Contempt request on dog videos is rejected

Prosecutor sought hearing against animal-rescue groups

8/5/2011
BY MARK REITER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
An image from the Monroe Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Web site shows photos of the dogs rescued from the Ida Maybee road home.
An image from the Monroe Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Web site shows photos of the dogs rescued from the Ida Maybee road home.

MONROE -- A Monroe County judge Thursday declined to hold a hearing on a prosecutor's request to have two animal-rescue groups held in contempt of court for posting photos and videos on Web sites of "pit bulls" seized in March from a Raisinville Township home.

Assistant Prosecutor Michael Brown sought the hearing before District Judge Jack Vitale against the Monroe Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Buster Foundation.

The request for the contempt hearing stemmed from a gag order placed on the two groups May 4 in a civil complaint filed against the occupants of the Ida Maybee Road home where authorities broke up a championship fight between two prizefighting dogs.

Judge John Collins had allowed the Monroe society and Buster Foundation to take pictures and make video recordings of the four dogs, but barred them from publicly releasing the information until the case had been decided.

After hearing testimony from an animal behaviorist who evaluated the animals, Judge Vitale issued a verbal ruling July 13 that allowed the sheriff's office to destroy three of the dogs. The written order, which found that the animals were a threat to public safety and lack any useful purpose, was filed last week with the court.

In his arguments Thursday to Judge Vitale for the contempt hearing, Mr. Brown maintained that the groups were still under Judge Collins' gag order because they have until Aug. 15 to appeal the decision.

However, Judge Vitale dismissed the prosecutor's request, saying that Judge Collins' gag order wasn't entirely clear and the groups could have reasonably concluded that his order expired July 13 when the case was decided.

Trina Stillwagon, Monroe SPCA president, said after the hearing that she and volunteers of the groups did nothing wrong.

"We did comply with those orders. As much as we disagree with being placed under the gag order, we worked through channels and waited for due process," she said. "There has been just widespread lack of transparency from the prosecutor's office. I think that is why they brought us in here with this motion."

The videos posted on the Internet include excerpts of veterinarian Katherine Houpt assessing the "pit bulls" at the local Animal Control center. Dr. Houpt, who is professor emeritus of behavior medicine at Cornell University, was the prosecution's expert witness.

In the recordings, the animals appear passive and nonthreatening during the veterinarian's evaluation process. Other video postings on the Monroe SPCA's Web site show a nonaggressive dog in behavior tests conducted in May by Mrs. Stillwagon as she feeds it.

Mrs. Stillwagon said attorneys for the groups plan to appeal the judge's decision to destroy the three dogs before the Aug. 15 deadline.

She said she and other volunteers have asked to be placed on the agenda of Tuesday's Monroe County commissioners' meeting to urge them to release the fourth dog that was deemed safe and put it under their care. They also want to address issues they have with the Animal Control division.

Contact Mark Reiter at: markreiter@theblade.com or 419-724-6199.