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Owners crying foul over death sentence for dog

A knock on a stranger's door in a South Tampa neighborhood landed the father of a Hillsborough County commissioner in the hospital with multiple dog bites.

Now the owners say their dog, Buck, is getting a raw deal because he bit someone important: Ken Hagan Sr., the father of Ken Hagan, one of seven commissioners who ultimately oversee animal control.

Hillsborough County Animal Services has deemed Buck, which it describes as part pit bullterrier, a threat and ordered him put to death.

Animal Services supervisors say that every aspect of the case has been handled "by the book" and that the death sentence for Buck has nothing to do with who the dog bit.

Both department director Bill Armstrong and the supervisor of the department's field workers say they haven't heard from Hagan, the commissioner, about the incident.

"If my dad got chewed up like that . . . I can assure you I would have been calling everybody," said Dennis McCullough, interim field manager for Animal Services.

The dog's owners are appealing the order but fear Buck will not be able to get a fair shake because the hearing officer who will consider the matter is appointed by Hillsborough commissioners. A date for the appeal has not been set.

"I can't prove it," said Mary Anne Young, Buck's owner. "But to me it's just so obvious that this is a conflict of interest. The paper given to us has the commissioner's name on it."

The attack occurred Feb. 11 on Azeele Street about a block from the former Malio's Steak House. Hagan was in the neighborhood campaigning for his son, according to an initial report by an animal control officer.

It's not clear what Hagan was doing in South Tampa campaigning. His son represents northern Tampa and is not up for election this year. Neither Hagan returned phone calls Monday.

Around 10 a.m., Young, a tax and license supervisor for the Hillsborough County Tax Collector's Office, said she heard a knock on the door. The timing was unfortunate. Young said she was readying Buck for a bath. "Normally he would have his collar on," she said.

Young, 54, said Hagan Sr. stuck out his hand as she opened the door as though to introduce himself. Buck sprang, biting Hagan, as Young recalls, on the wrist and ankle. The wrist was bleeding, but, because Hagan was wearing pants, she said she could not see how bad the bite was.

Young said she apologized and offered to take Hagan to a clinic, but he refused, saying he would be in touch and drove off.

Animal Services reports paint a more fearsome picture. In them, Hagan Sr., 62, and neighbors who heard screaming describe Buck driving him into the front yard and onto the ground, biting him multiple times. It took Young and her boyfriend to pull the dog off.

Photos taken by Hagan family members at University Community Hospital, where he stayed overnight, and later at his home show an open wound on his right ankle, and bite marks on his left hand, left forearm, left calf and chin. He got 15 stitches.

There are so many teeth marks that McCullough said he can't say for certain how many times Hagan was bitten.

"Could you imagine if this were a Girl Scout, and she was offering cookies?" he said.

Young said her concerns about unequal treatment were spawned after an animal control worker and three Tampa police officers showed up three days later, Valentine's Day evening, to confiscate Buck. Neither Young nor her boyfriend was home.

Neighbors said they were surprised by the show of force. They said the animal control worker banged several times on windows with a stick used to control dogs, leaving cracks.

Neighbor Don Hamm asked what was the commotion. "They told us that the dog had bitten a commissioner's father," Hamm said.

The officers hung around for more than two hours for Young to return and took the dog.

McCullough said it's not uncommon for animal control workers to request police officers to join them, particularly when confiscating a dog at night. It's a potentially emotional event.

The animal control worker is out of the office this week, so McCullough said he could not speak about the cracked windows or the reference to Hagan's commission connection.

Buck is now held in a cage at the county's Animal Services Center on Falkenburg Road. Stocky, at nearly 80 pounds, he looks a little like a Labrador and barks repeatedly as two visitors approach.

McCullough extends his hand toward the cage, passively, with the backside toward the snout, the way children are taught. Buck bares his fangs, snarls, then snaps at the hand.

A reporter lowers his face toward the cage. Same result. The entire time, Buck's tale is wagging.

Neighbors reported no prior problems with Buck, who has not bitten anyone before. However, Tampa Electric Co. recently posted a "bad dog" alert on the home, warning meter readers not to enter the yard.

Under Florida law, a dog may be labeled dangerous and ordered euthanized after a vicious attack. That can include attacks that involve multiple bites and lacerations, such as occurred in this case.

Local laws also enable the county to declare a dog dangerous, impose fines on its owners and require them to take a dog-care course, erect fences and take other safety precautions. Young thinks that should happen in this case.

Young adopted Buck three years ago as a stray when he turned up malnourished on property that her family owns in Pasco County. She said the dog is regularly around her 12-year-old granddaughter and 6-year-old grandson, as well as a cat and another dog, and everyone gets along fine.

"He was protecting me," Young said. "It's really my fault for opening the darn door.

"I just hate to see him give up his life for a mistake that I made in judgment."