Dog and pony show

Two and a half years ago, Sonya Kennedy moved from an apartment in North Dallas to a house with a huge backyard in Ferris, a town 20 miles south of Dallas. She made the move for one reason: to give her two dogs room to romp and roam.

"They were my children," Kennedy says, explaining why she gave them the human names of Ginger, who was part-Australian shepherd, and Patrick, a mixed breed who was part-Labrador retriever.

No matter that it took Kennedy an additional 30 to 40 minutes to drive to her job as a BankOne marketing director at Stemmons and Interstate 35. No matter that life in Ferris (population 2,200) was less than stimulating--especially for a single woman in her early 30s.

If Kennedy's dogs were happy, then she was happy, too. And by most measures, Ginger and Patrick were indeed content, spending their days lounging in the spacious backyard.

At least, until April 19. That was the day when Ferris' untrained, part-time animal control officer gunned down Ginger and Patrick with a .22-caliber rifle. The dogs' crime: bothering a horse owned by the mayor's son.

To add painful insult to deadly injury, the dog catcher lied to Kennedy, telling her he had disposed of her dogs in the city landfill. Instead, she would learn, he had thrown them in a garbage dumpster near a grocery store.

April 19 began as a typical Texas spring day, warm and breezy, pleasant enough for Kennedy to leave her dogs outside when she left for work.

But by the afternoon, the sky had grown ominous, the winds had kicked up, and it began to rain. Several tornadoes would eventually touch down in the area, including one in Ferris.

During the storm, high winds damaged Kennedy's back fence, and Ginger and Patrick escaped through a hole that Kennedy had already plugged earlier in the week with a bag of gravel. The fierce winds ripped the bag apart, giving the dogs room to squeeze through.

Having heard the storm warnings, Kennedy left work early that day to check on her dogs and survey any damage the winds might have caused.

About the same time Kennedy was driving home on Interstate 45, Mabel Birdwell, mother of Ferris mayor Jimmy Birdwell, placed a call to City Hall. She wanted the city dogcatcher, Breezy Hart, dispatched immediately to her home to pick up two dogs that were bothering her grandson's horse--which was corralled in the pasture next to her house, which is also Kennedy's house.

Hart finished up his day job as a meter reader for the water and sewer department and, according to Hart's written account of events, which he provided after Kennedy complained to his supervisor, Ferris police chief Jeff Cottongame, Hart arrived at Mrs. Birdwell's house. He spotted the dogs in the pasture and tried whistling to draw them toward him.

"They looked up and continued prowling," Hart wrote in the report. He added that he got a bag of scrap food from his truck, but before he could get a chance to lure the dogs with food, they began chasing a white horse with tan spots.

"I whistled and hollered to no avail," he wrote. "They continued the chase. The horse was barely staying ahead of the dogs and was slipping and sliding in the mud, continually banging into the barb wire fencing. It seemed from my vantage point...Their mannerisms were like wild strays, hungry and going after a meal..."

Hart returned to his truck and got his rifle. He says he shot two rounds into the ground to startle the dogs, but its only effect was to make the horse run harder. Then he fired one round into Ginger and two into Patrick, both of whom were killed instantly, he wrote.

Kennedy arrived home to find her dogs missing. She was worried because the dogs did not have tags, which she had taken off because they made noise on her hardwood floors. Several neighbors told her they'd seen the dogs--all wet and muddy--running in a pasture across from her house. They suggested she see animal control officer Hart, who also runs the city pound.

Kennedy caught up with Hart at the police station. Hart told Kennedy he had shot and killed her dogs. "They were bothering the mayor's horses--I had no choice," Kennedy recalls Hart telling her.

A stunned, tearful Sonya Kennedy asked Hart to return her dogs' bodies. He told her he had put them in the Ferris landfill, and they'd already been covered up.

Over the past six weeks, Sonya Kennedy has been on a mission to avenge what she sees as the needless deaths of her dogs because of the city's negligence.

First she set out to give her dogs a proper burial. But when she arrived at the landfill to retrieve their bodies, she discovered it closes every day at 5 p.m.--before Breezy Hart gets off his day job, making it impossible for him to have disposed of the dogs there. Also, landfill users must log in, and Kennedy could find no record of Hart having been there at all that day.

Kennedy confronted Ferris police chief Cottongame with what she learned from the landfill. After some checking, Cottongame told Kennedy the dogs had been thrown in a dumpster. Cottongame then fired Hart--not for shooting the dogs, but for lying to Kennedy.

But Mayor Birdwell, a rural mail carrier by profession, reinstated him hours later so the town would have someone to feed dogs at the pound.

Kennedy learned that as an animal control officer, Hart had other options besides killing her dogs. According to a Ferris city ordinance, any dog found running at large within the city is to be captured and impounded by the chief of police or his authorized agent. The penalty for a dog owner whose dog is impounded is a fee of up to $25.

In accounting for his actions that day, Hart wrote a list of procedures he's supposed to follow while apprehending stray animals. According to his own list, if the food lure doesn't work, he could have requested permission to set a live trap, which he did not do. Cottongame, Hart, and Birdwell did not return calls from the Observer.

According to Mary Stewart, director of operations at the Dallas SPCA, plenty of alternatives are available to animal control officers other than shooting strays.

"There are nets, live traps, using more than one person," Stewart says. "There are lots of things to try. But you have to have that equipment." Stewart says many animal control officers also use tranquilizer guns, but they are dangerous and should also be considered a last resort, used only by specially trained officers.

Hart told Kennedy the city would not allow him to have a tranquilizer gun.
Unlike Ferris, most cities send their animal control officer through certification classes given by the Texas Department of Health, Stewart says. The Dallas SPCA encourages cities who don't want to commit the money or manpower to do the job right by themselves to contract with the SPCA for animal-control services.

Dogs can be a danger to horses, Stewart says, spooking them so badly they've been known to run into barbed wire, ripping their legs and hides.

Kennedy says she understands that--but points to pictures she took of the horse the day after her dogs' deaths, which show the horse had no injuries.

Kennedy has appeared at two Ferris City Council meetings after filing a grievance against Hart with the city. The city has allowed Hart to keep his job, and has formed a committee to review its policies and procedures governing animal control.

Kennedy also has discovered that the city pound, which houses an average of 18 dogs in a few dirty, crowded, feces-covered cement cages, violates state codes. Ferris has made arrangements for the animals to be transferred to the Dallas SPCA.

"We're making some progress," Kennedy says. "But it's too little, too late. They [city officials] don't want this to ever happen to anyone else again. But what I want is for them to admit they were wrong, and they're no way close to that.

"If [Hart] had been trained, if the city had provided him the tools he needed, he would have dealt with this differently. They treated me like a person without intelligence--a person who doesn't know right from wrong. What they did was wrong."

Kennedy misses her dogs terribly, she says, trying to fight back tears. She still hasn't put away their food or water bowls. She misses scratching Patrick's back--and the way he sidled up to her wherever she was. She misses hearing them stretch and yawn first thing in the morning, and sleeping with them at night.

"They were my first dogs, my children," she says, wiping her eyes. "I bought a house for them.

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Ann Zimmerman