A Clinton woman is facing a misdemeanor criminal charge following a grisly pit bull attack last weekend that left a neighbor’s dog dead and a community in uproar.
Gina Cooley is scheduled for arraignment in Island County District Court on Wednesday, June 24 in Oak Harbor. She was cited with one count of failing to abide by the county’s leash law, and faces up to 90 days in jail, a $1,000 fine or both, according to Carol Barnes, Island County’s animal control officer.
“That would be the maximum penalty,” Barnes told The Record, in a Thursday interview.
“It’s our goal to prosecute this to the fullest extent of the law,” she added.
Also, the animal was predetermined a “dangerous dog,” a designation outlined in state law that can be assigned for a variety of offenses, one of which is killing another domestic animal. The designation carries several conditions, such as a requirement to be muzzled, the posting of warning signs and insurance to name a few, but it does not mandate euthanasia.
However, Cooley voluntarily had the animal destroyed this week. Barnes confirmed the death Friday morning.
In an interview with The Record that same morning, Cooley expressed her “sincerest apologies” to the family whose dog was killed, saying she was “devastated” over the pain her animal, Bubby, inflicted. She said she loved her dog as well, and despite community pressure, it took time to admit he’d become a danger.
“When you’re really emotional, it’s hard to see what the right thing to do is,” she said. “… I’m very sorry about what happened, and am just trying to move forward at this point.”
The action came just days after Diane Chin, the owner of the dog that was killed by the pit bull, and a host of neighbors banded together and began petitioning for the animal’s removal from the neighborhood. They believed the dog was a threat to public safety, particularly to children.
But they don’t plan to stop there. Now that the animal is gone, they plan to lobby county decision makers to stiffen existing laws concerning dangerous dogs by adding euthanasia requirements — currently, an animal could bite a human being in Island County and still be subject only to the above mentioned conditions.
Chin called the attack the “most horrendous” experience of her life, but said the county’s lack of accountability for such animals is incomprehensible.
“This could have been a child… I just don’t understand,” Chin said.
The incident happened at about 8 p.m. Saturday, June 13 at Chin’s home near Deer Lake. She had just exited her house with her two Bichons, Bruiser and Tug, when Cooley’s dog appeared. She was only four feet from her door at the time, she said.
Though she grabbed both her dogs by their collars and attempted to back away, Bubby grabbed Tug and pulled him from her grasp, leaving her with just his collar. Chin then watched in horror as the larger dog mauled and killed her 11-year-old pet in her driveway.
Chin began screaming for help but her cries grew even more frantic as the attack ended. The pit bull had begun to trot away with the dead bichon still in its jaws.
“I was so scared we wouldn’t even get to bury our dog,” Chin recalled.
Four neighbors heard her frantic cries, and together they worked in vain to get the animal to release the Bichon, doing everything from attempting to pry its jaws apart to poking its eyes with their fingers, said Christine Lyons, one of the four responders.
“I was doing anything and everything I could to get him to release the dog,” she said.
In the end, it took one of the neighbors hitting the dog on the head with a shovel for it to let go. Two of them then held it down until the owner’s boyfriend arrived and secured him.
No people were injured in the incident, and Bubby didn’t attempt to bite anyone, but Barnes said the attack was still one of the worst she’s investigated during her more than 30 years as an animal control officer.
“It was horrific,” said Barnes, of the scene. “There was blood everywhere.”
She called it a “vicious” attack and said this week she believes the animal represents a legitimate threat to public safety and would go as far as the law allows to protect the public.
“I want to make sure this never happens again,” Barnes said.
Extent of the law
The incident has made clear, however, limitations of existing law. While Bubby was immediately taken by authorities, he was returned to Cooley a couple days later.
Barnes said county code doesn’t allow her to keep a dangerous animal nor does it contain provisions that empower her to order euthanasia.
“When a dog kills another dog, what can be done has been done,” Barnes said.
Residents of the Deer Lake neighborhood were outraged to hear the dog would not be destroyed, and that it was back in the community. Further inflaming tensions was a Craigslist ad posted by one of Cooley’s children that sought to find Bubby a new home.
“We have a very sweet, loving boy who is in desperate need of saving,” the ad said. “Two days ago he unfortunately got a hold of the neighbors small toy poodle as they were walking the neighborhood off leash (and our dog Bubby had run out our unintentionally left open door),” the ad said.
It went on to highlight some of the conditions of the “dangerous dog” designation, saying that while Cooley loves him she can’t afford the new requirements. It also mentioned that he’d lived safely with other family pets and loves to “snuggle,” but can be wary of strangers and unfamiliar children.
“I am praying to find someone willing to take this guy in as soon as possible,” the ad said. “He does not deserve to die.”
Cooley said later, “I didn’t see him as a vicious monster, I saw him wrapped up in a baby blanket on my bed.”
Barnes confirmed the ad contained inaccuracies, that the attack did occur on Chin’s property. She also confirmed police had responded to calls about the animal in the past, and that, “Cooley was well aware of the leash law.”
An impromptu community meeting was held Tuesday evening that was attended by an estimated 25 people. Residents talked about the incident, and many were afraid to go outside. Some had even taken to arming themselves.
“We’re all very scared to walk in the neighborhood,” Lyons said.
“I was walking with mace and a huge flashlight.”
There was also reportedly widespread agreement that the county code needs revision. Specifically, they plan to petition the commissioners for reform that would allow euthanasia options for dangerous dogs.
Chin said the experience has changed her life. She’s had trouble sleeping and now feels unsafe leaving her home. Things need to change, and she plans to see it through, she said.
“This will not be swept under the rug,” Chin said. “This isn’t over, by a long shot.”