In June 4, 2015, when Padi, a 4-year-old Lab mix, bit the ear of a 4-year-old boy in Manatee County, state law mandated that the dog should be confiscated and, after a 10-day period for an appeal, should be “destroyed in an expeditious and humane manner.” The law is clear, automatic and absolute: severe injury to a human (“broken bones, multiple bites or disfiguring lacerations”) means mandatory euthanasia for the dog.
Stories about dog bites usually arouse sympathy for the victim, especially if it’s a child. But in his appeal, Padi’s owner, veterinarian Dr. Paul Gartenberg, argued that the boy had cornered Padi in the vet’s office, where the dog spent most days, and Padi had snapped back in self-defense.
But the law doesn’t provide for nuance, explains Manatee County attorney Robert Eschenfelder. The statute reads that a dog causing severe injury shall be destroyed. And there was no question that Padi had caused the boy’s injuries, which were severe enough to require several surgeries. The story sparked international support for Padi. A “Free Padi” Facebook page garnered upwards of 28,000 followers.
Not every Florida county follows state law. In Sarasota, a county ordinance requires the chief of animal services, currently sheriff’s office Lt. Scott Ortner, to decide the fate of the animal. Ortner reviews every incident. First-time offenders usually receive a warning letter; after the second bite, the dog must be registered as vicious, a step Ortner says occurs only eight to 10 times a year. “I’ve [served] six years as head of animal services,” he says. “I’ve only had one case where the injuries were so severe that I determined we should confiscate the dog. And the owner agreed to it.”
Counties that have not passed similar laws defer to the state law. But in December, Judge Andrew Owens of the 12th Judicial Circuit (Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties) ruled—in a packed courtroom that included more than 100 Padi supporters wearing “Free Padi” shirts—that the Florida law was unconstitutional, saying it didn’t allow an owner to present mitigating circumstances. (That ruling applies only in the 12th Judicial Circuit.)
Padi, who had been living at home “under house arrest,” as his owner has said, appeared unmoved by the legal victory.
But his influence continues. State Rep. Greg Steube (R-Sarasota) has sponsored legislation that would allow a hearing to discuss the circumstances of a dog bite incident. The law would give Florida dog owners the right to defend—and possibly save—their animals. At press time, the bill had passed a House committee and was advancing with unanimous support.