Terrible: Death Sentence Upheld for Charlie the AmStaff

The San Francisco dog attacked a police horse but had no history of violence. His appeal is rejected.


A San Francisco court has upheld a dog’s death sentence, and we believe it’s wrong. An American Staffordshire Terrier named Charlie had been sentenced to die because he attacked a mounted patrol horse named Stoney during the summer. The attack left Stoney with injuries to his leg and belly.

Still, Charlie had no history of aggression, and his owner promised to comply with any conditions the court put forth. But on Wednesday, San Francisco Superior Court Judge James Robertson II denied a writ that was filed by Charlie’s owner, David Gizzarelli. That writ had triggered an automatic stay, giving Gizzarelli an opportunity to appeal the decision to put Charlie down.

The San Francisco City Attorney’s Office, which represents San Francisco Animal Care and Control, is arguing for Charlie’s immediate euthanasia, claiming his aggression is beyond reasonable intervention because of the Aug. 6 attack.

Gizzarelli says he and Charlie were in an off-leash area of Crissy Field and that his dog had never seen a horse before. He insists that Charlie had an unfortunate but typical reaction to charge and bark at Stoney, and he says it was a one-time mistake that could be easily corrected if the judge had given Charlie a chance.

At the time of the attack, Charlie was 18 months old and had no history of aggression. Most dog behaviorists contend that dogs, which are predators by nature, will have an aggressive reaction the first time they’re confronted with prey animals such as cows, horses, and deer. This reaction, according to behaviorists, is common and quite within the boundaries of rehabilitation.

What has not been examined and certainly not explained by City Attorney Dennis Herrera is whether the U.S. Park Service had properly trained Stoney and whether Park Service Officer Eric Evan, who was riding Stoney at the time, had any experience in responding to the likelihood of a charge by a young dog such as Charlie.

What is certain is that Stoney, who was a retired thoroughbred racehorse, did not react in the way a trained police horse should have. A trained police horse would have stood its ground until the dog had exhausted its initial, excited reaction. This is a fact well known by the San Francisco Police Mounted Patrol, which has encountered similar situations in which dogs become excited by the presence of a horse.

But Stoney reacted by throwing her rider and fleeing, which further excited the dog to chase her. Park officials must admit Stoney’s reaction could not have been unexpected given that racehorses are given to skittish behavior. The incident further raises the question of whether the U.S. Park Service selects patrol horses based on their policing skills or for their public relations showmanship.

There are other unanswered questions such as why Charlie was initially declared “not aggressive” by Animal Control Officer John Denny, who days later reversed his opinion and ordered the dog’s death. The flip-flop suggests political influence, which might be easy to expose given the controversial political stance of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area against dogs. In January, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier chastised the National Park Service after a park ranger was promoted after wrongfully Tasering a dog owner. Furthermore, the GGNRA has been criticized for moving to reduce the number of park areas that allow dogs.

All too often government officials order the euthanasia of dogs to expedite their own political agenda. If that is the case with Charlie, government officials could be facing a tremendous backlash. For example, more than 90,000 people have signed a petition calling for a second chance for Charlie, and many of them have contributed money to hire an attorney to represent Gizzarelli in his quest to save his beloved dog. If the city attorney’s office is not absolutely sure of its argument, it could harm the ability of the city to protect residents from real threats.

To follow Charlie’s case, follow the Help Save Charlie Facebook page. Look for follow-up stories in Dogster.

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