RICHMOND — For Thomas Gardner and his wife, their pack of 19 guard dogs is crucial to protect flocks of sheep and chickens, and also keep intruders off their State Road farm, surrounded by a substantial wooden picket fence about five-and-a-half feet high.
But two recent incidents involving attacks on people by the dogs have sparked an outcry from a group of nearby residents, who have filed complaints with the town. A formal public hearing is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday in Town Hall.
Gardner pointed out that his dogs are trained to guard his farm animals and property, and there have been only two incidents in 25 years.
The most recent incident came March 16, when resident Verne Tower was bitten after trying to corral some of the dogs that had gotten loose and were disrupting traffic on State Road (Route 41) at the Lenox Road intersection.
"I tried to get them back inside the gate, which had blown open by strong winds," Tower told The Eagle. But, he said, five or six of the dogs "viciously attacked me and bit me on both legs and my left arm. They went after me like I was raw hamburger."
Resident Jeff Grant, who was passing by, witnessed the incident.
"They were out of control," he told the Eagle. "[Tower] was able to get into his car, but not before he was bitten. The dogs had turned on him and attacked him, and he was fending them off."
Grant said he was about to try to break up the attack when Gardner "came out of his house, regained control of the dogs and put them back into their enclosure."
Tower was treated for puncture wounds from Berkshire Medical Center and released.
"This is a dangerous dog situation," said Select Board Chairman Alan Hanson. "It seems to me it's a powder keg waiting to blow up. Some of the neighbors have young children. It worries me a lot that something could easily happen to a child. Someone stopping on the road for an emergency could be chewed up in the middle of the night."
Animal Control Officer John Springstube, who also covers six other towns, quarantined the dogs to Gardner's property for 10 days following the attack on Tower. He said he could not comment on the incident in order to maintain neutrality in advance of the public hearing.
Another incident was reported Aug. 2 when a solicitor was attacked during a visit to Gardner's property.
Cody Edgerly, 22, of Amherst, was soliciting for the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group when he was bitten near Gardner's front door.
After he was bitten by some of the dogs, he stopped at Selectman Neal Pilson's house.
"He was bleeding extensively from his legs," Pilson said. "I was horrified and urged him to seek medical attention."
Edgerly also was treated at BMC for his injuries. A copy of his medical records is in the hands of the Select Board, as well as a state police report.
Gardner lamented that it has come to a formal Town Hall proceeding.
"I'm very unhappy about this; it could have been dealt with quietly and privately," said Gardner, who has retained an attorney. "I was certainly willing to do that. I've never had a problem with neighbors before; the only complaints have been about the dogs barking at night. That's why the dogs are here, to guard the poultry flock and the sheep."
On the incident involving Tower, Gardner said "it was a really windy day, and the gate blew open because it wasn't latched properly. The dogs wandered into the road, Verne tried to get them back in, but the dogs thought he was trying to break into the property, so a couple of them bit him. Tower has been going around, trying to whip people up against me. The incident could have been dealt with in a much more easygoing, personal way."
Regarding the August attack, Gardner stated: "A kid came in the gate during a huge rainstorm. He was coming into the house and the dogs attacked him."
Ahead of Wednesday's hearing, Richmond Town Administrator Mark Pruhenski, appointed by the Select Board to investigate the dog attacks, provided a report by the state police about last August's incident and a report from Stringstube, the animal control officer.
Pruhenski also contacted Tower and Grant, the sole witness to the attack, as well as Edgerly, and received statements from the victims.
He also obtained copies of the dog licenses issued to Gardner from the Town Clerk's office, listing five "Shepherds," 12 "Maremma Sheepdogs," two "rat terriers" and two "Australian Shepherds." Maremmas are a breed of white livestock guardian dogs that originated in central Italy.
Written statements also were received from six neighbors, Pruhenski's report stated.
Notices about the hearing were mailed to Gardner, including the notice of complaint, and to 13 abutters living within 300 feet of Gardner's property at 2171 State Road.
State law defines "dangerous dog" as one that "either without justification, attacks a person or domestic animal causing physical injury or death, or, behaves in a manner that a reasonable person would believe poses an unjustified, imminent threat of physical injury or death to a person or to a domestic or owned animal."
The state law adds that "no dog shall be deemed dangerous, solely based upon growling or barking (or both),or based on the breed of the dog or if the dog was reacting to another animal or to a person and was not grossly disproportionate to any of the following circumstances:
- "The dog was protecting or defending itself, its offspring or another domestic animal or person from attack or assault;"
- "The person who was attacked or threatened by the dog was committing a crime upon the person or property of the owner or keeper of the dog;"
- "The person attacked or threatened by the dog was engaged in teasing, tormenting, battering, assaulting, injuring or otherwise provoking the dog."
The law also specifies that a dog is not considered dangerous if it attacked a person or animal that had breached its enclosure or structure if the person was not authorized by the owner to be within the enclosure "including but not limited to a gated, fenced-in area if the gate was closed, whether locked or unlocked."
Clarence Fanto can be reached at email@example.com or 413-637-2551.