Charge could follow dog bite |

Charge could follow dog bite

Greg Masse
Post Independent Staff

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Authorities here are still deciding whether to cite hybrid-wolf dog owner Jim Wagner with a vicious dog charge.

One of Wagner’s wolf hybrids attacked 7-year-old Gracie McSwain on Monday while Wagner was out of town on business.

The girl was on Wagner’s property with her mom, Chris McSwain, taking pictures of the hybrid dogs for a school project, police reports said. Police Lt. Bill Kimminau said Gracie and her mom had permission to be on the property.

At some point during the photo shoot, one of the dogs leaped at Gracie McSwain and bit her on the left side of her face. She suffered injuries to her cheek and lips.

The woman caring for Wagner’s dogs at the time of the attack has already been cited on a vicious dog charge, but police chief Terry Wilson said he and city attorney Karl Hanlon are still deciding whether to charge Wagner.

“I don’t know at this point,” Wilson said.

The misdemeanor charge carries a possible penalty of a year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

It also is not yet clear how long the two dogs taken from Wagner’s property will be in quarantine at Colorado Animal Rescue in Spring Valley. They will stay for at least 10 days to give veterinarians a chance to observe the dogs for signs of a rabies infection, but Wagner or a judge could decide to increase their stay.

“We’ve had situations like that. A lot of times it was the owner who decided to keep them in,” Wilson said. “A lot of times the problems are taken care of before the courts get involved.”

Although only one of the dogs attacked McSwain, the dogs’ caretaker wasn’t sure which one it was, so both were taken to the CARE facility.

How’s Gracie?

Frank McSwain of Basalt, Gracie McSwain’s grandfather, called the work done by doctors Tuesday at Children’s Hospital in Denver “a miracle.”

After she suffered a serious bite to the face on Monday, she was already headed home by Wednesday.

“The doctors, when they came out of surgery after three hours, they had such smiles on their faces,” he said.

At first, McSwain said doctors contemplated letting his granddaughter’s face heal for a while, then using skin grafts later.

“But the second doctors said they wanted to operate instead,” he said.

“She’s been discharged and the family’s headed home. It’s a miracle, it really is.”

Ex-neighbor’s experiences

Jeff Kidd lived next to Jim Wagner and his wolf-hybrid dogs for 1 1/2 years. The dogs were part of his motivation to move two blocks down the street in February, he said.

Kidd and his wife, Brenda, have three kids. One goes to school with Gracie McSwain. There were “multiple problems” with Wagner’s dogs, he said.

“It was not only the barking, but the dogs were vicious,” he said. “They’d jump with their heads over the fence, growling. We’re not talking pit bulls here, these are wild animals.”

City officials were well aware that some neighbors were frightened of the dogs, but nothing was ever done, Kidd said.

“We were told that unless they bite someone, there’s nothing they could do,” Kidd said. “This should have never happened. This should have been handled by the city and now this little girl is maimed.”

Kidd said it’s common for people to cross the street to avoid being near the dogs when passing Wagner’s back yard.

His kids couldn’t play in their own back yard much of the time for fear that the dogs would escape and harm them, he said.

Breed banning

Neither the state of Colorado nor Glenwood Springs city law prohibits owning a wolf-hybrid dog, but that’s not from a lack of attention to the subject.

In 1997, the Colorado Legislature funded a study on whether the state should ban wolf-hybrid dogs. According to an article in the National Animal Interest Alliance’s Web site, the Colorado study found that the animals are covered under the state’s dangerous dog law and no additional regulations were needed.

“Most incidents of canine attacks involve irresponsible ownership, such as the lack of proper containment or the inability of a person to recognize potential signs of aggressive behavior,” the NAIA article said. “Every canine owner should be aware of the need to properly house, restrain, exercise, socialize and obedience train their canine companions.”

More recently, specific breed bans, many targeting pit bulls in cities along the Front Range, have been eliminated.

A new state law was signed by Gov. Bill Owens in April that prohibits local governments from banning specific breeds of dogs. The law also allows bite victims to file civil lawsuits to recover damages, even if it’s the dog’s first offense.

Denver City Council is currently challenging that new law.

DNA soup

Steve Wolfsong is a staff member at Wolves Offered Life and Friendship, or WOLF, located in Bellvue near Fort Collins. Although he loves wolves and wolf-hybrid dogs, Wolfsong said it’s his belief that they should not be pets.

“Basically, people getting a wolf hybrid tend to want a piece of the wild,” he said. “We believe they do not make good pets and they do not belong in people’s back yards. Not because they’re bad, horrible animals, but because they’re harder to train.”

He compared a wolf hybrid’s DNA makeup to a bucket of marbles. If the bucket has 75 percent red marbles and 25 percent black marbles, there’s no guarantee a handful of marbles will be all red.

“That’s kind of the way the DNA sequence makes these things up,” he said.

Using that logic, Wofsong said if a hybrid is 75 percent wolf and 25 percent dog ” or vice versa ” there’s no guarantee the animal will behave like either a wolf or a dog 100 percent of the time.

He guesses that Monday’s incident was either triggered by the dog’s property protection instinct or by fear.

“Fear is the biggest trigger,” he said.

Wolfsong said WOLF is a sanctuary for wolves and wolf hybrids that were captured and raised or let go by their owners. The sanctuary normally accepts animals that have attacked, but it is full right now.

“We do take those types of animals, poodle-eaters, cat eaters, but we’re full.”

Contact Greg Masse: 945-8515, ext. 511

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