New Jersey dog owners and immigrant baiters breathed a sigh of relief last week as Congo the German shepherd dodged death. Less than 24 hours before his appeal was scheduled to be heard before Superior Court Judge Mitchel Ostrer, the pooch’s lawyer, Robert E. Lytle, cut a deal with prosecutor Doris Galuchie. As it turns out, the deal was quite a good one for Congo’s owners Guy and Elizabeth James–if by good, one means getting to keep with minimal penalties a violent dog one cannot control.
Last June, Congo and four much younger dogs mauled Honduran landscaper Giovanni Rivera, after the latter failed to heed a warning to remain in his vehicle while the dogs were secured. Congo charged Mr. Rivera, who proceeded to seek refugee behind Mrs. James. The dogs seem to have understood Mr. Rivera’s actions towards their mistress as threatening and provocative, because they succeeded in biting and scratching him for three minutes before the Jameses finally regained control of the situation.
From June to November Congo lived in Animal Control quarantine while his family organized the legal battle that was to come. While simultaneously arguing that they were working in the dog’s best interests, the James family complained that Congo’s health deteriorated over the course of his incarceration. In November, the courts labeled Congo “vicious” and his accomplices “potentially dangerous,” as many suspected they would. Under New Jersey’s Vicious and Potentially Dangerous Dog Act, the former designation carries a minimum sentence of destruction and the latter an annual fine of $700 per dog, along with various safety provisions.
The Jameses decided to appeal the ruling, hoping to demonstrate to Superior Court judges that Congo had been reasonably provoked. Hundreds of letters of support on behalf of Congo descended upon Trenton’s judicial chambers and even on the steps of Drumthwacket. Governor Corzine indicated early on that he would not intervene in the case or offer the accused a pardon, but this did not stop the barrage of phone calls complaining of Congo’s unjust treatment under draconian law.
Unfortunately, many in the state have been drawn to this case not out of concern for Congo’s welfare, but out of fear and loathing of his victim. Early coverage of the incident reported that Giovanni Rivera was an illegal immigrant who, following scores of rabies shots, an operation and five days in hospital, received a large settlement from the Jameses’ homeowners insurance company. On the blogs and in the comments sections of the local rags, posters have been virulent in their criticism of Mr. Rivera.
Upon reading of the settlement at the news website NJ.com, a poster identified as TBOWOO9 shared the following with the reading public: “HAHAHAHAAAA THE STINKING ILLEGAL ALIEN was not invited or escorted onto the property by the owners…Deport that scumbag and hail the dog as a hero for recognizing what he actually was. An Invader.”
Concurring with these sentiments, dontazmebro added, “The dog should be required to speak spanish [sic], or at least “el barko.” This is indeed a depressing world if, after living among Spanish-speakers for so many years, the best Mr. Dontazmebro can come up with is “el barko.” The personal vitriol against Mr. Rivera in support of the Jameses boggles the mind, particularly when one considers the kinds of jobs many immigrants are compelled to take in this country and the tendency of America’s business elite to hire them.
The settlement reached late last Thursday dismissed with prejudice both the ruling against Congo and that against the four other dogs involved in the incident. In return, the Jameses pled guilty to Township Ordinance § 6-14, which prohibits dog owners from allowing their pets to bite people. This lesser charge carries a one-time $50 fee per dog, for a grand total of $250. Figure in Mr. Lytle’s fees, and the Jameses will have spent a pretty penny on their pets.
According to the settlement papers, the James family is “in compliance with all aspects of the sentence imposed by the trial court, with the obvious exception of those requirements which have been stayed pending appeal. Essentially, the proposed settlement would maintain this status quo indefinitely.” In short, all five dogs will continue to be muzzled and leashed when outside of their fenced enclosure, the fence will continue to carry ‘beware of dog’ signs, and the state will have to be notified within 24 hours if one of the five dogs should die, be sold, run away or attack again. The only serious difference between this settlement and the one proposed months ago by the state is money. New Jersey had offered to spare Congo’s life on the condition that all five dogs be registered as potentially dangerous. In this settlement, the Jameses will not be required to “pay an annual potentially dangerous dog fee of $700 to the Township relating to Congo,
Lucia, Shadow, Bear or Hunter.”
Basically, the state weanied out. Had they lost, they would not have gotten any money out of this tragedy and would have opened a colossal can of worms vis-a-vis future interpretations of aggressive-canine law. More importantly, the Jameses would have borne no obligation to protect the public from their German shepherds. Following the announcement of the appeal, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office issued the following statement on its website:
“Our goal in this case, as it is in every case, is to do what is in the best interest of justice and community safety. In particular, our objective was to ensure that the community is protected from vicious or potentially dangerous dogs. We believe that the settlement achieves that purpose. In the event that we lost the appeal, the State would have no legal authority to impose any safety restrictions regarding the dogs…”
On an emotional level, it is heart-warming to see Congo return to his family. One would hope, however, that as intelligent people we could see the bigger picture. The love we feel for our pets should extend to a love of one another and to a sense of concern for their safety. The bigotry expressed towards Mr. Rivera has been