Hawai‘i County leaders reaffirm addressing animal control problems after mauling death of 71-year-old
August 5, 2023, 1:00 AM HST
* Updated August 5, 4:38 PM
The horrific mauling by a pack of four dogs that caused the tragic death of 71-year-old Bob Northrop of Kaʻū earlier this week has again shined a burning light on animal control issues that have plagued the Big Island for years.
During the Hawaiʻi County Council meeting on Wednesday, Chairwoman Heather Kimball offered condolences to the Northrop family and said she hopes justice will be served. Kimball added that the Council is committed to preventing incidents like this from happening again.
“We know that there’s still laws that we need to enact to prevent something that is just unconscionable and should never happen in our community,” Kimball said. “On behalf of this body, I express our commitment to continue to work on and address this issue.”
Data shows animal control is a big problem on the Big Island.
Since mid-summer 2021, nearly 1,600 animal complaints have been addressed in West Hawai‘i, including Kaʻū, according to county spokesman Cyrus Johnasen.
He added that the mayor’s office gets a variety of complaints about animals, ranging from feral animals to household pets. Vicious animals are not the most common complaints, but they are received.
In May, the most recent month for which data was available, the county animal shelter in Puna took in 111 animals, in which 83 were dogs. In the first five months of 2023, the shelter had taken in 2,205 animals from around the Big Island. Most of them are strays or abandoned.
From Jan. 1 to Aug. 3, there have been 35 reports of a person being bitten by a dog and 10 incidents of a dog injuring or destroying a person’s pets, livestock or other property around the island, according to Hawai‘i Police Department records.
In January, a Hawaiʻi Island police officer shot and killed a pit bull while he was being charged by four large dogs during a call to serve a restraining order at a home in Pāhala.
In May, 32-year-old Amber Clausen was attacked by a pit bull-whippet mix in front of her home in Pāhoa. She spent days in the intensive care unit at Hilo Medical Center with multiple injuries.
On Aug. 1, Northrop died after being attacked by four large dogs while he was walking to a friend’s house on Outrigger Drive in Ocean View. Those dogs, three of which were pit bull mixes and the other a purebred Staffordshire bull terrier, and 10 puppies were seized by Animal Control. All 14 have been euthanized.
According to Johnasen, the owners admitted to one of the responding officers at the scene that they do not live at the residence where the dogs came from and the animals were left unattended on the property.
“If the dogs had been secured in a fenced area or kennels, this would have been preventable,” said Hawai‘i County Councilwoman Michelle Galimba, who represents the Ocean View area.
Anytime there is a “teeth-to-skin” incident or anything close to a bite, it becomes a criminal matter and under the jurisdiction of Big Island police. The Ocean View incident was classified as a negligent failure to control a dangerous dog case and the Hawai‘i Police Department’s Area II Criminal Investigation Section is continuing to investigate.
The Hawai‘i County Council last year adopted a bill that amended county code to impose stiffer penalties on owners of dangerous dogs that injure — or worse — domesticated animals or people. The measure created a tiered system of penalties depending on the severity of an attack, with an owner of a dog that causes severe injury or death facing a fine of up to $25,000 or 10 years in prison.
The new code requires owners charged with failing to control a dangerous dog to take steps to control the animal or face additional punishment. Dogs that cause their owner to be charged with failure to control a dangerous dog also are required to be seized and impounded. Those involved in the worst incidents can be destroyed.
Bill 125 was in response to a number of vicious dog attacks on the Big Island involving other animals and people, including an incident in August 2021 in which an 85-year-old Puna resident was attacked by three of her neighbor’s dogs. Dolores Oskins later died from the wounds inflicted by the dogs.
In March, the Hawaiʻi County Council also created the new Animal Control and Protection Agency. It has been in place only since July 1.
“I have heard that stray and abandoned dogs are a serious problem in [Ocean View] since I took office and have been advocating for more resources for my district,” Galimba said. “This problem has only gotten worse in the economic turmoil in the past few years, which has led to record numbers of abandoned animals and overflowing animal shelters.”
Galimba said the Ocean View kupuna’s death was a “profoundly tragic occurrence.”
“I am grieving for the family and friends of Bob Northrop,” she said. “From all accounts, he was a kind man who loved animals and helping other people.”
Galimba said strong penalties are appropriate for those who are negligent animal owners, especially in cases of serious injury or death. Having a greater Animal Control presence in Kaʻū is a top priority for the Councilwoman.
“This incident underlines the urgency of that need,” Galimba said. “I believe that what is most needed is the facilities and Animal Control manpower to address the stray and abandoned dog situation in [Ocean View]. However, I and the rest of the Council will be looking at the animal control laws in light of this incident.”
The new standalone Animal Control and Protection Agency has only been operating for about a month and is now under the direction of an interim administrator. Johnasen said a permanent administrator has been hired and will take the agency’s reins sometime within the next month.
The agency currently has nine animal control officers, three based in West Hawai‘i and six in East Hawai‘i, who respond to calls islandwide and move around as needed. All of the officers are trained to meet federal standards for animal control, certified and licensed.
There also are five kennel technicians on staff.
The primary functions of the agency are operating county pounds; examining issues with and proposing updates to existing county animal control ordinances; enforcing county and state animal control laws, including writing citations; and investigating animal cruelty and neglect cases. As soon as the Ocean View attack was reported, Animal Control officers responded alongside police.
Animal Control continues to expand its staff. Several positions remain open, and Johnasen said the County is hoping to hire six more animal control officers, two clerks and 20 more kennel technicians in the coming months. However, the same hiring issues afflicting other County departments, businesses and industries around the island are hindering that process.
So right now, it’s only those nine animal control officers who are responding to calls, completing reports, doing field investigations, attending court proceedings when necessary and other duties for the entire island.
“I think, overall, our officers are doing a great job of getting out to these thousands of calls and as we continue to build out our agency, we hope to respond faster and faster — to make the response times shorter and shorter for these folks calling in,” Johnasen said.
The County also is putting together a task force to hone in on how to best address all of the island’s animal control concerns and advise the new agency. Each of the County’s districts will have a representative on the advisory panel.
The agency was created to better enforce animal control laws and improve the health and safety of Big Island residents and the animals it is charged with not only controlling but protecting.
“We’re going to continue to work with the community to make sure we have a safe and vibrant and healthy community and that everyone’s well-being is protected,” Johnasen said.
The best way to do that and help Animal Control is to tell the agency.
“If you see something, say something and leave it to the professionals to come out and assess the situation and make sure that everything seems to be in order,” Johnasen said. “If it’s not, then they’ll take care of it or at least work with the owner and/or the surrounding neighbors to ensure that things are in line with the highest safety measures.”
For animal emergencies, call police dispatch at 808-935-3311. For lost or found pets and non-emergencies, call Animal Control at 808-327-3558.