HARVARD -- The Town Hall meeting room was packed when Selectmen held a dog hearing Tuesday night to consider the case -- and ultimately the fate -- of two Brittany spaniels accused of killing a resident's chickens. In the end, they delivered a guilty verdict and sentenced the dogs to lifetime confinement as prescribed in state law.
The selectmen's decision came after considerable deliberation, with testimony from the owner of the chickens, Sandy Lefkovits; Animal Control Officer Paul Willard, other residents and the dogs' owner, Mark Saganich, the only one who spoke for the dogs. Basically, he said they didn't do it and there was no evidence to prove they did.
The incident occurred on Jan. 6, when according Lefkovits' complaint, she found all but one of her chickens dead in their coop and in the run outside it, with the dogs still there. She locked them in and called the police dispatcher, who notified Willard.
According to Willard's statement, after receiving the phone message, he went to Lefkovits's home on Depot Road, where the scene was just as she had described it. He took pictures, issued a restraining order to Saganich, who he knew owned the dogs. And he notified the selectmen, Willard said.
In a written statement that Willard read aloud for her, Lefkovits laid out the sequence of events. She visits the chicken coop every day to gather eggs and bring them treats, she said, and that day was no different. She then returned to the house, got her things and prepared to leave for the post office but as she walked to her car, she saw a dog in the chicken run, with three dead chickens. The other dog was outside the enclosure, with four more dead chickens. "They killed all the chickens in the coop," she said. "I locked them in." Lefkovits said she had no doubt that those two dogs killed her chickens.
Saganich said he was sorry for the "rift" the incident had caused between him and Lefkovits, whom he's known for 10 years. "It's unfortunate ... I'm sorry for your loss," he said to her, but the story she and Willard told the selectmen was "misleading," in his view. "I got a call saying my dogs were incarcerated somewhere," he said. "Turns out, they were at your house." Apparently, they'd been there for some time when he picked them up, Saganich said. "They were filthy."
He said he saw a hole in the fence and the door of the coop was open, indicating to him that the chickens were "outside a lot." Moreover, his five-year-old spaniels are not troublemakers and not dangerous, he said.
The dogs have never bitten anyone and have no history of killing chickens, Saganich told the board, although they "escape from time to time."
But one of Lefkovits' neighbors, Glen Alexander, of Ayer Road, said the dogs have been in his yard, "jumping on the fence" of his chicken coops, about 20 yards away. "We chased them away," he said.
Lynn Cook, who lives next door to Lefkovits, said the dogs killed one of her "free range" chickens last summer in her yard and she saw them do it. "I called Mark and he took them home," she said.
Connie Larrabee, of Under Pin Hill Road, said she will miss the "wonderful eggs" she went to buy from Sandy Lefkovits on Saturday mornings. The pen those chickens lived in was "very secure," she said. "They were never out."
During their deliberations, the selectmen had no difficulty determining what happened, but they did have trouble with labeling the dogs "dangerous," which was one of two options they could use according to state law established in 2012.
The term came with a laundry list of remedial options that included euthanizing the dogs or perpetually confining them in a locked, roofed kennel with either a floor or fence posts driven 2 feet into the ground to prevent them from digging their way out.
But the new state law has scratched out the option of banishing troublesome dogs, which simply moved one town's problem to another, as Selectman Lucy Wallace pointed out.
Dangerous was one of two terms provided by law that the board could have chosen after determining that the dogs did, indeed, kill the chickens. The other choice was to declare them "nuisance" dogs, apparently leaving it up to the owner to fix the situation.
Noting the "emotional nature" of the issue, Selectman Leo Blair said it seemed "reasonable" to him to expect that some dogs would try to "catch and eat chickens" and that once they'd done so, would probably repeat the offense. But it's also reasonable for people who keep chickens to let them roam free on their own property and expect them to be safe. "My take is that it's almost impossible to suggest that a dog be euthanized," he said.
Still, people's property, including livestock, should be safe from "other people's pets," Blair added. But he was reluctant to sentence the dogs to a life of confinement. Willard said the kennel could be as large as the owner wanted to make it.
Saganich asked if the confinement area could be his house. No, he was told. When the dogs are not in the kennel, they must be leashed and under control, the selectmen said.
After wrestling with the dilemma and floating a couple of motions that sank, the selectmen made their decision. They declared the dogs dangerous and took action. The motion to declare the dogs dangerous and confine them as described passed three to two, with Blair and Stu Sklar voting no.
"What about reimbursement for my loss?" Lefkovits asked. Chairman Marie Sobalvarro told her she could take Saganich to court for that.