PHOENIX — A Phoenix judge on Tuesday spared the life of a “pit bull” that bit a 4-year-old boy last month and touched off a polarizing Internet debate on mercy, blame, and animal violence.
Municipal Court Judge Deborah Griffin ruled that the dog named Mickey must be neutered, defanged, and microchipped. She declared the dog vicious earlier in the day and could have ordered euthanasia. Defanging means to blunt or remove the canine teeth.
“There would be absolutely no possibility of the animal ever doing this to someone again,” Judge Griffin said, adding that the dog must remain in a facility for the rest of his life and can’t be adopted.
The case has been watched by groups across the country, including the Ohio Coalition for Dog Advocates based in Toledo.
“It’s always critical to pay attention to these larger cases. When you see the way the courts rule, it gives you a good indication of which way the pendulum is swinging,” coalition co-founder Jean Keating said. “In recent years, the pendulum has swung toward treating individual dogs based on their behavior and not anything else.”
An animal rights group is the trustee for Mickey and has 30 days to find Mickey a rehabilitation center. An animal activist in court started to cry when hearing the dog would live.
Mickey was chained in his backyard Feb. 20 when the attack happened. Four-year-old Kevin Vicente wandered over from the neighbor’s yard and allegedly took a bone from the dog, leading Mickey to bite him. The child received a broken eye socket and jaw, and has months, if not years, of reconstructive surgery ahead of him. Mickey’s former owner surrendered him as a result of the incident.
The question of whether the “pit bull” should live or die attracted a team of top death penalty lawyers, led to candlelight vigils, and riled up thousands of animal lovers on social media who placed blame with the dog’s owners and the child’s baby-sitter.
Guadalupe Villa, one of the adults at the scene, filed the vicious-dog court petition that started the case. In her petition, she describes Mickey as a dog that has a history of acting without provocation and has killed one of her dogs.
Animal advocates hit back, saying both the dog and boy are victims and the baby-sitter watching the child was negligent in letting him play near the animal. They also argued the owner was fostering aggression by keeping the dog chained up.
Ms. Keating said dogs kept on a chain are much more likely to respond aggressively to a perceived threat.
“They have fight or flight,” she said. “When you take away flight, they have only one choice left.”
Those who had hoped to rescue Mickey took their cause to Facebook, where a “Save Mickey” page has garnered more than 64,000 likes. The dog’s supporters recently used social media to organize a candlelight vigil and even a YouTube video plea.
“This is not Kevin versus Mickey,” said attorney John Schill, one of three attorneys representing the dog in the court petition. “Having Mickey killed is not going to take away Kevin’s pain or injuries. The only thing this is going to do is kill a poor, innocent dog.”
Mr. Schill was working pro bono at the request of the Lexus Project, a New York-based nonprofit group that has been raising money for a legal defense fund for the dog.
Ms. Keating said Kevin and Mickey are both victims. Kevin was doing what a curious child would do, while Mickey was responding the way a dog in his situation would.
“The child should not have been there. [Mickey] should not have been chained, and he certainly should not have had a bone with children around,” she said. “You have two very innocent victims in this case. Who should really be on trial and should bear the responsibility are the people that were supposed to be watching them both.”
Ms. Keating said that despite the sanctions against him, the court's decision to spare Mickey’s life showed mercy and was “a good decision overall.”
“The fact that they’re not killing the dog is recognition that this wasn’t all his idea,” she said. “Vicious dogs and their behavior is a function of their environment and who’s responsible for them. It’s very positive that they’ve allowed him to live.”
Ms. Keating added that sparing Mickey’s life now could open up opportunity in the future for advocates to petition the court to lift the sanctions against him after rehabilitation, which has been done before. Several of the former fighting dogs rescued from NFL football player Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels in 2007 were successfully adopted out after such action by Best Friends Animal Society.
Staff writer Alexandra Mester contributed to this report.