moment, Molly was not leashed, standing next to me, directly under my control,” he said, adding that she is a very docile trained therapy dog who responds directly to controls and has never shown aggression.

He was talking to his wife on his phone, he said, when “out of the corner of my eye I saw Mrs. Mullen about 25 yards away” putting a leashed but not controlled dog into a car.

The other dog was off leash and started to approach Molly — “Molly started wagging her tail.”

“Mrs. Mullen called out very loudly, ‘Be careful.’ I was confused by that call … This beautiful golden retriever walking up to us, not showing any aggressive behavior whatsoever.

“Without any provocation, any warnings, this dog attacked Molly. As soon as that happened, the other dog jumped out of the car and joined the attack,” Mr. Bird said. “Both goldens were attacking Molly, one on her neck, the other on her back and hindquarters.

The first dog to attack had “looked fine” as it walked toward Molly, he said but suddenly “it turned into something indescribable, the craziest metamorphosis I have every seen — mild-mannered golden retriever into some Tasmanian devil monster.”

Mr. Bird said he began kicking one of the dogs as it was “literally ripping Molly’s neck apart” and Ms. Mullen was trying to pull the two dogs off Molly.

“I am 6’2”, 200 points, fairly strong … and I felt helpless I could not stop the attack. I could see my dog looking up at me” as if saying ‘Hey, what are you doing?’”

It was all over in about 30 seconds, he said — the attack stopped and Ms. Mullen was able to get her dogs into the car.

Mr. Bird said he rushed Molly to the 24-hour emergency veterinary clinic in Swansea where “the vet told us that this was far and away the worst laceration she had seen in a dog attack.”

“At some point during the five-hour surgery the veterinarian called us and said, ‘We are worried about losing Molly’” and did we want life saving measures? “We said we absolutely did.”

“She came out of the surgery alive” to begin “a long, multiple surgery recovery.” To this day the dog’s neck wound still has several stitches.

In response to questions, Mr. Bird said he had never met the Mullins or their dogs before.

Mr. Mullin, who said he would be speaking because his wife was too distraught to participate, began by offering a “sincere apology and remorse to the Birds.” He said he and his wife, being dog people, were and still are both shaken by the day’s events.

But later, when Ms. Shufelt tried to curtail his testimony about the evening’s events since he was not present, Ms. Mullin agreed to testify.

She said she mostly agreed to Mr. Bird’s description of events.

She had just put Bella into the car, she said, when Grizzly approached Molly.

“I yelled, ‘Grab the leash,” at which Bella ran out of the car, still wearing her leash. Ms. Mullen said she went after them and tried to pull them away — 

“I had one dog in one hand and was wrestling with the other.”

She said she received bites to her hand and arm but disputed earlier testimony that Ms. Mullin had said at the time that she had been bitten by one of her own dogs.

“I would never say that my dog bit me. I don’t believe my dog bit me at all.”

“Did you seek medical attention?” she was asked by Town Administrator Tim King.

She said she did not — her focus at the time was on the dogs’ well being.

“You didn’t thank that it was important” to be treated “if you had been bitten by a dog other than your own?” Mr. King asked.

Dogs with a record

Over the objections of Mr. Corey, Mr. King was allowed to ask Animal Control Officer Donna Lambert about past episodes involving Bella and Grizzly.

In sometimes confusing and hard to follow testimony, she said that records indicate that various officers had written up a number of incidents involving the Mullins’ dogs, most happening while they lived on Cherry & Webb Lane and owned four golden retrievers.

Dating back to 2018, the incidents included complaints about several of the dogs running loose on the beach, and approaching people and other dogs, sometimes in ways that were believed to be threatening. In one 2019 incident, the dogs allegedly attacked a 25-pound Shih Tzu, and the dogs were once ordered quarantined after an attack.

A report noted that an officer had asked Mr. Mullin how he would address the aggression of his dogs. He said he would be moving soon (not due to the dogs), and said he would be putting up a fence to control the dogs.

Asked about the incidents, Mr. Mullin said “I don’t make light of any of it.” At Cherry & Webb Lane, kids make mistakes and sometimes the dogs got out unsupervised. And once out, dogs get excited “and being unsupervised there were some issues. We had one real incident — it was horrifying,” he said, adding that he paid all of the vet bills in that case.

“We moved and there has not been one incident. Corrective action has been displayed with almost two years with zero incidents.”

Questions for animal control

Attorney Corey questioned Ms. Lambert about what he suggested were missing details in the report of this incident and asked why the Mullins were cited for failure to restrain their dogs and failure to vaccinate their dogs, but not the Birds.

Ms. Lambert replied that the Birds’ dog had not been the attacker. She also said she would cite them for having an unregistered dog if that was the case at the time of the attack (Mr. Bird said Molly has since been registered).

Molly was under the control of her owner, Ms. Lambert said, and there was no evidence that she had bitten the other dogs or any person.

Given that Molly was bleeding, Mr. Corey asked, should not her vaccination status have been checked too?

And, “Can you tell me where in the town statutes it says being under verbal command is a substitute for being leashed?” Mr. Corey asked.

Response to decision

Asked about the Select Board’s decision, Mr. Bird replied:

“We are sad and, truly, a little disappointed that this incident occurred. After hearing story after story of previous incidents, one would hope that extreme care and caution would be used at all times. Our family and Molly are still recovering from this incident. We are thankful that the Westport animal control office, Board of Health,  BOS took the time and effort to give this matter the attention it deserved. We hope that with the order now in place, no other family, pet or person will have to endure what we and others have, and that no one and no animals will be harmed in the future."

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