Citizens from Salem and St. Louis attended the Monday meeting of the board of aldermen in order to appeal for the life of Phineas, a yellow Labrador retriever sentenced to be destroyed due to a June 22, 2012, incident when he bit a seven-year-old girl.
According to Salem City Code, Chapter 5, a “vicious dog” is a dog which “(caused) bodily injury to a person on two or more occasions.” The chapter initially says the dog should be destroyed, but then goes on to describe how a vicious dog could be kept safely and legally within the city limits. City Code says that an investigator appointed by the mayor shall determine if a dog is vicious. In the case of Phineas, the Mayor Gary Brown appointed himself.
“I don’t see how anybody could make that call, he’s a good dog,” Patrick Sanders, Phineas’ owner, told the board.
Sanders was one of three people on the consent agenda to speak on behalf of Phineas. His wife Amber and Charlotte White of the Dent County Animal Welfare Society also spoke, and requested that the board and Brown change their minds on the decision to destroy Phineas.
Joe Simon, St. Louis, is the Sanders’ attorney. He attempted to speak on behalf of the family, but was not allowed by City Attorney Wm. Camm Seay. Seay requested that the board limit speaking to those on the agenda.
“I called and tried to get on the agenda, but the mayor said he would not be taking any additional speakers,” said Simon.
Seay said it would be incorrect for Brown to refuse speakers, but he was not aware of the mayor doing so. Brown stated that he did not refuse anyone the right to speak, but advised them of the proper channels to do so. Seay also reminded the board not to speak on the subject of Phineas.
“We will not comment on pending litigation,” said Seay.
The Sanders filed an injunction against the City of Salem July 24, asking that the city not be allowed to have the dog destroyed, according to court records.
Originally represented by Ginger Joyner of Rolla, the Sanders found themselves in the courtroom of Judge Scott Bernstein March 14 of this year. According to court transcripts, the victim of the dog bite, Kendall Woolman, testified that she ran past Phineas to exit the Sanders’ yard where she had been playing with their daughter, when Phineas grabbed her on her side and pulled her approximately three feet. Kendall’s sister, Alexus Woolman testified that on a prior occasion, Phineas had placed his mouth on her, but was wagging his tale at the time.
Judge Bernstein upheld Brown’s assessment of the dog as vicious.
Simon filed a motion for new trial April 22, according to court documents.
“I hope that the judge takes into account new evidence. The original police report had misinformation in it. There was never a prior bite, this was a one-time thing,” said Simon.
Supporters of Phineas have mounted a growing social media campaign. Since its establishment April 18 the Save Phineas facebook page has had 3,487 “likes” and receives comments and words of encouragement from people as far away as Germany and Brazil. From the facebook page people can click on a link to change.org, where there is a petition for Brown and the board of aldermen to vacate the decision to have Phineas destroyed. Thus far there are 4,752 e-signatures.
Ruth Elledge with Saving Dogs of Missouri, an animal welfare group, has been assisting the Sanders in their campaign to have Phineas released. She has been involved in the rescue of countless animals.
“I have never seen a case like this. It is like they are targeting this dog for some reason. It doesn’t make any sense,” she said.
Robin Moore with DCAWS reported that since Phineas was taken from his family March 22, 2012, several other dogs have been impounded for biting, and they have all been released after a standard 10-day hold.
“We’re even supposed to be adopting one out,” said Suzy Koffman with DCAWS.
“The city of Salem must have money to waste, and we’re (Save Phineas campaign) doing fine on funding,” said Simon.
City administrator Clayton Lucas says that the issue is actually out of the city’s hands now.
“There are a lot of misconceptions, but the city now has no say in what happens, it is up to the courts,” said Lucas.
Monday’s meeting was moved from the council chambers to city hall auditorium due to an expected large turnout for the discussion about Phineas. About 50 people showed up and one television crew from St. Louis.
The Sanders say they will continue to try to save Phineas. Patrick Sanders has promised the board that the dog would be moved well outside city limits, neutered, and kept up to date on his vaccinations.
The Woolmans have also addressed the court, the mayor, and the board in a letter dated April 24, saying that the incident during which their daughter was bitten was unfortunate, but they do not feel that Phineas should be destroyed.