Court to hear canine dispute

N. Laurel neighbors call 4 dogs a danger to local children

April 16, 1999|By Jamal E. Watson | Jamal E. Watson,SUN STAFF

For more than a year, residents say, a group of dogs has been terrorizing a North Laurel neighborhood.

Many who live on or near Washington Avenue have complained to Howard County officials the situation has gotten so bad in recent months that they are afraid to venture outdoors because they might be attacked.

Authorities are investigating the complaints and have included one of their own, an attack on a county animal control officer.

"It's really gotten out of hand," said Charles Alongi, 87, who said his poodle was attacked and killed by a pit bull in January after the pit bull escaped from its owners' property. "These dogs are dangerous. They should not be running around loose. Something needs to be done before a child is killed."

The owners of the dogs, Vincent and Teresa Gibson of the 9500 block of Washington Ave., denied the charge that one of their pit bulls attacked Alongi's poodle. The alleged attack is registered as one of 13 complaints that the Howard County Animal Matters Hearing Board is investigating.

"These are just accusations, and they're not true at all," said Vincent Gibson, whose family owns two pit bulls, a German shepherd and one schipperke.

Afraid that pupils walking to and from Laurel Woods Elementary School might be attacked, neighbors say, they have tried unsuccessfully to reason with the dogs' owners.

"It does no good to try to talk to them," said Tina McKibben. "They've decided that they won't take control over their dogs. It's really a shame because it's not the dogs that's really the problem. It's the way they've been trained."

After months of feuding, the neighbors and the Gibsons soon will have a chance to make their case in animal court. McKibben plans to testify before the Animal Matters Hearing Board next week. The panel has scheduled the hearing to determine whether the dogs should be declared a threat to public safety and to seek remedies.

McKibben said the once peaceful neighborhood turned into a danger zone after the Gibsons moved to the area a little more than a year ago with their four dogs.

Vincent Gibson said his dogs are not violent and that he and his family are being targeted because they are black.

"These complaints have to do more with the color structure of this neighborhood. These people don't want to deal with a black family living in this neighborhood. That's the real issue," he said.

Alongi and others counter that the Gibsons are using race to divert attention from the real issue, their uncontrolled dogs.

Neighbors say they have seen the Gibsons' children abusing the dogs, and David H. Monk, a resident of the area, said the youths once threatened to encourage the dogs to attack him. Vincent Gibson denied Monk's charges.

Monk appeared at a recent meeting of the North Laurel Civic Association to discuss the problem and to gain support from the association. "This situation has definitely brought the community closer together," he said. "But there's still a problem."

Brenda Purvis, animal control administrator with Howard County's Department of Police Animal Control Division, said the Gibsons have been cited five times for violations involving their dogs. They have appealed all of the citations, which carry more than $700 in fines.

The accusations against the Gibsons include failure to maintain rabies shots, failure to have a license, interfering with the freedom of movement and physically endangering others.

"We don't believe that we should pay anything," Vincent Gibson said. "They're fining us because of what the neighbors have said. That's not fair at all."

Sgt. Morris Carroll, a spokesman for the Howard County Police Department, said one of the Gibsons' pit bulls, Diamond, was deemed "potentially dangerous" after it attacked an animal control officer Feb. 2. The officer was responding to a complaint that a dog was running free and chasing people.

Diamond bit the officer's legs and arms, one bite breaking the skin of her wrist, according to an animal control division report. Diamond was temporarily impounded, and the Gibsons were cited.

Animal control recommended that the couple's pit bulls be trained by a professional instructor or an animal consultant skilled in canine aggressive behavior. They also suggested that the dogs not be permitted outdoors except when they are securely leashed, muzzled and under the direct control of an adult who is capable of effectively restraining the animals. The Gibsons were advised to enclose their yard with fences high enough to prevent the dogs from escaping.

Howard County law defines a potentially dangerous animal as one that has "bitten a person, attacked with provocation, or while off its owner's property killed or inflicted severe injury to a domesticated animal."

If any of the Gibsons' dogs are declared dangerous, the owners could be forced to pay the fines, their animals could be confined to strict supervision or the dogs could be put to death.

"I think all of these charges will be ironed out when we go to court," Vincent Gibson said. "These are all false accusations, and the record will be set straight."

Pub Date: 4/16/99

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