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'Death row' dog dies as appeals linger

Years after biting a girl, Beethoven the Great Dane has quietly died. The dog is finally gone from the dog "death row'' where he lived as his case lingered.

By ROBERT FARLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 26, 2001


After six years on Pinellas County's equivalent of death row for dogs, old age finally caught up with Beethoven the Great Dane, and the dog's owner agreed last month to euthanize the dog.

After six years on Pinellas County's equivalent of death row for dogs, old age finally caught up with Beethoven the Great Dane, and the dog's owner agreed last month to euthanize the dog.

Pinellas County Animal Services declared Beethoven dangerous after it bit a 4-year-old girl who came into the Palm Harbor garage where the dog was chained on Labor Day 1995. The county determined the dog should be destroyed.

Beethoven's owner, Lorraine Blackwood, and a legal team challenged that sentence, turning Beethoven into a cause celebre and plunging Pinellas into what is thought to be the longest-running appeal of an animal's fate in the state.

Though the appeals were still unfolding, county animal services officials called Blackwood, formerly Lorraine Sabates, and told her Beethoven was rapidly declining in early September. The 11-year-old dog was sometimes having trouble standing up and was losing weight, said Dr. Welch Agnew, assistant director of veterinary services for Pinellas County Animal Services.

"As he got older and older, he just wore out," Agnew said.

On the evening of Sept. 11, Agnew took Beethoven to Tampa Bay Veterinary Specialists, where a veterinarian determined it was "in the dog's best interest to be euthanized at that point, due to his age and infirmities," said Blackwood's attorney, David Plante of Tampa.

Though despondent and depressed, Plant said, Blackwood was with the Beethoven as he was evaluated and ultimately euthanized. Blackwood could not be reached for comment.

"She was able to hold the dog's paw through the process," Plante said. "He went peacefully."

But the case did win some important victories for other dog owners who face similar county action, Plante said.

Plante contended in the protracted legal battles that the county violated serious due process rights to Blackwood, and that Beethoven was unfairly sentenced to be destroyed.

While the county contended the girl was the victim of a vicious attack, Plante said he believes the child poked the dog in the eye or ear with her finger and Beethoven had an "instantaneous bite reflect as a result of pain stimuli."

In January, Plante's firm even appealed unsuccessfully to Gov. Jeb Bush for clemency.

"It was disappointing we didn't get the dog released before the dog died," Plante said.

But Plante said the six-year legal battle was not all for nought. The lawsuit has changed the way animal services does business, he said.

For example, he said, dog owners are now entitled to a hearing before the animal services director determines whether a dog should be destroyed. And while Plante was not able to subpoena the girl who was bitten, future dog owners fighting a similar sentence will be afforded that right, he said.

"Like my client, I'm sickened over this," Plante said. "The county was able to deprive the dog owner of a fair hearing and incarcerated this do for six years until the dog ultimately died. But for the beneficial results to other dog owners resulting from this action, this would have been worse than it is."

The family of the girl who was bitten has never commented publicly on the case.

Workers at animal services certainly felt no joy at the dog's death, Agnew said. Many employees had become attached to Beethoven over the years.

"We were his family by that time," Agnew said. "He was part of this place. You come in in the morning and you "hi' to Beethoven and someone takes him for a walk."

While Beethoven is gone, the legal case is not.

After Beethoven's death, the county filed a motion seeking to have Blackwood's appeal thrown out as moot. Plante objected and earlier this month, judges in the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled the case will go on.

Plante said he and the county attorney's office are working on a negotiated settlement, likely one that would waive Blackwood's claims for attorneys fees, but would also prevent the county from seeking board fees of $5 per day, which comes to more than $11,000.

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