Dog bite has political fur flying

A dog bite has thrown a shelter dog's future into doubt while also sending the town's political fur flying.

According to a police report, Ruby, a 3-year-old female pit bull mix that has been in the Trumbull Animal Shelter for about three months, bit a 79-year-old man on the leg while a volunteer was walking her Saturday. The handler was Martha Jankovic-Mark, the Town Council's Democratic leader.

The man told police he was walking on Church Hill Road and saw Mark approaching with the dog. He "gave a wide berth as he passed" wrote Animal Control Officer Lynn Dellabianca. But after passing, the dog doubled back and bit the man on the left calf, breaking the skin in several places. The man was able to walk away from the incident and later drove himself to a local walk-in clinic.

"I spoke to Jankovic, who reiterated the same circumstances of the incident," Dellabianca wrote. "After [the victim] passed them she let up on the leash and Ruby had enough length to reach [the victim].

Dellabianca also reported that Ruby's rabies vaccination had expired in May and that the dog would be quarantined for 14 days.

Ruby's fate after quarantine is unclear. Dellabianca said a woman had been in the process of adopting her, but the incident has placed her adoption in doubt.

The dog bite hit the political forum Monday when First Selectman Timothy Herbst learned of the incident, and spoke to the victim and Dellabianca. On Tuesday he sent Mark a memo criticizing her for failing to follow the Trumbull Animal Group's written policy on dog-walking and possibly exposing the town to liability for the man's injury. (Full text of Herbst letter to Mark here)

"The rules require volunteers walking shelter dogs to apply an abundance of caution in protecting the general public," Herbst wrote. From the reports of the incident, Herbst said, "it is clear you did not adhere to the guidelines."

The guidelines reference the animal group's insurance and state that any biting incident could cause the group's insurance company to drop it and that a biting or lunging incident involving the public could cost the dog its life.

The three rules are to keep the dog close, stay between the dog and members of the public and watch the dog's body language at all times to ensure it doesn't spook and lunge. The memo concludes that a dog incident is "the biggest threat to our organization."

Herbst went on to question Mark's reaction after the bite. The victim said she had apologized but did not ask if he needed medical assistance and did not offer help after he showed her his leg.

"As an attorney I know you are fully cognizant of the issues of liability," he wrote. He also pointed out the victim lives in the district Mark represents on the council. "I would hope every elected official in Trumbull would offer to provide or seek medical assistance for a constituent that was clearly in need, especially when you were in part responsible for the injury."

Mark response

Mark responded early Wednesday, calling Herbst's memo "abhorrent" and criticizing what she called an attempt to "politicize this horrible, unfortunate incident." (Full text of Mark response here)

Mark, who has volunteered hundreds of hours at the Trumbull Animal Group, said she had followed all of TAG's procedures. She also took issue with some of the descriptions in the police report, specifically that she had "let up on the leash" before the bite. Rather, she said, she had shortened the leash and held the dog with both hands as she passed the victim, "but the dog lunged strongly, unexpectedly, and unexplainably ... jerking the leash out of one of my hands but not the other, thereby there was a forced 'let up' of the leash."

Following the bite, Mark said, she apologized and explained that Ruby is a shelter dog. The man said he would go to his daughter's house and seek medical treatment. Mark told him she would immediately take the dog back to the shelter and report the incident. By the time she arrived at the shelter, the man's daughter was on the phone with a shelter employee. Therefore, she said, she knew the man was safe.

"Herbst's horror that I did not offer to obtain medical care immediately is unwarranted since he stated that he was going to obtain it himself and walked home, and I did not want to take any chance of there being further contact," she said.

Mark described TAG as a "wonderful organization with dedicated volunteers who do good work," but even when all the rules are followed, incidents can happen.

"It saddens me that Herbst is taking such an unfortunate accident and attempting to use our pain to his advantage politically."

Safety measures

Animal Group President Gail Marshall said she had spoken with Dellabianca about additional measures to take to ensure public safety and said future walkers would be required to read and sign forms stating they would abide by TAG rules. Also, new walkers will undergo orientation with experienced walkers and be accompanied the first three times they walk a shelter dog.

She stressed the importance of walking shelter dogs regularly as a way for them to get their exercise and because dogs trained to walk on a leash are more "adoptable" to perspective families.