The family appealed an animal control officer's order that the dog be deemed dangerous and subject to restrictions. But the consequence of appealing was more severe than the initial order: When the family lost, the dog was ordered to be euthanized.
Elen Puerta sat outside the Flagler Humane Society with two four-packs of Chicken McNuggets. She was there waiting to see her dog, a daily visitation ever since she was told the dog had been ordered to be euthanized. She said she never saw it coming.
The euthanasia order followed a bite in December, and a city of Palm Coast animal control officer had asked the Puerta-Quintero family to sign a paper declaring the dog dangerous. It would have meant agreeing to restrictions on how the dog, named Muneco, could be kept, but the family would have been able to keep the dog.
They appealed the control officer’s decision. Surely, the family thought, they could prove that Muneco wasn’t aggressive. And what was the risk in standing up for their dog?
Before the Dec. 29 incident in which Muneco bit a woman while a dog-sitter was walking him, there had never been any issues with aggression. He was well-known at the local dog park. He was patient when the Puertas’ two boys, 8-year-old Jayden and 14-year-old Justin, rough-housed with him. He let Elen Puerta, 38 and the boys’ mother, brush his teeth.
But the family was wrong about the risk of an appeal: After the city appealed the dangerous dog designation with a city hearing officer, the hearing officer ordered that Muneco be killed — even though the city of Palm Coast’s attorney said during the Feb. 2 hearing that that wasn’t what the city wanted.
Nor did the victim, who said she thought the bite was an accident.
“I don’t even know why they want to put him to sleep when nobody was asking to destroy him,” Elen Puerta said. “For me it was very unfair. This is a dog that was able to go to the dog park and never had any trouble.”
Puerta said she wished she’d never appealed the city’s initial decision to have Muneco declared dangerous. If she hadn’t, she could have taken him home, and he wouldn’t have been ordered destroyed. “I want people to know that if they’re going to declare the dog dangerous, not to fight it,” she said.
The city’s ordinance states that a dog found dangerous in the course of an animal control hearing “shall” be put down. That’s a stricter standard that state law, which says that such a dog “may” be put down, and the city has for several months been revising its animal control ordinances to bring them into line with the state’s.
"I cannot fathom that biting, jumping and injuring someone severely cannot be considered aggressive behavior. I agree with the city's observation that this is a dangerous dog. It is clear to me that there is a severe injury to the victim."
— Nicole Turcotte, animal control hearing officer
The city’s attorney, Jennifer Nix, wrote in an email to Puerta’s attorney before an appeal hearing date was set that losing the potential appeal “is not an ‘automatic death sentence.’”
“If this initial determination is appealed,” she wrote, “it will be noted by the city that in light of revisions to the city code currently being worked on (initiated prior to this bite incident), the state statutes control, and destruction of the dog is not mandated.”
So the family decided to go ahead and appeal.
But hearing officer Nicole Turcotte, who is hired by the city to hear animal control cases but is not a city staff member, understood the legalities differently.
She said during the Feb. 2 hearing that she found the dog dangerous based on the severity of the victim’s injuries, and with that finding, she had no choice under the city’s ordinance but to order Muneco be euthanized.
“I am specifically finding the dog aggressively attacked a person, severely injuring that person,” she said. “Not having testimony from anyone otherwise, I cannot fathom that biting, jumping and injuring someone severely cannot be considered aggressive behavior. I agree with the city’s observation that this is a dangerous dog. It is clear to me that there is a severe injury to the victim.”
The family hopes to appeal the case through circuit court. They have to file their appeal within 10 days of an order they received from the city Feb. 9.
Muneco can be put down at any time after Feb. 24.
Sherry Helmich, 69, was on her morning walk Dec. 29 when she saw her friend Joaquim Carvalho walking the dog he was dog-sitting, a white pit mix with tan splotches.
Muneco was wagging his tail, and Helmich pet the dog, which seemed friendly. But as Helmich turned to leave, Muneco jumped and placed his paws and face on Helmich’s left arm, and “grabbed her arm,” according to a city of Palm Coast animal bite incident report filled out by a Flagler County Sheriff’s Office deputy.
Helmich was severely injured: She’d require 44 stitches.
A series of Sheriff’s Office photos of Helmich’s arm before and after the sutures shows a blood-encrusted, U-shaped wound, with the skin cut clean through.
“Do not know why this dog bit me, for he was friendly in the beginning and came up to me,” she wrote in an incident statement. “I am an animal lover and dogs and cats sense that. He could have been mad I was leaving so he tried to grab on to me. If he does not display aggression in quarantine I don’t think he should be put down. I think a freak accident.”
Even after going to the hospital, Helmich didn’t call the Sheriff’s Office to report the bite. Her sister-in-law did so without her knowledge.
According to Animal Control Officer William Doonan, who testified at the Feb. 2 hearing, Helmich had said she “didn’t realize she was injured until she was home. She stated she had a long sleeve shirt on, and didn’t realize she was injured. She stated it happened at 10 in the morning. The call didn’t come in until later that day. She didn’t want to call. A family member called, and she was upset with that person.”
"The little one told me, 'No Mama, do not put him to sleep. You’re going to see; we’re going have him back and we’re going to give him so much love, and it’s going to be worth it.'"
— Elen Puerta
Puerta’s attorney, Joe DeMartin, noted during the Feb. 2 hearing that Doonan’s testimony seemed to conflict with a written statement by Helmich saying she felt the pain when she was bitten. The victim did not attend the hearing to testify, for medical reasons, and DeMartin asked the hearing officer to delay her ruling until Helmich could clear up the apparent inconsistency. That didn’t happen.
After the bite, animal control officers came to Carvalho’s house on Bolling Lane and took Muneco to the Flagler Humane Society to be held while the city determined whether to order that the dog be declared dangerous.
Carvalho told animal control that Muneco did not “bite her (Ms. Helmich) in the sense that he wouldn’t let go. It was more of a drag on her arm, where he himself hopped off of her immediately,” according to city documents.
Puerta and her family were out of the country when the bite happened, and when Puerta first heard about the victim’s injuries, her initial reaction was to have Muneco put down. After all, she said, she didn’t want her sons to be in danger. And she’d already saved Muneco once: The family got him several years ago after a previous owner took him to a shelter because that owner couldn’t take him along on a move.
But when Puerta learned more about the bite — and the fact that the victim and Carvalho hadn’t believed it to be an aggressive attack — she changed her mind.
“If I knew it was an attack, I’d put him to sleep, because I have two kids,” she said. “But it’s not an attack.”
Plus, when she’d told Jayden and Justin that Muneco would have to be put down, she said, they were crushed.
“The little one told me, ‘No Mama, do not put him to sleep. You’re going to see; we’re going have him back and we’re going to give him so much love, and it’s going to be worth it.’”
During the Feb. 2 hearing, DeMartin brought dog park visitors to the stand to testify about the Muneco’s behavior. They described the dog as “friendly,” “puppyish,” “goofy” and “playful.”
When dogs are taken to an animal shelter, handlers put them through a series of tests to determine temperament.
The Flagler Humane Society used pinch tests and startle tests with Muneco, getting “never so much as a growl,” according to shelter director Amy Carotenuto.
But there was one incident at the Humane Society: One day when Muneco was in quarantine, Katie Share, a supervisor at the shelter, checked on Muneco, and the dog “grabbed” her arm as she turned to walk away — an incident cited by the city in case documents. Share said later that the dog put “no tooth pressure” on her.
Carotenuto, explaining that incident, said dogs are used to moving things around with their teeth. “It’s not by any means a bite or a nip or anything like that; it’s because they don’t have hands,” she said.
That’s a common behavior that dog trainers sometimes refer to as “mouthing,” and, unlike a bite, mouthing isn’t intended to harm.
"When you play with your dog, let him mouth on your hands," the ASPCA recommends. "Continue play until he bites especially hard. When he does, immediately give a high-pitched yelp, as if you’re hurt, and let your hand go limp. This should startle your dog and cause him to stop mouthing you, at least momentarily. ... Praise your dog for stopping or for licking you."
On Feb. 14, canine aggression expert James Crosby, a Certified Behavior Consultant who has investigated multiple fatal dog attacks and served as an animal control hearing officer in Jacksonville, visited the shelter to perform a free evaluation of Muneco.
He’d learned of the case from Carotenuto at an industry conference the previous weekend.
Crosby performed a series of tests on Muneco, shaking the dog, grabbing its skin, placing food in front of it and taking it away, and even placing his hand in the dog’s bowl as it ate. (See video of Muneco’s evaluation at bit.ly/2kqCOOw.)
“I’m getting no aggressive response at all,” he said right after holding the dog’s head and staring it in the eye.
Crosby said he did not see Muneco as a danger to the public. A dog’s tooth catching the skin by accident can cause the kind of damage seen in this case, he said, especially if the victim pulls their arm away; the extent of the damage doesn’t necessarily indicate aggressive intent. He compared it to placing your hand in a kitchen drawer and getting sliced after bumping against a knife blade.
“This seems to be a very healthy, very behaviorally well-tempered, very stable, friendly dog,” he said.
It did seem that Muneco had unintentionally hurt someone once before. In October 2016, the city was called about a bite case at the family’s home.
“One child had been sitting on Muneco, and another started grabbing Muneco’s collar and pulling Muneco, choking the dog,” according to a statement submitted by the city at the Feb. 2 animal control hearing. “When Muneco twisted his head to the right with his mouth open, Muneco’s tooth caught one of the children in the corner of the eye and forehead.” There was no severe injury, and the city did not seek a “dangerous dog” designation.
When the family returned from their trip abroad, they began visiting Muneco in his pen at the Humane Society daily — sometimes twice daily — and bringing him food, since he wasn't eating much when they weren't there.
"It's been so hard for everybody, and what's killing me is seeing Muneco like that," Puerta said.
"I'm not a smoker, and I've been smoking since that happened," said her husband, Jimmy Quintero. "I saw him two days ago, and it made me cry."
Justin said it was tough for him and Jayden to see their dog penned up away from home, and that he could see how being away from the family in such an unfamiliar environment was affecting his dog.
"You pet him, and a bunch of his hair comes out, because of the stress," he said.
The family hopes they'll have success appealing the case to circuit court. But Puerta and Quintero are wary of keeping Muneco in Palm Coast even if they win the appeal.
They might bring him to family in Colombia, Quintiero said, saying he felt the city seemed "anti-dog."
"What happened with Muneco is unfair," he said. "I want to fight for him."