Minneapolis will euthanize 'dangerous' dog, despite offer from animal sanctuary

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"At this point, I just want to save his life," says Harley's owner Justin Scharr.

One day in 2009, Justin Scharr perused the concrete hallways inside the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley.

The Minneapolis man had already rescued one dog, a young goofy Golden retriever mix named "Boomer" about a year earlier. 

On this day, with so many dogs and so much sadness, the scene nearly paralyzed Scharr's decision-making. He was about to leave the shelter without bringing a new pet home.

Then "Harley," a one-year-old lab/Rottweiler mix, intervened. 

"He was one of the last dogs I saw," Scharr says. "I had petted him and said hello, and when I was getting ready to leave, he just went crazy. He started howling, jumping up and down, and barking. He wouldn't let me leave."

Scharr knew little about his newest family member, save for what the shelter staffer said: Harley had been the victim of abuse. Much love and patience would be required to re-establish the bonds between pooch and human.  

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That I promise you, Scharr told Harley.

For eight years at Scharr's home in south Minneapolis, Harley's dog's life meant multiple walks daily. According to Scharr, he always walked both canines on leash and muzzled, a preventative measure considering both had been abused as youngsters. In between baths of big pink-tongued kisses and mandatory morning, afternoon, and early evening naps, Scharr watched his dogs become increasingly attached.

"They depend on one another," says Scharr. "A lot."

It's not to say life was without hiccups.

According to city documents obtained by City Pages, on August 25, 2010 -- a little over a year after Harley's adoption -- the two dogs "jumped out of a pickup truck and ran up to a man on public property. Harley bit the victim on the hand and refused to let go.… The man stabbed at Harley with a screwdriver until Harley released.… The man then ran and was able to jump a fence to escape further attack."

Another incident happened in April 2011. Harley was inside his fenced front yard while Scharr chilled on the porch. Somebody ran by and Harley jumped on the fence. The gate was closed, but not latched. Harley ran out into the street. A man was walking by with his daughter. The 65-pound Harley nipped at the man's leg, and quickly let go, then scurried back to the house, scared. On the dog bite scale of one to six, six being the worst, the man suffered a Level 3 bite, a puncture wound that would incur bruising.

"He didn't shake [the victim] or clamp down on his leg," says Scharr. "It was one bite, and it was over."

The city would ultimately declare both Boomer and Harley "dangerous." However, documents show Daniel Niziolek, manager of Animal Care and Control, rescinded the declarations in August 2012, "citing a passed behavioral exam performed at the Animal Humane Society and no further incidents since the last bite plan."

Further incidents did occur, though, starting about a year after that positive evaluation.

In July 2013 "Harley and another canine escaped through an open gate and aggressively approached a victim and her daughter, biting a female victim on the hip," it states.

The following January, it further reads: "Harley and Boomer aggressively, while running at large off the property of their owner, chased a victim, requiring him to take evasive action to avoid being bitten. A witness to the incident… called 911. Once the first victim was safely in his home, both dogs then turned and began to aggressively charge after the witness, now the second victim. The second victim ran and jumped a fence to avoid being bitten."

As a result, Niziolek, the city animal control manager, would reinstate the previous "dangerous dog" label for Harley, while giving Boomer a declaration as a "potentially dangerous dog."

Three years passed without incident, until one day last month, when Boomer and Harley were out with Justin Forrest, whose dog-walking services Scharr had retained more than a year earlier. According to a statement Forrest would later give an animal control officer, "We were walking back from a long walk [on April 21]. It was pretty hot. The dogs were having some troubles breathing because they were pretty tired."

Near Portland Avenue and 32nd Street, Forrest undid the dogs' muzzles to get them a little more air, figuring the walk was "pretty much done."

In front of Scharr's house, the trio encountered a postal carrier exiting the home's front yard. She was new to the route, but her training told her to "scan dogs for signs of aggression."

She would later say she "didn't believe" this was the case with either Boomer or Harley, so she passed Forrest and the two dogs on the sidewalk. Harley bit the mailwoman.

"I never told Justin about this," Forrest told animal control. "I didn't think it was a big deal."

It was. Scharr was "completely blind-sided" when animal control contacted him the next day.  

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Officer Anthony Schendel advised Scharr that Harley, already deemed "dangerous," would have to be quarantined. In a letter written by Minneapolis Animal Care & Control Deputy Director Caroline Hairfield, dated April 28, the city informed Scharr that Harley would be "destroyed to prevent further endangerment of the community," citing his two previous documented bites. 

Last week, Harley had his day in court. The 36-year-old Scharr hired a lawyer. Although hearing officer Michael Sindt agreed there was evidence enough to justify the order, he left the door open, agreeing to stay the euthanization for five days to see if alternative arrangements could be made for Harley.

They could. Scharr found a sanctuary where Harley could live out the remainder of his days: Home for Life, located in Star Prairie, Wis., just across the St Croix River, northeast of Stillwater. The facility is currently home to dozens of dogs and cats on 40 acres along the Apple River.

"We believe that as an older dog, and as a secure facility with an experienced staff, we can offer Harley a safe and happy retirement home," wrote Lisa LaVerdiere, executive director of the nonprofit sanctuary, "while being responsive to the concerns of your department to keep the citizens of Minneapolis safe."

According to LaVerdiere, the sanctuary carries "over $1 million in liability insurance" and would agree to "sign any waivers needed to protect the City of Minneapolis from liability."

Thanks, but no can do, Hairfield would say. Sanctuaries aren't "humane," she stated during the hearing.  

"It's the most ridiculous excuse I've ever heard," Scharr says. 

Hairfield didn't respond to repeated messages seeking comment.

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City spokesperson Rose Lindsay says, "Over the past seven years, Harley has bitten four victims and shown aggressive behavior additional times. Mr. Scharr has been warned and has had ample time to address this situation including providing behavioral training, ensuring Harley remained secure, and even sending Harley to sanctuary himself.

"If Harley were to be released to Mr. Scharr’s residence or a sanctuary and in the future injure another person, the City of Minneapolis would be liable. It is the responsibility of the City to ensure public safety."

Scharr disputes the 2010 incident. Moreover, he thinks it unfair for the city to consider the aggregate history. Instead, Scharr argues it should consider the track record from 2014 forward.

Sindt's stay of execution expires Friday, May 19. Meanwhile, Harley remains at the city's facility on 17th Aveue North.

Scharr understands the city's position. The law states if a dog bites a person on two or more occasions, it can choose to put the animal down. But it can also choose to remedy the situation by picking an alternative to euthanasia. He's asking Minneapolis to change its mind, and rule magnanimously. 

"It's not like [Harley] is this vicious, terrible, dangerous dog.… He doesn't have to die," says Scharr.

His voice trails off. Scharr apologizes for getting choked up.

"At this point, I just want to save his life," he says. "These were human mistakes. It was my mistake [in 2011]. It was the dog walker's mistake [in April 2017]. I just don't want him to suffer for human mistakes when he can be saved."


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