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Death row dog dies

After six years on Pinellas County's equivalent of death row for dogs, old age finally caught up with Beethoven the Great Dane, and the dog's owner agreed last month to euthanase him.

Pinellas County Animal Services declared Beethoven dangerous after it bit a four-year-old girl who came into the Palm Harbor garage where the dog was chained on Labour Day 1995. The county determined the dog should be destroyed.

Beethoven's owner, Lorraine Blackwood, and a legal team challenged that sentence, turning Beethoven into a cause celebre and plunging Pinellas into what is thought to be the longest-running appeal of an animal's fate in the state.


Though the appeals were still unfolding, county animal services officials called Blackwood, formerly Lorraine Sabates, and told her Beethoven was rapidly declining in early September. The 11-year-old dog was sometimes having trouble standing up and was losing weight, said Dr. Welch Agnew, assistant director of veterinary services for Pinellas County Animal Services.

"As he got older and older, he just wore out," Agnew said.

On the evening of September 11., Agnew took Beethoven to Tampa Bay Veterinary Specialists, where a veterinarian determined it was "in the dog's best interest to be euthanased at that point, due to his age and infirmities," said Blackwood's attorney, David Plante of Tampa.

Though despondent and depressed, Plant said, Blackwood was with the Beethoven as he was evaluated and ultimately put to sleep. Blackwood could not be reached for comment.

"She was able to hold the dog's paw through the process," Plante said. "He went peacefully."

But the case did win some important victories for other dog owners who face similar county action, Plante said.

Plante contended in the protracted legal battles that the county violate serious due process rights to Blackwood, and that Beethoven was unfairly sentenced to be destroyed.

While the county contended the girl was the victim of a vicious attack, Plante said he believes the child poked the dog in the eye or ear with her finger and Beethoven had an "instantaneous bite reflex as a result of pain stimuli."

In January, Plante's firm even appealed unsuccessfully to Governor Jeb Bush (brother of President George W Bush) for clemency.

"It was disappointing we didn't get the dog released before the dog died," Plante said.


But Plante said the six-year legal battle was not all for nothing. The lawsuit has changed the way animal services do business, he said.

For example, he said, dog owners are now entitled to a hearing before the animal services director determines whether a dog should be destroyed. And while Plante was not able to subpoena the girl who was bitten, future dog owners fighting a similar sentence will be afforded that right, he said.

"Like my client, I'm sickened over this," Plante said. "The county was able to deprive the dog owner of a fair hearing and incarcerated this do for six years until the dog ultimately died. But for the beneficial results to other dog owners resulting from this action, this would have been worse than it is."

The family of the girl who was bitten has never commented publicly on the case.

Workers at animal services certainly felt no joy at the dog's death, Agnew said. Many employees had become attached to Beethoven over the years.

"We were his family by that time," Agnew said. "He was part of this place.

You come in of a morning and you "hi' to Beethoven and someone takes him for a walk."

While Beethoven is gone, the legal case is not.

After Beethoven's death, the county filed a motion seeking to have Blackwood's appeal thrown out as moot. Plante objected and earlier this month, judges in the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled the case will go on.

Plante said he and the county attorney's office are working on a negotiated settlement, likely one that would waive Blackwood's claims for attorneys fees, but would also prevent the county from seeking board fees of $5 per day, which comes to more than $11,000.

This case from the USA has obvious parallels with the case of British dog Lacey, who has spent eight and a half years in secret kennels under the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act. Unlike Beethoven however, Lacey was not seized for a biting incident, but as an alleged Pit Bull 'type' under Section 1 of the DDA.

The dog was seized from the home of Spanish-born artist Montserrat Christian on March 30th 1993 along with another dog Maite. Mrs Christian was charged with owning unregistered, illegal pit bull 'type' dogs, but was eventually offered a deal whereby one dog would be put to sleep and the other returned. She refused to enter into such an arrangement, but Maite was returned in any event. Lacey, however, remained incarcerated after various legal challenges failed.

Mrs Christian now lives in Spain, but has refused to take advantage of the amendment to the DDA which would allow her to register Lacey as a dog of the 'type' and thus be freed, without any fear of destruction.


A joint initiative between the Fury Defence Fund and the charity Justice for Dogs recently attempted to secure the release of Lacey. In June 2001 Ann Harpwood of Justice For Dogs contacted the Home Office about Lacey's welfare, who referred to a Mrs Woodleigh of the Legal Department at New Scotland Yard. The indications from New Scotland Yard are that the police would be happy for Lacey to be released, but for this to happen, Mrs Christian must agree to register the dog or to transfer the ownership of the dog to another party, possibly Juliette Glass of the Fury Defence Fund.

However, to date, no such move has been made and Lacey remains on the British equivalent of 'Canine Death Row'.

As of Friday 9th November 2001 - Lacey will have served 3,118 days in custody, her only crime being her resemblance to a certain breed of dog.

St. Petersburg Times