We take dogs seriously on Martha’s Vineyard, it’s often said, and this is true. Many, many people have at least one dog. Dogs go to work, not only on construction sites but also in some shops and offices. Dogs are welcome at my bank. Rhodry would endear himself to everybody in sight by standing two-legged at the counter until the teller gave him a cookie. These days I’m more apt to use the drive-up window; when Travvy is with me, as he usually is, a biscuit arrives in the canister or drawer along with my cash or deposit slip.
My gas station usually has biscuits on hand, but that’s not too surprising because the family that runs the gas station includes Joannie Jenkinson, the West Tisbury animal control officer (ACO). Travvy can hear the UPS truck at least half a mile away, and he goes nuts when the big brown truck pulls into the driveway. The UPS guy’s cookies look like everybody else’s cookies, but as far as Travvy’s concerned, they’re magic.
Right now, however, the dark side of dog ownership is playing out in a high-profile case in my town. When dogs get into trouble on Martha’s Vineyard, livestock is almost always involved. Quite a few people keep chickens and other fowl, and “free range” is all the rage; the range is likely to be not a farm but a house lot of three acres or less. Neighbors, in other words, are not far away, and some of those neighbors have dogs.
Farmers and other keepers of livestock are entitled to shoot any dog menacing their animals, but usually they don’t exercise this right. When they don’t, the town steps in. Sometimes a first offense prompts the owners to get their dogs under control. When it doesn’t, the town steps in further.
The case under way at the moment involves two young Akitas, not yet a year old. They belong to a youngish couple, boyfriend and girlfriend; each one owns one of the dogs. The dogs got loose last fall and went after a neighbor’s chickens and geese. At the hearing that followed that incident, the town ordered the couple to pay a fine, make restitution for the fowl, and build a pen that met the specs of the ACO. This they did.
But the dogs got loose again.
And again. In the most recent incident they killed two more geese and 14 chickens. This time the ACO caught one of the dogs, who has been in the pound ever since. The owners were supposed to let the ACO know when the other dog came home, but instead the male half of the couple took her off-island.
Now I’m more than ready to give the couple a bye for the first incident. It wasn’t till Travvy went AWOL on me a couple of times when he was about a year old that I realized that he couldn’t run off-leash the way Rhodry had. He has a stronger prey drive than Rhodry, and the island is more crowded than it was 15 years ago. Lucky for us, he did no damage on his escapades.
But these two dogs have gotten loose five times, even though the owners knew after the first incident what was at stake: they were told that if it happened again, the dogs would be euthanized. At least once their excuse was that they weren’t home when it happened: they’d left the dogs in the care of a roommate. Sorry, but if my dog were one spree away from a death sentence, either I’d put him in a kennel or I wouldn’t go away.
So the town ordered the couple to take the dogs off-island — where one of them already was — and things were heading in that direction when the male half of the couple showed up at the pound and told the staff that the town had released the dog to him. This was a crock: a staffer made a phone call and learned as much.
At this point the board of selectmen ran out of patience and, last Wednesday, ordered the dogs euthanized. Since one of the dogs is off-island, the order in effect only applies to the one in the pound. The owners have 10 days to appeal the decision.
What do I think of all this? I don’t know any of the people involved. Akitas, however, are considered a northern breed and have quite a few things in common with Alaskan malamutes: they are big, powerful, smart, independent, and not for everybody. There but for fortune go I, I think — but on the other hand, if I could learn to manage my Alaskan malamute, these people could learn to manage their Akitas, and so far they haven’t taken any steps in that direction.
I don’t think they’re right for these dogs. If these humans were capable of rising to the occasion, they would have done so before now. Instead — well, neither one of these two dogs is neutered, and the male half of the couple has expressed interest in breeding them. Hello? He can’t manage two ten-month-olds and he wants to raise a litter?
Just about everybody realizes that the dogs were doing what comes naturally; it’s the people who have screwed up. Apart from fines and restitution orders, however, there’s no way to punish the people — or to make them wise up. The exasperating thing here, and in a comparable case that happened down-island a few years ago, involving Siberian huskies, is that the owners keep promising to do better and then fail to keep those promises. So the town officials who are bending over backwards to give them every chance end up looking like patsies — and feeling like crap because the only option they have left is to euthanize the dogs.
In an attempt to avert the worst, some island dog lovers have been contacting Akita rescue groups and exploring other options. The selectmen will be dealing with the case yet again at their meeting tomorrow afternoon. I guess I’m going to be there.