Following an alleged attack by their two dogs earlier this month, Hope Alexander and her mother, Mary Watts, have been fighting for the pets' release from the Fair Lawn pound, where the borough is holding them as potentially dangerous pending a municipal court date.
The dogs broke free from Alexander’s home on Jan. 3, after she says a family friend left the gate open. Cosgrove, a 180-pound Mastiff/Great Dane mix, and Wilson, a 80-pound boxer, allegedly attacked a smaller dog and its owner three blocks away at the intersection of Hedman Place and Stelton Terrace.
According to a police report, officers responded to find the two dogs circling the victim of the alleged attack. Both he and his dog were bleeding, the report says, though he could not be sure whether Cosgrove, Wilson, or both were responsible.
The victim was transported by ambulance to Hackensack University Medical Center, and the dog was taken to Valley Brook Animal Hospital, where it died “as a result of the injuries,” according to Borough Manager Tom Metzler.
The victim could not be reached for comment.
Cosgrove and Wilson were initially quarantined for a period of ten days, to be sure the dogs were free of rabies, although according to Health Department records both were up to date on their shots.
Alexander maintains that her dogs are not violent, and that their guilt in the Jan. 3 incident has not been proven.
“I was in shock, because my dogs have always been calm, afraid of their own shadow,” Alexander said, adding that she expected the quarantine to be over at the expiration of the 10-day period, and to have her dogs returned home.
In a letter from the Health Department dated Jan. 16, director Carol Wagner wrote that Alexander’s dogs “have not shown any signs/symptoms of rabies and thereby have been released from quarantine.”
This followed a settlement in municipal court Jan. 9, in which Wagner agreed to release the dogs under the conditions that Alexander install a padlock on her gates, and agree to muzzle and keep the dogs on a short leash when walking them.
But Metzler and the borough council overrode the settlement, leading Alexander to take her cause to the public.
The Facebook page she created, "Justice for Cosgrove and Wilson," has attracted over 400 followers since it was created last Thursday, and the petition circulated for the dogs’ release has accumulated over 700 signatures.
But the borough disputes the account of the story posted on the page, which argues that there was little indication of blood on the scene and that the town is holding the dogs to set an example.
“I feel very helpless,” the first post on the page, dated Jan. 24, reads. “I am one person against an entire town set on proving a point at the expense of my mild mannered oblivious pets.”
Metzler said he doesn’t believe “her interpretation of the story is reflective of what transpired.”
“I do not believe that the owner of the dogs that we are holding has any idea of the severity of the attack,” he added. “Obviously it was not just a simple dog bite.”
While the dogs have been cleared for rabies, the borough argues, the issue of whether they pose a danger to the public needs to be decided by the court, and the settlement reached between Alexander and the Health Department was never final.
“The health officer does not have the authority to enter into an agreement, nor did I give her that authority,” Metzler told Patch. “Her interpretation at the time was that what she said [in court] was subject to approval.”
The matter was brought before the council, which decided to turn it back over to the prosecutor, and the borough and Alexander’s attorney are now wrangling over whether the settlement reached on Jan. 9 will stand.
“My office was never advised of the mayor and [council] session,” Alexander’s attorney, Michael D. Baer, wrote in a letter to the court.
“It is unfortunate, that they now, at such a late date, object to the terms and conditions entered into by one of their borough staff who testified on the record under oath that she was authorized to resolve the matter and therefore, bind the Borough. It just does not seem fair, just and equitable.”
“I’ve sat back for three weeks, doing everything the town wants me to do,” Alexander said, adding that since the incident, she has had to wrestle with the uncertainty of her dogs’ fate as well as incur $3,000 in legal and impoundment fees.
But Metzler contends that, despite some confusion generated by misunderstandings between government officials over where authority on the matter lay, the borough has followed its regular procedures in handling the incident.
State law provides that a municipal court may decide a dog is “potentially dangerous” if it kills another domestic animal, and require the dog to have special licenses and monitoring by municipal officials. It can only be euthanized if it is determined that it inflicted serious bodily harm to a person, or if the owner later violates the conditions set by the court for ownership of the dog.
“I think we need to do our due diligence,” Metzler said, “because if that dog was living next door to me and I saw the pictures [from the incident], and I had a 2-year-old, I don’t know how comfortable I’d feel.”
He added that it is not within his office’s purview to decide the matter, but he believes the borough has a responsibility to have the case decided in court on the issue of the potential safety concerns raised by the dogs.
“We’re waiting for guidance from the court at this point,” he said.
But Alexander maintains that the dogs have no history of violence, and says that after a 2011 incident involving a former pet, which according to police records was contained on her own property, she had the dog put down.
And she says that her effort in publicizing her current predicament is in part to help other dog owners understand the trouble she’s been through due to the brief escape of her pets.
“I felt the public needed to know because this can happen to anyone,” she said.
A hearing to decide whether the Jan. 9 settlement will stand is scheduled for Wednesday.