Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Landscaper Is Mauled, and an Outpouring of Sympathy Goes to the Dog

Giovanni Rivera in June after being attacked. Mr. Rivera received 65 rabies shots.
It’s man versus beast in Princeton, and the town is in an uproar over a dog on death row.

The curious case of Congo, an 85-pound German shepherd sentenced to die for attacking a Honduran landscaper, is making its way through New Jersey’s courts. Protesters have packed the courtrooms here and have staged rallies waving signs that say “Free Congo!” And the landscaper, Giovanni Rivera, who suffered a six-inch bite wound and other injuries, has been vilified by some of the dog’s supporters in this well-to-do Ivy League town, who have been sending newspapers and blogs angry anti-immigrant slurs.

“The dog deserves an award,” said one posting to The Princeton Packet Web site. “One less Mexican alien is a boost to society.”

State Assemblyman Neil M. Cohen, a Democrat from Union, has introduced legislation, which he calls Congo’s Law, that could spare the life of Congo and other dogs in similar situations by giving judges more discretion in meting out punishment.


Congo, an 85-pound German shepherd sentenced to die, with Hannah James, 11, right, and Michelle Heker, 12, her cousin.


This is unbelievable. No lo creo pero sí es verdad. Que racismo!

Dra. Valenzuela


November 30, 2007

A Landscaper Is Mauled, and an Outpouring of Sympathy Goes
to the Dog
By SARAH KERSHAW
PRINCETON, N.J.

It's man versus beast in Princeton, and the town is in an
uproar over a dog on death row.

The curious case of Congo, an 85-pound German shepherd
sentenced to die for attacking a Honduran landscaper, is
making its way through New Jersey's courts. Protesters have
packed the courtrooms here and have staged rallies waving
signs that say "Free Congo!" And the landscaper, Giovanni
Rivera, who suffered a six-inch bite wound and other
injuries, has been vilified by some of the dog's supporters
in this well-to-do Ivy League town, who have been sending
newspapers and blogs angry anti-immigrant slurs.

"The dog deserves an award," said one posting to The
Princeton Packet Web site. "One less Mexican alien is a
boost to society."

State Assemblyman Neil M. Cohen, a Democrat from Union, has
introduced legislation, which he calls Congo's Law, that
could spare the life of Congo and other dogs in similar
situations by giving judges more discretion in meting out
punishment.

And now, thousands of people from Princeton and elsewhere
are petitioning the governor for a pardon. (There is
precedent for such things in New Jersey.)

In a letter to The Princeton Packet on Tuesday, a resident,
Jonathan Eckstein, wrote: "I urge the State Legislature to
vote down this absurd legislation and put the rights of
human beings like Mr. Rivera above those of domestic
animals, however tragically misunderstood. I would hate my
hometown and home state to go down in history as the place
where suburbanites valued their dogs above the lives of
those they hire to tend their yards."

Congo, having been granted a stay of execution, is muzzled
and under house arrest, as his owners await a decision on
their appeal.

It started in June, when Mr. Rivera, 42, and a crew of day
laborers arrived early in the morning at the house of Guy
and Elizabeth James, the owners of six shepherds . Congo,
Lucia, Shadow, Bear, Hunter and Magnus.

The facts of the attack are in dispute. The Jameses say
that the landscapers arrived earlier than expected and that
Congo, who is typically kept inside when workers are about,
was provoked when Mr. Rivera became scared of the dog and
grabbed Mrs. James. It is unclear what role the other dogs
played. Mr. Rivera, who received a $250,000 settlement from
the Jameses' homeowners' insurance company, argued that he
was merely trying to get away from the dogs and was using
Mrs. James as cover when he was mauled.

The next day an animal control officer took Congo and four
other dogs (Magnus was in the woods at the time of the
incident and was left home) to an animal shelter, where
Congo stayed until he was released pending the appeal. He
was sent home two weeks ago after five months in lockup.

The James family argued that while in the shelter, Congo's
health was deteriorating and he was losing weight, even
though Mrs. James faithfully brought him his favorite raw
beef patties and chicken chewies.

"It's horrendous what we've had to deal with," Mr. James
said as Congo bounded around their kitchen on Saturday,
clenching a stuffed cow that was a homecoming gift. "But we
are confident, going forward, that we are going to win this
war."

In State v. James, on Oct. 30, Judge Russell W. Annich Jr.
of Municipal Court in Princeton Township declared Congo
vicious and the attack unprovoked, a ruling that under the
state "vicious dog" law requires the animal to be put down.
The judge did note, however, that, "none of the dogs have
any documented history of previous violent or disagreeable
behavior."

And an expert witness for the defense, an animal
behaviorist, testified at the trial that Congo was simply
doing his job, protecting his owner the way any reasonable
canine would under the circumstances. The Jameses also
submitted to the court dozens of letters from character
witnesses and others who had come into contact with Congo
during his 18-month life.

"I have had the pleasure of knowing Congo over the past two
years and feel confident in stating that my relations with
him have always been friendly and warm," wrote one friend
of the family.

Nevertheless, the judge ruled that Congo was not provoked,
and that the attack . initially by Congo and then, the
judge said, by the four other dogs . "continuing unabated
for three minutes, was a response grossly disproportionate
to the prevailing situation."

Mr. Rivera received 65 rabies shots after the attack and
spent five days in the hospital after a three-hour
operation, according to his lawyer. Mr. Rivera declined to
comment. The lawyer, Kevin S. Riechelson, said that Mr.
Rivera, after serving as a witness for the prosecution,
wanted to distance himself from the whole mess after
hearing about the anti-immigrant sentiments stirred by the
case.

"He's concerned," Mr. Riechelson said. "He doesn't have any
ill will toward the dog; he just feels owners should have
taken greater responsibility."

The Jameses appealed the township ruling to Superior Court
in Trenton, and its ruling is expected in four to six
months.

"It's really not about Congo," Mr. James said. "It's about
everybody and their rights. It's hit everybody's nerves."

Under the conditions of his release, Congo is not allowed
to leave the house, except to go to the vet, and he must
wear a muzzle and be leashed if he is outside.

The office of Gov. Jon S. Corzine has been flooded with
more than 4,000 telephone calls, letters and e-mail
messages on Congo's behalf, said a spokesman, Jim Gardner.
But the governor is not considering a pardon, Mr. Gardner
said.

"He said he was prepared to let the court take its course,
and he didn't think this is one of the things a governor
ought to be tampering with," Mr. Gardner said. "He said
personally he'd love to see the dog survive because he
knows how much people care about their pets."

But Mr. Corzine is not the first New Jersey governor to be
inundated with pleas for mercy on a canine.

In 1994, Taro, a 100-pound Japanese Akita from Haworth,
N.J., who was ruled vicious after biting a child and
killing a terrier, was spared the death penalty by Gov.
Christie Whitman. Taro was allowed to live, but was ordered
to leave the state. He spent his exile in Westchester.

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