In photographs, Kato is undeniably darling.
He peeks out from under blankets, furrows his floppy brow over puppy dog eyes, even sits contentedly on Santa's lap. Still, it's not hard to imagine that if Kato a muscular, mid-sized, 14-month-old pit bull came barreling toward you, you might be inclined to run.
This, apparently, is what happened Oct. 18 to an animal control officer from the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region. The officer, not amused, took Kato into custody and charged his owner, Eugena "Genie" Fisher, with owning a dangerous dog and failing to restrain Kato.
Since then, Kato's been impounded while Fisher and her partner, Kelly Holmes, struggle to get their beloved pooch returned to their Old Colorado City home.
"It makes you feel like you have no rights," Holmes says. "What has [Kato] done? He hasn't hurt anyone."
Through Monday, the Humane Society had charged 323 people this year with owning a dangerous animal. As with Kato, some animals aren't accused of attacking or biting. An owner can face charges under state statute if the dog "[d]emonstrates tendencies that would cause a reasonable person to believe that the dog may inflict bodily or serious bodily injury upon or cause the death of any person or domestic animal." Owners can also be charged under a similar city ordinance.
"A dangerous animal is one that's threatening public safety," says the Humane Society's Ann Davenport. "You can feel extremely threatened and intimidated by a dog without actually being bitten by it."
Since no one can read a dog's mind, the law leans heavily on subjective accounts. Take, for instance, the two stories behind Kato's seizure.
Version 1: According to the Humane Society report, the officer came to Fisher's home after a neighbor complained of a pit bull running loose. The officer entered the property and knocked on the door, only to be barked at by the family's small terrier, Baby. The officer was fighting off the terrier with his clipboard when Kato lunged at him. He ended up fighting both dogs with a clipboard and baton, before leaping over a fence and falling on the other side. A growling Kato ran around the fence and came at the officer again before his owners were finally able to control him.
Version 2: According to Holmes, the officer stopped by early in the day to ask about a stray pit bull. She informed him Kato and Fisher were in Denver for the day; the stray wasn't Kato. Later, with both women and the dogs back home, the officer entered the yard, baton and clipboard in hand, and knocked on the door. Baby escaped and was barking, six feet away from the officer. The officer tried to hit Baby with his clipboard. Holmes reached down to retrieve Baby and almost got hit with the clipboard herself. In the confusion, Kato bounded merrily past the officer. Baby followed. The officer went into the yard and began wildly swinging his baton at the dogs, who were on the other side of the yard, barking, but not growling or approaching him. Fisher called the dogs and put them inside. Meanwhile, the officer, who was mere feet from the gate, jumped the fence and slipped on a rock.
The second account mirrors that of a neighbor who witnessed the incident and later wrote a notarized letter defending Kato. Fisher and Holmes have more than a dozen other letters from neighbors and friends describing Kato glowingly. One neighbor calls him "a real sweetheart." Another says Kato has played gently with two miniature poodles and a Chihuahua.
Kato, it seems, has even won over former foes. In May, Kato escaped and ran into a nearby store, scaring a customer. Fisher was cited under city ordinance and is still on probation. But the store's owners still wrote a letter in the dog's defense, saying, "[Kato's] owners have been very diligent and cooperative, and there have been no difficulties at all since that time."
It's quite a different story at the Humane Society. Davenport says Kato is "aggressive" and notes the organization had to design a special kennel after he was "able to escape from his kennel and threaten our staff." Staffers couldn't properly vaccinate the dog because of his behavior, she says, and as a result, Kato developed kennel cough.
"Everything sets him off," she says. "He's hyper-stimulated."
Fisher and Holmes say their dog is desperate for attention and exercise. They say Kato still hasn't bitten anyone, though he's had ample opportunity. Fisher and Holmes note that since Kato's seizure, they've completed a large backyard kennel for him. They hope to put Kato through more training courses when (or if) he returns home. Kato already completed 10 weeks of puppy school at PetSmart, they say.
Kato and his owners' fates will likely be decided at trial in January. In the meantime, Holmes and Fisher are trying to have Kato transferred to a different kennel. They've already paid hundreds in boarding and other fees.