Ernest Dempsey — In our time, a lot is happening to dogs, both pet and stray, as these best friends of man are caught by authorities, quite often mistreated, and labeled dangerous—eventually putting them to unnatural sleep; or killed for being a threat. These voiceless creatures cannot defend themselves in human courts. But quite a few people are doing just that for over two years. The Lexus Project is a non-profit started by a husband-wife team to prevent death-row dogs from becoming victims of injustice. In the following Q&A with Robin Mittasch, President of The Lexus Project, readers will not only learn what this canine friendly group is doing for abused or victimized dogs and their families but also the story of one of the most challenging case that rocked through media lately, that of a family dog killing a child and thus ending up as a “vicious” dog on death row.
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Ernest: Robin, thank you for joining me for this conversation! Please tell us a little about The Lexus Project, and what kind of work it does for dogs.
Robin: In October of 2009, I read about a greyhound named “Lexus” who sat on death row in a Rhode Island pound, sentenced to die. Her crime? She was let off leash in a dog park by her owner after being told by the adoption group when she was adopted just 6 weeks before, that Lexus was a “high prey” greyhound. That means that dogs like Lexus have the tendency to hunt and chase an animal that looks like prey to them. Lexus, being a greyhound is in the category of dogs called “Sight hounds”. Greyhounds have over 4 thousand years of breeding in them to chase and hunt. There are many greyhounds that are not high prey, such as the six who live with us. Our dogs live with our cats very harmoniously.
At the same time that Lexus was at the park, a 6-month-old Pomeranian puppy was let off leash to socialize with the “big dogs”. This was the error of the owner of the puppy as well. No puppy should be allowed to run off leash in a dog park with large dogs. This was an accident waiting to happen. Within seconds, Lexus spotted her prey, grabbed the puppy and in front of the horrified owner, killed the puppy. Animal control was called; they seized Lexus who waited a hearing. Her owner attended court without counsel and that paved the way for Lexus’ execution. After reading this story on an online forum called Greytalk (www.greytalk.com), I just couldn’t sit back and do nothing. I called my husband, Richard Rosenthal, who is an attorney in NY, who was at work. I said we had to do something. He agreed that this was a terrible thing and the owner should have had an attorney, but since he was only licensed in NY, he just didn’t think there was anything he could do. I told him to think harder.
Something had to be done. He took a look at the Rhode Island statues and found a ‘quirk”. With the help of the RI adoption group, we found a pro bono attorney to file the court papers. Richard called the town attorney, they made a deal that if we took Lexus out of the state of Rhode Island, never to return, they would give Lexus to Richard as an officer of the court and Lexus was on her way to her new life. Because greyhound owners nationwide had heard the story about Lexus, we received calls from many greyhound adoption groups asking questions on how to handle situations; and a few months later, we were asked to intervene on another greyhound in jeopardy of being killed at the hands of Animal Control. We were successful in the release of that greyhound too.
We put together a website as an informational page for greyhound owners. We had questions every so often, but The Lexus Project as a whole was quiet… until one of our fellow greyhound owners alerted us about Luna, a Siberian Husky, in CT, slated for death for killing neighborhood pet chickens on more than one occasion. Although we did not own Huskies, we felt that Luna should not die because she was following her instinct, much like Lexus was. The real problem with Luna was not Luna herself but her owner who was complacent in keeping Luna in a secured yard. We gained national media attention over Luna’s case. Within a few days of the Lexus Project becoming involved with Luna and with the help of the Pro Bono attorneys, Luna was released into our custody. Luna went into foster care and was eventually placed in a Husky savvy forever home. It was at that time that The Lexus Project decided to go from “Legal Defense for Greyhounds to “Legal Defense for all Breeds”.
Ernest: That is some story of achievement. Now, every other day, we hear about pit bulls threatened by death, what they called euthanasia, by authorities. In a number of states in the US, pit bull adoption has been banned. Do you think pit bulls really are a danger to the safety of humans or other animals?
Robin: I can’t really answer this as we are called in on a case by case basis. However, since we started defending pit bulls that have been deemed vicious or dangerous, we have not yet come across any pit bull that was vicious or dangerous; just owners who did not know how to take care of their dog; therefore, putting the life of their dog on the line.
Ernest: Currently, Lexus is involved with two cases that have recently made news, i.e. Onion and Alchemy, both apparently victims of abuse at the hands of their owners. What kind of legal issues are keeping Onion at the risk of death?
Robin: Onion has been accused of being a vicious dog because he killed a one year old child. This was a horrible tragedy that could have been avoided.
Ernest: Well, that indeed was shocking to read. Can you tell us what really happened?
Robin: Onion was a beloved family pet owned by Elizabeth Keller, the grandmother of the baby. Bottle-fed from the time he was found on the steps of the vet’s office at 4 weeks old, this gentle giant was a treasured member of the family. Unfortunately, like most of us, the family became complacent. We treat our dogs as members of the family, forgetting that at the end of the day, they are dogs. Dogs do dog things and have tendencies that we forget about or think “that could never happen to us”. On the night of the baby’s first birthday, Mrs. Keller put the baby down on the floor within reach of Onion who was sleeping/resting. The lights were out and after a long day of birthday celebration, the family was trying to get the baby to go to sleep. However, the baby who was just starting to walk attempted to get up by grabbing on to the resting dog and at the same time he fell on top of the dog, Mrs. Keller was leaning over the dog (anyone who understands dog behavior will know that leaning over a dog like that is a very dominant position to take AND with the baby grabbing at him at the same time, the dog reacted by grabbing on to the only thing in front of his face—the baby. Onion shook the child for seconds; at the sound of the commotion, the baby’s daddy turned on the light and said “Onion!” The dog immediately dropped the baby. Had this been a vicious attack, the dog would not have released the baby no matter what was done. We have had situations of people beating dogs who had “prey” in their mouths and no matter what, they would not release the “prey”. The fact that all it took was the lights on and someone calling out his name tells you that it was not a vicious attack; it was an accident, just like it was ruled. A horrible accident.
Ernest: That’s indeed tragic! So how is Lexus trying to help Onion?
Robin: We have four attorneys working on this close to round the clock, all of them working pro bon—three in Nevada and Richard, general counsel of The Lexus Project. We are trying to have the courts rule in favor of sending Onion to a sanctuary where he can live out his life. The courts said that The Lexus Project had no standing as the city owned the dog when Mrs. Keller signed him over. However, after that ruling, The Lexus Project was contacted by Mrs. Keller. She wanted to set the record straight.
On the night of the accident, the police contacted Animal Control. While the family was trying to revive the baby on the front lawn, the ACO waved a piece of paper in front of Mrs. Keller’s face, telling her to sign it. And she did, not understanding what she was signing. Although the family’s reaction was to have the dog put down, they recognized that this was a knee-jerk reaction and after the initial shock wore off, they knew they wanted their beloved dog saved. They were so upset on how the media was portraying a dog they called the best dog in the world, a family member, the one who kept Mrs. Keller going when she was fighting cancer. They did not want their beloved dog to die. But instead wanted us to fight for his release to the sanctuary and thus signed ownership of the dog over to TLP. The fight continues.
Ernest: How did Alchmey run into trouble and what is his legal situation?
Robin: Alchemy is a 150 pound St. Bernanrd who was on death row for alleged multiple bites. After giving Alchemy up because the family had to move to an apartment that did not allow dogs, Alchemy kept being put in situations that certainly did not understand his breed or his needs. When the foster dad was brushing Alchemy’s leg where there was a hot spot (an infected and painful area that is open and exposed) causing pain, thus causing Alchemy to bite him. Animal Control was called and Alchemy was put on death row. TLP was notified and with the help of a local VA attorney, law was made. The judge let Alchemy off on $2500 bond (this was major law being made – the dog was actually out on bail). Alchemy awaits trial while staying at a sanctuary in NC. We are trying to have the dangerous dog label removed.
Ernest: With all the efforts Lexus is making to save dogs from being killed, how does it manage the finances needed to run all this work?
Robin: The Lexus Project is completely run as a non-profit. Our 501c3 has been filed and we are awaiting our approval. We depend on donations to help. Although the attorney’s help on a pro bono basis, there are always court fees which in some cases as Alchemy’s are as much as $2500. In addition, every dog that is being held at a pound is being charged a per day rate. Some of these fees are as much as $25 per day. On average, if a dog is in the pound for 6 weeks, which would be over $1000 to get him out after the case has, been settled. Therefore, for every case we take in, we set the “chip in” for $3500 per dog. We ask that the owner help to promote the chip in. Some attorneys will ask for travel reimbursement as well. We have had attorneys drive 5 hours each way to attend a court hearing to save a dog. Without the donations, we will not be able to help the dog in need.
Ernest: This brings me to ask how much money do you need to save the two endangered dogs, Onion & Alchemy, and how can those willing to help donate to Lexus?
Robin: Donations to these dogs or any one of the dogs that we are currently defending can be found on our website www.thelexusproject.net. On our homepage is a link to some of the dogs we are currently representing. Some have more of an urgency than others. The lack of funding in a chip in is directly linked to the owner. The owner needs to promote their dogs chip in. Just asking us to help, stepping back and waiting for results is not in the best interest of the dog in need. At any given time, we have 10 dogs in need of our help. We need help too!
Ernest: Robin thank you so much for sparing time for this correspondence as well as for the great work Lexus is doing for canines!
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Readers can keep up with updates on Onion’s case, handled by The Lexus Project, by liking its Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pages/Save-Onion/373825145997519#.