Is Charlie the AmStaff a Victim of One Agency’s War on Dogs?

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area seems to have it out for canines and their owners.


Dogs and the outdoors: They go together naturally. But dogs in public parks — even huge ones with lots of space to run free — not always. And to us, that’s a shame, if not an outright injustice. At least, it can be. We recognize that everyone should be able to enjoy public lands, and some regulation is needed — for animals as well as things like motorized vehicles, performances, and so on — in order for that to happen.

But what if a public agency has it out for dogs and their owners? What if its actions look like it’s aiming to make dogs less equal than other park users?

That sure seems to be the case with the U.S. Park Service in the Bay Area in recent years.

The service has, for years, attempted to restrict access for dogs on the region’s parklands, and since the 1970s tensions between dog owners and park officials have been characterized by raucous public hearings, court cases, and, most recently, harsh treatment of dogs and their owners.

In the past year, a U.S. park ranger Tasered a 51-year-old man for walking his Rat Terrier off leash in San Mateo County, and since August, U.S. park officials in San Francisco have aggressively sought the euthanasia of the young dog Charlie, an American Staffordshire Terrier who bit a mounted police horse despite the fact Charlie has no previous record of aggressive behavior. His owner is now appealing Charlie’s death sentence.

In the late 1970s, after years of public wrangling, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area established a pet policy that allows dogs on approximately one percent of Bay Area parklands. The 1979 Pet Policy also established off-leash rules and designated off-leash areas, one of which is a portion of Crissy Field in the San Francisco Presidio.

But the GGNRA was never happy with the policy, and in the 1990s, illegally closed some dog walking areas designated in the 1979 Pet Policy, most notably at Fort Funston, Ocean Beach, and West Beach at Crissy Field. However, the closures did not withstand citizen-based legal challenges, and most of those areas have been reopened.

Currently the GGNRA is attempting to roll back the 1979 Pet Policy through a new dog-management plan that would completely prohibit dogs from areas they are allowed in and require dogs be on-leash at Crissy Field. The public outcry to the draft plan was so great — 4,713 people commented on the plan and 80 percent of the comments favored current dog policies -– that the GGNRA is revising the draft plan, which will be released again for public comment in February, 2013.

But the public’s wishes have not stopped the GGNRA from aggressively intimidating dog owners for minor infractions and taking harsh actions against dogs who act aggressively.

In the past year, there have been at least two controversial incidents involving dogs that have caught the public’s attention. In January, Park Ranger Sarah Cavallaro stopped 51-year-old Gary Hesterberg for walking his Rat Terrier off-leash at the Rancho Corral de Tierra property, which was recently acquired by the GGNRA. In fact, the property was so newly acquired there were no “dogs on leash” signs posted in the area, according to Hesterberg’s attorney. Hesterberg, a local who had been walking his dogs in the area for years, complied with Cavallaro’s demand to leash the small dog. But Cavallaro would not allow Hesterberg to leave the scene and she would not explain why she was detaining him.

Hesterberg tried to walk away twice, according to witnesses, and on his second attempt, Cavallaro unholstered her Taser and shot him in the back. The high-voltage charge knocked Hesterberg to the ground, and he was arrested after being examined by paramedics. In the days following the violent attack, there was a rising chorus of complaints about Cavallaro’s actions. The U.S. Park Service defended her actions and after a disciplinary investigation, which found that Cavallaro actions were within park policy.

However, the 200-page investigation report was not released to the public, which brought the ire of U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, who demanded an independent investigation and publicly criticized the park service’s actions, findings, and refusal to release the report.

Given the circumstances, the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office refused to prosecute Hesterberg for the misdemeanors of walking his dog off-leash, failing to follow an officer’s orders, and giving false information about his identity. “In light of all the circumstances, we decided that a criminal case was not the appropriate path to take,” District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe said. “We’re confident that a jury wouldn’t convict him and this case would be better by not entering the criminal justice system.”

In July, Hesterberg filed a claim with the U.S. Park Service seeking $500,000. The park service has until January to respond to the claim.

Hesterberg’s attorney, Michael Haddad, said the park service should release the report on Cavallaro, who had previous complaints about her interactions with dog owners, to the public. “This is the only way to shed some real light on what happened,” Haddad said. “If the park service contends the ranger honestly thought it was within their policies to Tase this guy in the back, then clearly their policies need to be clarified or strengthened.”

The most recent incident involves Charlie a Staffordshire Terrier who attacked a U.S. Park Service mounted police horse at Crissy Field on Aug. 6. Charlie, who was 18 months at the time, had never seen a horse before and he became excited. He charged the horse, Stoney, who was being ridden by Officer Eric Evans, from approximately 200 yards away. According to Evans, he put Stoney into evasive action by pivoting the horse, which further excited Charlie and he bit Stoney, causing the horse to fall and Evans to be thrown. Charlie chased Stoney for a little more than half a mile and bit the horse several more times.

Charlie’s owner, David Gizzarelli, was arrested and Charlie was taken to San Francisco Animal Care and Control, and released to Gizzarelli the next day. But after a vicious dog hearing on Aug. 23, hearing officer John Denny ordered that Charlie could be euthanized in the new year, despite the fact that Officer Evans misrepresented and exaggerated the facts of the case and provided next to no hard evidence of his claims.

GGNRA spokesman Howard Levitt has said on more than one occasion that the park service has nothing to do with the legal proceedings against Charlie, and that Charlie’s punishment is entirely up to the city and county of San Francisco. But according to court records, the GGNRA not only requested the vicious dog hearing, but also requested Charlie be euthanized. We’ve found that the official case against Charlie is weak.

Gizzarelli has been fighting to save Charlie, but reportedly Denny will only agree to lift the death sentence if Gizzarelli relinquishes ownership of the dog. The requirement is odd because Denny refuses to say exactly why Gizzarelli is an unfit owner. Neither the U.S. Park Service nor Denny have responded to requests for comment on the case.

In the meantime, Charlie has been kept in a small cell surrounded by truly vicious dogs, and he is not allowed human contact. “Charlie continues to be in an 8×4 cell with no walks and no visits,” Gizzarelli posted his Help Save Charlie Facebook page. “And who knows what else because NO ONE is allowed to visit him. We are filing a new stay and continuing to fight, sue, and protect Charlie and dogs like him.”

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