Thursday, December 1, 2022

Hampstead woman fighting civil suit against neighbor for vicious dog attack

Hampstead resident Shirley Shoffstall is fighting a civil suit against her neighbor, whose dog killed her 14-year-old dog, Coco (above). (Courtesy/Shirley Shoffstall)

HAMPSTEAD — A legal case is pending between Pender County neighbors, leaving a grieving woman mourning the loss of her pet.

Shirley Shoffstall’s two dogs, she said, are more like her babies. Last week, though, her Pomeranian, Coco, was killed by a dog belonging to a homeowner next door — the same dog who attacked her Havanese poodle puppy, Riley, in February and left her with a dog bite wound.

“I’m too scared to go outside, walk out my front door to walk the puppy,” Shoffstall said. “I have to go to the doctors because of panic attacks. I’m not sleeping. I don’t know what to do.”

Her neighbor James Gobble said he adopted Pete, who he calls Bubby, about eight months ago. While he’s unsure his exact breed, he said he’s part hound with a tendency to chase small game, such as squirrels and rabbits.

Per county ordinance, Gobble does not have to surrender the animal, now deemed “dangerous” by local officials. Pender County animal control has no authority to force an owner to surrender or euthanize a pet, under nearly any circumstance, according to Lt. Keith Ramsey, who oversees the animal control division.

The Pender County ordinance defines a “dangerous animal” as one that has “demonstrated a fierce or dangerous propensity or tendency to threaten, attack to endanger any person.” Sheriff Alan Cutler is the only legal authority who can make this designation, based on animal control’s recommendations and reports.

According to Ramsey, Gobble was served a dangerous animal letter Wednesday, meaning he must now comply with certain county regulations, which include:

  • Keeping the dog secured and restrained while on his property
  • Ensuring it’s securely locked in an outside residence or building
  • Keeping it on a leash no more than 4 feet long and muzzled while outside 
  • Posting a dangerous dog signage in his front yard
  • Informing the sheriff’s office if he were to surrender the animal to a shelter or transfer ownership

Gobble said he was more than willing to comply with the guidelines, knowing his dog’s history.

Shoffstall said it’s not enough.

Last Friday, Shoffstall was leaving her Plantation Pointe condo to walk her dogs and the offender dog, which she describes as medium in size, was near her property.

“I got my puppy back inside, but he grabbed the Pomeranian by the neck and started shaking her,” she said between tears. “He tore her neck open and killed her.”

A neighbor heard her screaming and came to her rescue by hitting the dog over the head with a board, she said. The dog dropped the Pomeranian.

“He had this unbelievable look in his eye,” Shoffstall explained. “He turned his head and looked at me like, ‘You’re in the middle of me killing something.’”

Gobble explained he had his dog tied up outside while he was working, but the dog took off and broke the cable.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said.

It’s not the first time Shoffstall and her pets have been victims of Bubby’s attacks. She said in February, the dog had Coco pinned down but hadn’t yet latched on when Riley jumped in between trying to protect its sibling.

The violent dog then allegedly grabbed Riley instead, and while attempting to break it loose, Shoffstall said she got bit in the process. Both her and the puppy were injured.

“After the first time he attacked one of her dogs, I went to a trainer,” Gobble said. “I’ve tried everything — electric collars, different types of collars because he slipped the first one. All these processes to try to get that part out of him, that desire to chase game.”

Shoffstall called the sheriff’s office to complain and was told to file a report, but she says nothing ever came from it. 

“I can’t charge a dog for trespassing,” Ramsey said.

He explained the Pender County ordinance allows dogs to run free in their home yards, and it’s not considered a violation for the dog to run off the yard. But if it’s roaming at-large on a consistent basis, the owner would receive a $50 civil penalty.

Gobble was not fined at that time, since his dog had been confined to his property before running across the street.

Shoffstall said she has not been satisfied with her interaction with the sheriff’s office and animal control, but Lt. Ramsey said he’s just following the rules.

“We don’t take reports of dangerous animals lightly,” Ramsey said. “This lady, I can sympathize with her, but I’ve tried to explain I’ve got ordinances I’ve got to follow. I can’t exceed what’s written.”

He iterated he has no legal authority to take away the violent dog or euthanize it, but the owner has to quarantine any dog who attacks another animal or human for 10 days.

“If it’s showing rabies, it would be dead within five days,” Ramsey explained. “If the dog makes it to the end of the 10 days, it’s not shedding rabies.”

Animals can quarantine in their owner’s house as long as the person complies. Otherwise, the dog must quarantine in a shelter at the cost of $10 per day to the owner.

At the time of the July 1 attack, the dog had not yet been deemed dangerous and therefore the sheriff’s office could not cite Gobble civilly or criminally; however, moving forward, if Gobble does not comply with the dangerous dog guidelines, he could be criminally charged.

Violations could result in a class 3 misdemeanor punishable by a fine no less than $50 and no more than $500. Each day a violation occurs, it carries its own offense.

“We take dangerous dogs seriously in this county,” Ramsey said. “On the same note, we don’t want to put that determination on a dog that isn’t justified.”

The 61-year-old woman has since hired an attorney to file a civil suit against Gobble to pay for her medical bills. Shoffstall’s lawyer said he could not speak to the litigation since it is ongoing.  

Gobble confirmed Monday he will be looking to re-home his dog.

“I would love to see him go to someone who has a country home or a farm,” he said. “Or someone who knows how to train that part of him. It’s just not me. I can’t do it.” 

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