UPDATE 9/12: Lady Sif and Thor will be returned to their owners following a hearing ordered by a Ventura judge, according to the Topper family attorney Gannon Johnson.
“To the best of my knowledge gleaned from what VCAS has provided under CPRA requests, this is the first time that VCAS has allowed an animal to live in the County after two nuisance findings,” said Gannon. “I’m hoping it represents a shift to bring the County and City laws into line with the Hayden Law passed in 1998.”
The Hayden Act requires a four to six business day period before animals can be euthanized after being impounded and also requires that the animals be released to a nonprofit animal rescue or adoption organization in some circumstances.
What happens when the family pet gets into trouble? According to law, it can be two strikes and you’re potentially out. One Ventura case, however, has struck a nerve, after two dogs with prior histories were seized, leading to a court case with the judge siding with the owner.
Lady Sif and Thor, two pit bull breed dogs living in Ventura with Christy Topper and her family, came to the attention of Ventura County Animal Services in June of 2015. The duo escaped from their own backyard and into the neighboring property, where they attacked and killed several chickens.
The owners were served a citation under the city of Ventura’s nuisance abatement ordinance 2004-20, section 8.050.610, and in December, a hearing was held during which the Toppers were told that in order to get Lady Sif and Thor back, they would need to fortify their backyard and construct an inescapable dog run and keep the pair on leads at all times when on a walk.
The Toppers complied and Lady Sif and Thor returned home.
In 2017, the Toppers found themselves dealing with VCAS once again, after the pair of pit bulls escaped from the family home, allegedly biting a postman on duty.
Every suspected bite is reported to VCAS, and when the address of the alleged perpetrator of the postman’s bite came up in the system as being the home of both Lady Sif and Thor, Animal Control seized the dogs and notified the Toppers that if they wished to have a hearing, they could request one.
This is where Ventura County Superior Court Judge Matthew Guasco found fault. Guasco, in his ruling issued on July 2, directed the VCAS to give Topper a hearing and an opportunity to be heard at said hearing, though denying a request to immediately return the dogs.
A hearing has been scheduled for Aug. 31. Meanwhile, Lady Sif and Thor wait at home with the Toppers for their fate to be decided.
“How many people in the county have animals?” asked attorney Gannon Elizabeth Johnson Esq., who represents the Toppers. “A lot of people have animals accused of being a nuisance who don’t know that they have all these rights, so they’re not told they can bring an attorney to the hearing, they’re not told how to ask if they can get subpoenas for certain people to attend the hearing. It’s a big problem.”
Gannon says that for the families in a situation similar to the Toppers’, these issues go “under the radar,” and that others have had their due process violated as well, due to the practice of “amending” nuisance orders rather than issuing separate orders for different events.
“The city and county took the position that the hearing in 2015 sufficiently protected the Toppers’ due process rights and the judge said no,” said Gannon, alluding to another pit bull by the name of Tango.
In 2015, Tango, a male pit bull, was declared a public nuisance by VCAS after residents of a Simi Valley neighborhood claimed that he attacked several individuals and animals. In 2016, Tango attacked another neighboring dog, biting the owner as well.
Tango was impounded and officials determined that he would no longer be able to live in Ventura County, giving his owner 10 days to find him a home or Tango would become property of VCAS. Tango was eventually euthanized, unable to find relocation outside of the county.
A similar event occurred with Shadow, a pit bull owned by a Ventura homeless man and who was impounded after biting a police officer attempting to arrest his owner. Shadow was shot, and a campaign was launched to fund his recovery.
Shadow was later adopted by Gannon.
Bryan Bray, supervising animal control officer, says that seizure of an animal is “exceedingly rare.”
“Three or four,” said Bray, as the number of times he can recall an animal taken from a family on a second nuisance complaint. Bray has been with the VCAS since 2005. “If we have an animal we know is a nuisance and is a threat to the public safety, we have to take action at that point.”
The numbers coincide with Bray’s assessment.
From January 2015 to Aug. 17, 2018, VCAS received 3,029 barking complaints and 4,316 aggression complaints. Of those, eight barking complaints warranted further investigation (four total in 2018 thus far), and 61 aggression complaints warranted further investigation, with 15 of those occurring in 2018.
In total, five nuisance complaints have been amended since 2015, meaning further requirements were written into the order for the family and their pet to become compliant with the law. Only two resulted in seizure of the animal. Bray says that in 2015, one animal seized due to an amended barking complaint resulted in the dog being placed up for adoption; and in 2017, one amended nuisance complaint resulted in more than one animal being seized due to aggression and being subsequently ordered out of the county.
Bray says that he cannot comment on the Topper case, as litigation is ongoing, but that instances such as that of Tango or Shadow are “worst-case scenarios.”
In Tango’s case, former neighbor Ken Vergini told the VCStar in July 2016 that “virtually everyone on the street wrote a letter on my behalf to animal control following the 2014 attack, and several letters also indicated that this pit bull was aggressive and dangerous,” adding that the neighborhood had filed six complaints with VCAS before the attack that ultimately sealed Tango’s fate.
Gannon says that a nuisance complaint wasn’t filed in the case of the attack on the postman, however, and says that she believes the VCAS acted outside of its authority by confiscating the pets on a bite report.
“They receive hundreds of bite reports a year but they don’t take action on all of them; that didn’t happen in the Topper case,” said Gannon. “Then, when the dogs were seized and held, they weren’t given a hearing.”
Bray says that the VCAS is currently looking at the ordinance to mirror what the court has ordered, which Gannon says doesn’t mean that the status quo will change.
“While it is good they are working on amending the ordinance, that doesn’t mean it will happen any time soon (if at all) and it doesn’t mean the county or city aren’t acting under the ordinance as written until that amendment is adopted,” said Gannon. “As proof of this, the city and the county are scheduled to hold an administrative hearing against the Toppers on Aug. 31st under the same ordinance that was just declared unconstitutional.”