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Community effort to spare dog from death sentence grows; judge says dog is dangerous

Jeremy Wolf and Vanessa.
provided photo
Jeremy Wolf and Vanessa.

Around 7 a.m. July 7,  41-year-old Jessica Hirt was jogging along a road near her home in the town of Ogden.

Hirt spotted two large dogs on a grassy area about 30 feet away. According to court papers, she said both dogs were leashed, and the leashes were held by a woman she described as having a slight build.  That woman was Kerry Dudek.

Dudek was walking her own dog and her boyfriend's pit bull, Vanessa.

Hirt said the dogs began barking and dragged Dudek across the road toward her.

Hirt said she started running away from the dogs but fell down, with the dogs still in pursuit and Dudek unable to control them.

At that point, Hirt said she was bitten by the dog she later identified as Vanessa.  The bite was on one leg, just behind the knee, and required 18 stitches.

Ogden Town Judge David Murante called it a vicious, unprovoked attack and ordered that Vanessa be euthanized.

"It's a very severe punishment in this case for a dog that has no prior history and given the extent of the injury," said Jeremy Wolf, Vanessa's owner.

He said his dog has never bit anyone in the time that he has known her.

Wolf's attorney, Matthew Albert, is asking for a rehearing of the case based on new evidence and what he calls the judge's misapplication of the law.

Albert said in order for a dog to be euthanized as the result of a bite, the victim has to have suffered a serious physical injury as defined by New York state law.

"There is not one case out there anywhere in which 18 stitches has been determined to be a serious physical injury," he said. "It's not insignificant; it's certainly a physical injury, but it's not of the debilitating nature that defines serious physical injury."

Albert said his client is willing to take every precaution to prevent the dog from hurting others.

"That includes training, that includes muzzling when out in public," Albert said. "That would include keeping Vanessa confined to his 10-acre property, where she could spend the rest of her life happy and healthy."

But Jared Hirt, Jessica's husband, doesn't buy it. He said young children wait for the school bus near Wolf's property, and he doesn't believe there is any way to guarantee that the dog would never escape and potentially hurt one of them or anyone else.

Hirt said his wife is still being treated for the injury to her leg and is traumatized by the memories of the dog attack whenever she drives past Wolf's home.

Jared Hirt said this photo of Jessica Hirt's leg wound was taken by her doctor on July 7, the day she was bitten by the dog.
Credit provided photo
Jared Hirt said this photo of Jessica Hirt's leg wound was taken by her doctor on July 7, the day she was bitten by the dog.

According to court documents, Jessica Hirt walks with a pronounced limp and she has not been sleeping well since the incident.

In his decision, Murante said based on letters sent to the court and the testimony of witnesses, he was convinced that Wolf is devoted to his dog and gave her a safe and loving home.

But Murante wrote that testimony in the case indicated that Wolf was constantly taking precautions to ensure the safety of people who came into contact with the dog, who was abused by her previous owners before she was adopted by Wolf.

Katie Gallagher, a certified dog trainer who was hired by Wolf to evaluate Vanessa's temperament, concluded after a 45-minute visit with Vanessa in a town of Sweden kennel that she displayed no indications of aggression.

"She was extremely stressed out, very anxious, nervous and owner searching the whole time she was there," Gallagher said, "but I never saw any sign that she would have turned on me for any reason."

Some in the community believe Vanessa could be the victim of breed discrimination. Pit bulls are often perceived as dangerous, when in fact, experts say any dog is capable of biting a person.

Dr. Ilana Reisner is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. She is not a expert witness in this case, but said she primarily works in her practice with dogs that have a history of biting.

"Generally, the kind of problem that we're talking about, which is reactive behavior on leash, which can be conditioned over time based in anxiety, that is absolutely not breed-specific," Reisner said. "To be honest, I see many other breeds than I see pit mixes for that problem."

As of early Tuesday, almost 16,000 people had signed an online petitioncalling for Vanessa, who is being held at a local animal hospital as the case proceeds, to be returned to her family.

Linda Garver (left) and Karen Higgins Toung (right) stand in the foreground at Monday rally as Jeremy Wolf updates supporters in the background.
Credit Ingrid Bock
Linda Garver (left) and Karen Higgins Toung (right) stand in the foreground at Monday rally as Jeremy Wolf updates supporters in the background.

On Monday evening, nearly 60 supporters of Wolf and his dog attended a rally at Ogden Town Court. One of the organizers was Ingrid Bock. She said many of the people who were at the rally wore T-shirts printed with the message, "One policy for all dogs."

"There is a very significant and important thing to be stood for here, which is the equal treatment of all dogs," she said. "We're working on this with human beings in the world and in America right now, and it seems like a good time to work for dogs, also."

Albert said if his client is not granted another rehearing, he will appeal the case to Monroe County Court. Vanessa's euthanization will be suspended pending the outcome of a second hearing or appeal.

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.