The Colchester Selectboard unanimously agreed to order an area pit bull “humanely destroyed” after hearing claims the dog viciously attacked a Milton girl last month.
Their decision, released on Wednesday, said owners Jason Hathaway and Stephanie Menard failed to take “the necessary steps or any steps” to protect members of the public from their 5-year-old black Labrador-pit bill mix, Marley.
“The board has no doubt that the owners and their children love this dog and that he is a member of their family,” the verdict reads. “However, the board must consider the overriding interest of the public’s safety.”
The order comes after selectboard members heard nearly four hours of testimony in a judicial-style hearing at the town offices last Wednesday.
Raymond Giroux of Milton first approached the board at its Feb. 14 meeting after his 11-year-old daughter, Shyanne, was bitten in the face multiple times during a birthday party for the daughter of Jason Hathaway and Stephanie Menard at their Prim Road residence on February 11.
Giroux presented three letters of support and asked the board to order the dog be put down, one option Vermont law affords selectboards in vicious dog cases.
Graphic photos taken by Giroux just after the incident show bloody wounds on Shyanne’s forehead, cheek and lower jawbone. The gashes required 27 stitches to mend, Giroux said, and have left likely permanent scarring.
After calling a half-dozen witnesses, including Giroux and multiple Colchester police officers, and referencing several other police reports involving Marley, town attorney Brian Monaghan recommended the board “humanely destroy” the dog.
Giroux grew emotional recounting when Shyanne called him “sniffling” a couple hours after arriving at the party, asking to be picked up because she had gotten “too close to the dog.”
When he arrived, he said Shyanne told him she’d ducked into a side room alone to retrieve her cell phone from her overnight bag. When she bent down to unzip the bag, Giroux said, Marley pounced.
It wasn’t until an emergency room nurse asked to see the injuries that Giroux said he realized the extent of the damage.
The lacerations on his 11-year-old’s forehead and cheek were effectively stitched, Giroux said, but there wasn’t enough tissue to close the deep jawbone wound. The girl was given antibiotics and pain medication and was held overnight for observation, he said.
Shyanne, who was present at the hearing, giggled nervously as she walked before the board to show her scars. Giroux said the family consulted a plastic surgeon and learned very little could be done to make the markings less prominent.
“She actually was more concerned about [their] daughter’s birthday than her face,” Giroux told the board. “They’re still good friends.”
Hathaway and Menard, the dog’s owners, nodded quietly in nearby seats. Indeed, their daughter sat with Shyanne toward the back of the audience, whispering happily.
Neither Hathaway nor Menard disputed Giroux’s claims but argued Shyanne provoked Marley. The pit bull was shot in the leg by a neighbor a few weeks prior, Hathaway said, and was still nursing his injury.
A January press release from CPD said Hathaway and Menard’s neighbor found the dog running loose in his yard one afternoon. The neighbor said Marley became aggressive and charged, prompting him to pull a handgun. The couple disputed some of those details at Wednesday’s hearing.
They said their son, the only other person in the room when Shyanne was bit, saw her inadvertently step on Marley’s injured foot before attempting to retrieve her phone.
At the hospital, Shyanne told police she didn’t touch the dog prior to the bite but did remember Menard and Hathaway telling the visitors to “be careful around the dog because it had foot problems.”
Shyanne told officers she pushed Marley away and got help after she was bitten.
According to police reports presented to the board, last month’s incident was not the first time a bite from Marley sent someone to the hospital.
A CPD report from 2015 shows the dog bit a 10-year-old girl’s left hand in a camper at Lone Pine Campground. At the hearing, Hathaway said the girl provoked Marley by attempting to push him into a bedroom as she shut the door.
A report from last May said Marley bit a 39-year-old man in the face while Hathaway held the dog on a leash. The report says the man, who was delivering furniture to a nearby home, asked if he could pet the dog.
Hathaway said he told the man the dog was friendly, “but does not like hats,” the report says. Hathaway said the man didn’t remove his hat and quickly knelt down beside Marley, who “lashed out.”
CPD Officer Victor Bitca also testified to Marley’s aggression. In November, he saw a vehicle hit Marley and a man walking him on Prim Road. When he approached the scene, Bitca said Marley “launched” toward him.
“I thought about my safety and backed off a little bit,” Bitca told the board. “Luckily, he was on a leash.”
“Do you think the dog might have been nervous because the lights were flashing and he had just been hit by a car?” Hathaway asked from the crowd.
Menard and Hathaway presented a much gentler image of Marley during their testimony, telling the board the pit bull acts as a therapy dog for their son who has selective mutism.
“Marley is a friend,” Menard said. “He needs a pillow and a blanket to sleep on.”
After the incident involving Shyanne, animal control officer Stephanie Gingras accompanied Marley, Hathaway and Menard to a behavioral assessment with an area dog trainer.
Gingras said she was familiar with Marley and had spoken with his veterinarians at the clinic in Milton. Gingras said the vets told her the dog had a “caution” sticker on his folder and had once backed an employee into the corner of an exam room.
Last month, Gingras said she observed the trainer make a slow flashing movement with his hand. Tied to a nearby fence, Gingras said Marley lunged to the end of his leash and showed his teeth. Gingras said the extreme reaction to a “minor” gesture worried her.
“I have concerns about Jason and Stephanie being able to keep visitors to their home and on their property safe,” Gingras said. “There have been no attempts at training prior to our evaluation … that’s the biggest thing that discourages me.”
Gingras thinks Marley could be rehabilitated, but added that rehoming a dog with a history of biting is next to impossible.
“Unfortunately, with my past experience, I believe that Marley should be put down,” she said. Speaking for the town manager’s office, Monaghan echoed the sentiment.
The selectboard also considered renowned animal behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar’s “dog bite scale,” rating the injury at level five of six, with the latter being death.
“It’s like they’re saying this about my kid,” Hathaway said. “I know it takes a lot of commitments. I’m willing to do that.”
A letter provided by the trainer offered a slightly softer suggestion. In his opinion, Gingras relayed, Marley should only be around his owners’ children “but could learn to function normally with people that are past adolescence.”
After hearing the trainer’s report, Giroux appeared to have a change of heart. He told the board he’d rescued 17 pit bulls himself and knew they could be “good family dogs with proper training.
“I don’t want to see the dog put down,” Giroux continued. “I want to see it taken care of.”
The dog’s owners have 30 days to appeal the selectboard’s decision to the Chittenden Civil Division of the Vermont Superior Court. Marley must remain quarantined through the process, the decision reads.
Without appeal, Menard and Hathaway must relinquish custody of Marley and allow the town to carry out the board’s euthanasia order.