Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Saving Helo


Should we save Helo?

Those who have been reading this blog for a while know that I have investigated a number of human fatalities that resulted from dog attacks.  As a result of those investigations I have handled and evaluated a lot of dogs.  In almost every case the dog involved in a human fatality is killed afterwards.

Why are these dogs killed?  It seems a simple enough issue-dog kills human, then human kills dog.  But every once in a while we need to look at why this happens.  It may be automatic and seem, well, natural, but we need to remind ourselves why.

In most cases the reason is clear-the owners of the dog want it destroyed.  This is an understandable reaction, especially if the dog is responsible for the death of a family member.  Regardless of why or how the fatality came about the emotional baggage would be debilitating.  We have to respect the wishes of the owners of these dogs, even if we might disagree with their decision.  It is, ultimately, their decision to make.

More complex are cases where the mandate to destroy the dog comes from the government.  The government has, under the law, the ability to perform a legal “taking”, a seizure, of contraband and other items under specific circumstances.  A vehicle can be seized and disposed of if used in certain crimes.  Ill-gotten gains can be taken.  Clearly prohibited items, such as illegal drugs, can be taken and destroyed.  All of these examples have been decided to be in the interest of the State.

When it comes to dogs the case becomes murkier.  The primary reason given for the destruction of dangerous animals is for public safety.  We certainly don’t want vicious animals running around loose and attacking people.  That is a reasonable action.  Frankly, many of the dogs I have evaluated after causing human deaths have been a clear risk to people.  The triggering action for the attack may have made sense in doggie terms, but the reaction to that provocation was excessive and inappropriate.  The magnitude of the reaction made the dog a clear danger in any future incidents, and thus the dog was rightly destroyed.  Perhaps some of these could have been sheltered in tightly controlled environments, but in all honesty the number of such safe places is very limited.  The better alternative was humane destruction.

A common second reason for destroying these animals is liability.  Cities, counties, and other jurisdictions are seen as deep pocket targets for litigation.  A jurisdiction that releases a dog involved in a fatality may have exposure down the line if the dog ever bites again.  Sadly, I am certain there are litigators that would hover expectantly around such an animal, just waiting for the chance to find an excuse to file action for a settlement on anything the dog might do, or even be accused of doing.  This issue can be settled with appropriate releases and other transfer of liability, but even if these releases are solid actions may still be attempted by those looking for a quick settlement.  I understand this concern, and if a dog is being destroyed for this reason the agency simply needs to acknowledge the fact and move on, rather than hiding behind excuses.

Lastly, in my mind, and saddest of the choices, is the fact that some people want revenge, plain and simple.  The dog killed a person-most likely a child.  Their attitude is that the dog must die, preferably immediately.  The dog has done the unforgivable and ‘justice’ must be swift and certain.  This is the same attitude that once led to the construction of a gallows while the trial was in progress-and too often results in the execution of the dog on scene.  I have talked often about the need to adequately process the animal(s) involved and that there should be no rush to judgment or execution.  I do, however, as an old police officer, understand the immediate stress responders have at the scene; a body, often a baby, is right there.  The alleged suspect is also right there. The responder my have never seen a dog fatality before.  In this case the suspect is an animal, with a lesser expectation of fair treatment (in some minds), and with little provocation or excuse the responders can use immediate deadly force to protect themselves from a perceived threat.  Revenge is swift and certain, and rarely does anyone question the actions of the responders.

The problem here is the same problem we have with jumping to swift judgment in human-caused cases: what we see, or think we see, may not be the whole story.

And that brings us to the case of Helo, a Siberian Husky in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, accused of killing a three-day-old infant.

The public story seemed pretty clear.  Press reports stated that the child’s mother left the three day old boy unattended for just “two minutes” to use the bathroom, and during that brief time the dog severely mauled the infant.  These kinds of incidents do happen.  According to the press, the dog had been in the home for less than two weeks and the baby had just come home from the hospital.  There were the expected quotes about the “horrible injuries” that the poor child had suffered.  The dog was expected to be destroyed.

But then he wasn’t.  And then he was seized again.  And then he was to be destroyed.  And then questions began surfacing-and I was called in.

It turned out that the facts were far more complex than the press reports indicated.  I am not going to go into all the procedural foul-ups and legal missteps made in this case, but I will focus on a few physical, evidence based issues that made the case murky at best.

To begin, Helo (the accused) is a mostly white male Siberian Husky.  The child killed suffered serious injury to his head and face.  A substantial amount of blood was present (although confined to a very limited area-more on that later), yet Helo had only two minor smudges of blood on his fur: one about the size of a thumb print on the side of his face, almost under his ear, and one smudge smaller than a dime on the front of his left leg, above the ankle.  As a retired police officer familiar with many crime scenes, both of these smudges look just as they sound-smudges.  Not drips, splashes, or spatter, but smudges.  These are more consistent with transfer of blood from another object, not the active dispersal of blood from a fatally bleeding victim.

The only marks on Helo were these two small smudges-nothing else.  I find it difficult to believe that a white dog, accused of biting a child and causing an injury that exposed the child’s brain, would only have two tiny smudges of blood on him.  That must have been a very fastidious dog…or perhaps just not the right dog?

Now let us add in the fact that there was not one, but four dogs in the home at the time of the fatality.  Helo was blamed because the mother told police that she saw Helo “…standing over the baby…”.  Not biting the baby.  Not hurting the baby.  Standing over the baby.

The second dog in the home, a dark colored Pit Bull mix, was allegedly with the mother in the bathroom (on the second floor) the entire time.  This dog was only given a cursory visual “check” by the responding Law Enforcement and Animal Control authorities.  Yet I can tell you from personal experience that blood on a dark colored (especially if brindled at all) dog is difficult to see.  I have, in fact, only discovered the extent of blood on a dark brindled dog by feeling the stickiness on the fur when handling the dog.  Yet no tests were done on dog #2, not even simply wiping down the dog with a white piece of gauze or paper towel. 

Further, this second dog was supposedly in the bathroom with the mother-but the mother claims that she was only in the bathroom for two minutes.   Yet the timeline of the attack, as documented by police reports, shows that the mother was talking to her boyfriend (from the bathroom presumably) beginning at 9:15 am.  The mother stated to police that she discovered the baby injured, and Helo standing over him, just as she finished her two minutes in the bathroom.  She then called 911.  Yet police records show that Emergency Services and police were not called until 9:32 AM, seventeen minutes after the conversation with her boyfriend began.  Now, we all know how difficult it can be to have a dog directly underfoot in a bathroom while we are attending to personal needs.  As a man I can only guess how enjoyable that would be if I were a woman who had just given birth trying to deal with personal hygiene, perhaps involving sanitary pads, etc.  I don’t think it unreasonable for a person who has mistaken a seventeen minute conversation for “two minutes” to have lost track of the second dog for even a few minutes.  Things happen-we get distracted.  Time is fluid when we are discussing things we care about with our loved ones.

The lack of a thorough examination of the second dog is regrettable, but what becomes more outrageous is the handling of the other dogs.  Remember them?  There were four dogs in the house-not two.  And guess where the other two dogs were when EMS and police arrived?  Locked behind a closed door in the basement-barking and lunging at the closed door!  Yet neither police nor Animal Control ever even looked at these dogs, for “security reasons” according to the police reports.  Security reasons?  You have police and skilled Animal Control personnel on scene to assist in handling the dogs, yet they fail to even visually check those two dogs for “security reasons”.  That certainly makes sense-blame the friendliest dog on scene, seize (briefly) the other friendly dog while not adequately checking him for evidence, but leave the two difficult, barking, lunging dogs because you are afraid to handle them?  In the wake of a human fatality?  To me this is one of the most incredible facts of this case.

To sum up so far: we have blamed the white dog with minor smudges.  We have taken but not examined the dark dog.  And we have left the two nasty dogs barking and lunging at the closed basement door.

Let’s look at the other physical evidence now.

At the time of the incident the baby had been left in a bathtub-like plastic carrier on the floor of the home’s living room.  The carrier, which had no safety strap, was jammed in between the couch and a mattress on the floor that the family-and their dogs-had been sleeping on.  The carrier contained a small pillow and a soft liner.  The baby had been left lying on his back, head on the pillow, when the mother went to the bathroom.  When she found the baby injured the baby was still lying on his back, still with his head on the pillow-and there were bite marks on the baby’s face, the top of his head, and the back of his head.  Yet he was still in the same place his mother left him.  This presumes that the dog(s) bit him, tore a significant wound across his face, literally opened the top of his skull, and yet never moved him out of the carrier-or even to a different area of the carrier.  A small fragment of skull was found, but that was within the carrier and a matter of a few inches from the baby’s head, still on the pillow.  I can’t frankly say that I have ever seen a situation where dogs dissected a target (toy, food or prey) and were so darn neat in their efforts as to return the scene exactly as it was before their actions.  Usually dogs are a least a little bit messier.

The bite marks are also a problem.  I was able to determine from a close examination of the autopsy photos that there were simple punctures and there were directional tears.  The directional tears were at contrasting angles.  That means the teeth involved pulled from different sides.  Although there were not clear enough full bites to absolutely identify or exclude any particular dog, I was able to identify two clear sets of canine tooth punctures-and the measurements were consistent with two different sets of jaws.   Now, we were only given access to Helo for measurements, but at least one set of punctures were inconsistent with the measurements of Helo’s canine teeth. 

The tearing injuries on the baby’s face were also a problem.  They indicated that the biter had pulled against the child’s flesh enough to tear completely through face and cheek tissue for several centimeters.  The force needed to tear that far is in excess of the weight of a three day old infant’s head.  Now, one might suspect that a dog could use a paw to hold a target and pull against it (as we have all seen with dogs dissecting soft plush toys or rope chews), but Helo had another difficulty here-he had a broken front leg that was in a cast.  With the couch on one side of the carrier and the mattress on the other side, a single dog would have had to maintain footing on a soft, irregular surface with one foot and hold the target (the baby) down with the other.  But Helo had a broken leg, in a cast, that was essentially non-weight bearing.  For Helo to have torn the flesh he would have had to somehow have juggled baby, carrier, and his own support with a single usable leg.

And we still have the scene problem.  If Helo did this all by himself, or even if two dogs pulled on the child, and there were bites to the front, sides, and back of the baby’s head-how did the baby’s body get repositioned back exactly as it started?

All these questions and more were bumping around in my head when I finally got to meet and physically evaluate Helo.  The video of the evaluation is posted on YouTube-search “Helos evaluation” or try


To summarize, I found Helo to be an active, personable, inquisitive young male Husky.  He readily sought human contact, was very responsive to directions and simple obedience commands, he took treats gently, and he allowed me to fully handle him with only slight avoidance of handling his healing leg.  I could take toys and food freely, without guarding or protective aggression, and was able to actually reach into his food bowl while he was eating.  He exhibited no signs of human-focused or dog-dog aggression.  He was, in fact, a pleasant and friendly dog.  If Helo had come into a shelter I was in charge of with no documentation of his history, his behavior would indicate that he was very adoptable.  My bottom line on Helo: this dog is absolutely not dangerous, and is no more likely to bite a person than any random pet dog one might encounter.

So now we go back to the initial question in this case: should Helo be saved?

In the human justice system we mandate that a person must be assumed innocent until proven guilty.  That proof must be to a standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt”.  In animal cases, sadly, guilt by mere presence or association is more often the standard.   In this case yes, Helo was present.  He had a small amount of blood on his fur, consistent with transfer from some other surface.  There were three other dogs present, none of whom were adequately examined.  At least some of the bite marks are inconsistent with Helo’s measurements.  Do we have reasonable doubt here?  Absolutely.  Is Help’s behavior during the evaluation consistent with a dog that I feel is clearly a danger to the public?  No.  Helo is again no more a risk to the public than any other dog.  If Helo is to be destroyed, it will not be to protect public safety.  As we discussed, liability can be dealt with by attorneys and releases.  The only reason for Helo’s destruction will be for revenge, plain and simple.