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Woman seeks stronger laws on dogs that attack pets

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012 5:30 a.m. CST
Caption
(Kyle Bursaw – kbursaw@shawmedia.com)
Doris Sernovitz holds a toy Aug. 30 that belonged to her miniature schnauzer Lilly. Sernovitz was walking Lilly in her neighborhood Aug. 16 when a pit bull attacked and killed her dog. She refers to the toy as Lilly and said she spent a few weeks sleeping with it to comfort her after the attack.

DeKALB – Lilly meant the world to Doris Sernovitz.

The 60-year-old DeKalb resident would take the schnauzer on walks through the neighborhood. Walks are the only kind of exercise Sernovitz can do because of her degenerative disc disease and arthritis. But Lilly helped.

“Lilly was like a therapy dog for me,” Sernovitz said. “I weighed over 200 pounds when I got her, and over six months because I walked her, I lost 70 pounds and kept it off. She was my reason for getting up in the morning.”

Lilly was killed a month ago when a pit bull escaped from a neighbor’s backyard and attacked her. Now, Sernovitz is hoping DeKalb will change its ordinances so future attacks might be prevented.

The pit bull in question, named Coco, attacked another dog some time ago. Sernovitz said if the laws had been stricter, Coco would have been euthanized then, thus saving her own dog’s life.

City officials are looking into whether DeKalb’s ordinances on dogs should be updated. DeKalb Police Chief Gene Lowery said dogs and their owners can be penalized if the animals are in public without a leash or if they maim or kill another person. But, Lowery said there is no middle ground, such as dogs attacking other dogs.

THE ATTACK

On Aug. 16, Sernovitz was walking Lilly in an alley across from her home in the 800 block of Ellwood Avenue. She had reached the backyard of 811 Ellwood Ave., where neighbor Bantu Hester and Coco lived.

In both Hester’s and Sernovitz’s words, something “went off” inside Coco, and the pit bull pushed the bottom of the gate out and was able to escape. Coco immediately attacked Lilly.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Sernovitz said. “The dog – I mean, it picked up my dog and shook it and crushed it to death. It tore both sides open and lungs, and by the time I got to the vet, she was dead.”

Hester eventually restrained the dog and locked it in his basement, according to a police report. Hester then drove Sernovitz and her dog to Prairie View Animal Hospital. Sernovitz said she found some small comfort in knowing Lilly died in her arms.


THE AFTERMATH

Sernovitz said she was bit in the hand. She said she did not seek medical treatment right afterward, only after it looked infected the next day. She’s concerned that Medicare might not pay for her treatments.

DeKalb police issued Hester a notice-to-appear complaint for a dog-at-large. Animal Control took Coco because the dog was not up to date on its shots.

Hester said Sernovitz is suing him, but he did not know for how much. Hester said Sernovitz is claiming Coco attacked her, which he disputes.

“My dog was not aggressive to other people whatsoever,” Hester said. He noted that Coco had no problems with neighbors who visited, nor did she have any problems with his own kids.

Hester said Coco had problems with some animals, but noted Coco has never been aggressive to the other dog that lives with Hester’s family or dogs that have visited with friends and neighbors.

“I didn’t expect it,” Hester said about Coco’s attack. “I have never seen her do anything like that before.”

Sernovitz said she took Lilly for a walk down that alley because she thought Coco was destroyed after he attacked a neighbor’s husky a year ago. When asked about this particular case, Hester said he did not remember exactly what happened, but said the incident occurred three years ago. The owner of the husky declined to be interviewed for this story.

Hester said he could have taken Coco back after the attack, but he chose to have his dog put down.

“I’m not taking a risk of that ever happening again,” Hester said. He added that he was concerned about Sernovitz’s well-being, and how she might feel if she saw Coco again.

THE LAW

Sernovitz is hoping for a change in the law to prevent her situation from happening again. Sernovitz said Coco should have been euthanized after the incident involving the husky.

She also worries about her neighborhood because a number of small children live there.

It’s a situation with which 5th Ward Alderman Ron Naylor can sympathize.

In June, his cocker spaniel, Scamper, was attacked by another dog when it ran into his backyard. Naylor said the owner brought his dog to a golf course and it was off the leash.

Naylor said Scamper had three or four bite wounds, but after several visits to the veterinarian, he has made a full recovery.

Naylor said he filed a complaint, and the court ordered the other owner to pay fines. Naylor said the offending dog was not destroyed.

Lowery said the city has a penalty for owners with dogs running-at-large, which is any situation in which the dog is in public and not leashed.

State law draws a distinction between a “dangerous dog” and a “vicious dog.” Both designations have their own set of rules and restrictions for both the dog and the owner. A vicious dog, which is a dog that attacks a person and causes serious physical injury or death, can be euthanized by a court order.

Illinois law forbids a dog from being labeled as vicious simply because of its breed. Lowery also voiced his preference for taking action based on behavior, as the debate on the aggressiveness of particular dog breeds can become convoluted.

But Lowery said there is no ordinance addressing bites to humans that are of the intermediate kind. Nor does city ordinance address any cases of dogs attacking other dogs.

“That might not rise, in the eyes of the law, to being great bodily harm, but certainly to that dog owner, it could be the world,” Lowery said. “But in the eyes of the law, we would have to establish that intermediate category where we would ... have an ordinance to address that issue other than dog off-leash.”

Naylor and Lowery said the city is researching an expansion of its rules involving dogs.

“I do anticipate ... we’ll address it, if further action needs to be taken,” Naylor said.

According to Lowery, there were 75 barking dog complaints, 33 dog bite complaints and 229 dog-running-at-large complaints in DeKalb in 2011.

MOVING ON

In the meantime, Sernovitz goes on without Lilly, but it’s been a difficult transition.

She says walks are difficult for her, both physically and psychologically. When Sernovitz was initially interviewed, she had a boot on her foot because she walked too much, possibly suffering a hairline fracture. But without Lilly around, her walks have become infrequent.

She also has trouble sleeping at night. Sernovitz’s boyfriend used to place Lilly on her in bed, and she would hold her as she fell asleep. Now, she has nightmares about dog attacks.

For his part, Hester called the incident “unfortunate.” He said he offered his condolences to her in a card, and he gave her his number, asking her to call him if she needed anything. But he also noted that his kids lost “their best friend” when he decided to put Coco down.

“Everybody lost out,” Hester said.

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