When a pit bull-boxer mix named Prada was impounded by Metro Animal Services for being a “vicious dog,” the parties involved probably didn’t foresee a year or more of court processes to resolve the matter.
But after navigating the avenues of Davidson County General Sessions Court, the 16-month-old case still isn’t resolved, thanks to what Prada’s attorney called a “hideously vague” Metro ordinance regarding dangerous dogs.
Not only has the case been dragged through the court system, but it’s also garnered national and international attention.
Prada, who is now on “doggie death row” for her alleged offenses, has received support from around the world. Nearly $5,000 has been raised for Prada online, and 11,357 people signed an online petition asking Gov. Bill Haslam to pardon Prada. (Haslam, it should be noted, doesn’t have the authority to do so.)
A trial in the case lasted nearly nine hours on Jan. 27, and Judge Joe P. Binkley Jr. said he took 35 pages of notes while 15 witnesses were questioned, according to a court transcript. But when it came down to possible rulings, the options were limited.
Metro code 8.08.060 affords a judge only three options when it comes to ruling on dogs deemed dangerous:
• The owner can retain custody of the dog, as long as they build “an enclosure to adequately confine said vicious dog.” A Metro Animal Control worker must approve the structure.
• The dog can be microchipped so that it can be traced to its owner.
• The dog can be destroyed in a humane manner by Metro Animal Services.
In Prada’s case, Judge Binkley ruled that evidence proved she was a danger to other dogs, and an “escape artist.” Therefore, the first two options wouldn’t adequately protect the public, he said — and the only option left is death.
“I take no pleasure in this. ... I have three choices. The choices are not the best choices, but they’re all I’ve got,” Binkley said in court. “I’m bound to follow the law. I took an oath to follow the law, and that’s what I’m doing.”
It all began in January 2011, when a friend of owner Nicole Andree accidentally allowed Prada to escape from her Forest Hills home. The pup wandered into several neighbors’ yards and was involved in physical altercations with different neighborhood dogs. During one of the scuffles, a neighbor was bit on her hand by her German shepherd while trying to separate the two dogs.
Animal control officers and Metro police arrived on the scene and impounded Prada. She is still being held at the Metro Animal Services facility pending the outcome of the court proceedings, at a cost of $18 per day. Animal Services said Prada also got loose twice while at their facility. Both times, she allegedly injured adoption-ready dogs that had to be euthanized.
However, Jean Harrison, who represented Andree and Prada, pointed to several flaws in Metro’s ordinance that she said prevents a fair outcome for the dog.
First, the classification of “vicious” under the code is a dog “that attacks and bites a person or animal on any public or private property without provocation.” Provocation is “any act that causes an animal to bite or attack to protect itself, offspring, owner or property.”
According to Harrison, the court can’t prove that Prada was the instigator. Furthermore, combative behavior between dogs is common in public settings, she said.
“There is no question that Prada is perfectly safe with people. ... There is no question in my mind that she is not good with other dogs. That’s not an uncommon problem,” Harrison said.
“Frankly, if they are going to euthanize dogs for biting other dogs and not getting along with them, they need to go to a dog park on Saturday and just watch. Half the population would be euthanized on the spot.”
Metro attorney Alex Dickerson couldn’t comment about specifics of Prada’s case, but he said it follows the same legal course as all other codes violation: a trial in environmental court, followed by an appeal hearing to General Sessions Court, then a non-jury trial in General Sessions.
“For Metro, this may be an unusual case in the sense that there are a lot of passionate people that have contacted us ... but as far as what we normally do, this is a very routine appeal of an ordinance violation,” Dickerson said.
During the course of the case, several sanctuaries for pit bulls stepped forward and offered to take Prada. The Villalobos Rescue Center in New Orleans, which is featured on an Animal Planet reality show called Pit Bulls and Parolees, was one of those facilities, Harrison said.
But the judge said he didn’t have the authority to assign the dog to sanctuary, based on Metro code.
Harrison is now off the case — and a firm from New York City is going to fight Metro in the state Court of Appeals, she said.
“Metro is fixing to have a mess of a public relations disaster, as they already do,” Harrison said. “It’s going to get much worse.”
As of press time, Pit Bulls and Parolees didn’t return comment about their involvement in the case.
Nashville’s vicious dog ordinance is roughly 1,000 words — with significantly less nuance than laws in other Tennessee cities. Memphis’ ordinance is more than 2,500 words, while Knoxville weighs in at a beefy 3,681 words.
Knoxville has a multi-tiered ordinance that classifies “Level 1” and “Level 2” dangerous dogs based on their offenses. Owners are required to abide by eight mandatory restrictions for a Level 1 dog, including taking their dog to obedience class and American Kennel Club canine good citizenship class.
Level 2 has more restrictions, requiring the dog to be muzzled in public and the owner to maintain liability insurance in a minimum amount of $100,000. Both levels of classification allow flexibility for the municipal court to impose other restrictions, unlike Nashville’s rigid guidelines.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals calls for an ordinance similar to Knoxville’s.
The ASPCA recommends a law that ensures the safety of the public by requiring classwork, spaying or neutering, proper confinement, adult supervision and humane muzzling in public. They also recommend microchipping for all dogs deemed dangerous by a certified animal behaviorist or veterinarian.
Metro councilwoman and animal advocate Karen Bennett said she wasn’t familiar with Metro’s dangerous dog ordinance, but said it could be worth revisiting it to include more options for judges.
As for now, Metro’s ordinance remains, even in a judge’s words, “limited.” And it may take nationwide pressure — and a dog’s life — for it to change.