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Lab's attack on guide dog angers owner

(ran PW, PS editions of Pasco Times)

On a recent Friday, the combination of torrential rainfall and the early hour had kept many from the corner of Main and Jefferson streets in downtown Brooksville. But David Bearden wasn't going to be deterred.

Armed with a placard and an umbrella, the 46-year-old legally blind Hill n' Dale resident stood patiently outside the Hernando County courthouse with his three supporters _ and Isaac, his German shepherd guide dog. To Bearden the dog is an extension of himself.

For all the sign-waving and gesturing to motorists behind closed car windows, Bearden couldn't help but feel isolated in his protest, his quest to right a perceived wrong.

"It was a lonely feeling, but I can't let this die," said Bearden, a lounge singer. "And, yes, I have been singing the blues."

In May, Bearden and Isaac were attacked by another dog in their Hill n' Dale community. That last assault, coming after several previous attacks, left Isaac scared and confused, Bearden said, so the dog might not be used for guiding much longer.

Bearden is equally confused and upset that the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, county Animal Services and the State Attorney's Office, as he put it, are ignorant of the law and refuse to treat the attack seriously.

"This is pure discrimination," he said. "I am furious."

Bearden said since he was attacked, the owner of the dog should be prosecuted for violating the Scanner Law, which protects guide dogs and their users. Officials acknowledge the attack but say it wasn't criminal, just an unfortunate situation. Case closed.

Although it was more than a month ago since the attack, Bearden remembers the details all too clearly. Bearden had waited until late evening to walk Isaac so the asphalt wouldn't scorch his paws. It was the only time Bearden had the opportunity; his three daughters are disabled; one of them is ill and needs constant attention.

Around 10 p.m., the pair started off on the same path Isaac had been trained on. Isaac recognized it as safe. But that soon changed. They were walking on Frampton Street, about a half-mile from Bearden's home, when Bearden heard a dog barking.

"No big deal. I heard a dog bark before," Bearden recalled. "You could identify sounds after 14 years (of being blind). You know what's happening."

In a flash, he heard the rustle as the dog hit the cattle gate. Then, he heard a grating noise _ the dog's paws scratching the ground outside the fence.

"The next thing I know is that he had a hold of Isaac," Bearden recalled.

Isaac had positioned himself between Bearden and the attacking dog, a Labrador mix twice his size.

Soon, both were wailing. The noise caught the attention of motorist David Smith, who flashed his headlights and yelled to scare the dog away. Smith then summoned the authorities.

"Isaac was just lying there," Bearden said.

As a result of the attack, Isaac was bleeding from his stomach, his hind quarters and elbows _ 20 puncture wounds in all. The unvaccinated dog bit Bearden on his ankle and right ear. The dog's saliva entered his ear, nose and eyes, a sworn statement said. Thankfully, no rabies shots were needed, he said.

Moments later, the owner, who was later identified in the county's dangerous dog complaint as Lucille Christman, perhaps hearing Bearden's cries for help, opened her door and called for her dog. When the dog didn't response, she came outside, retrieved the Labrador mix and slammed the door behind her, a report said.

Nearly 45 minutes later, a sheriff's deputy responded. An animal control officer was also called to the scene.

"This is not an animal control issue. This is a crime. I want this woman arrested," Bearden recalled saying.

Under state law, anyone who injures or kills, or permits a dog they own to injure or kill a guide dog or service animal is guilty of a misdemeanor and must pay restitution.

On June 23, the State Attorney's Office closed the case after determining that the incident did not meet that criteria: Christman did not intentionally endanger Bearden and Isaac. She had provided adequate fencing for her dog and was not negligent. The State Attorney's Office did not return calls to the Times seeking comment.

Days earlier, in front of a civilian review panel, it had been determined that the dog was not dangerous, Supervisor of Animal Services James Varn said.

Asked whether he was aware of the law covering guide dogs, Varn replied: "If there's a law, we need to know about it. We cannot enforce something if we don't know it's there. We are trying to do anything we can to accommodate this man. I don't feel that we discriminated against him, period, because service dogs are very valuable things for people with disabilities."

Varn's response illustrates the problem, said Marion Gwizdala, president of the Florida Association of Guide Dog Users.

"In my opinion, there is a law," he said."We want to see it enforced. The law exists because this has happened before.

"The recourse we have is continuing to push law enforcement to enforce the law and the State Attorney's Office to prosecute," Gwizdala said.

Either way, Bearden's story has attracted support from Republican Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite's congressional office and the governor's Americans with Disabilities working group. Another protest was held on July 1 and there's talk of a National Federation of the Blind rally.

Bearden hopes the protest will educate the public and public officials.

"What people don't understand is these dogs are not our pets," Bearden said. "We love our dogs in that capacity, but we have an underlying fear that if something should happen, our quality of life is diminished. We will be imprisoned in our homes again."

Meanwhile, Isaac's skill as a guide dog has been diminished, Bearden said. He might have to be retired soon. After the incident, he was spooked by another dog, which caused him to run away. A branch became wedged in his paw.

If Isaac is retired, Bearden won't get another guide dog. Nonprofit organizations said they aren't sure another dog would be safe here, Bearden said.

So Bearden has no choice but to stand his ground and fight.

"The only way they are going to get me to shut up is to shoot me," he said half-jokingly. "If I stand and be the squeakiest little wheel, I will. I will stand outside the courthouse every day until I get justice."

_ Duane Bourne can be reached at 754-6114. Send e-mail to dbournesptimes.com.

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