Good Dog Sense When a miniature horse was killed by a dog in the rural outskirts of Edgartown last weekend it clearly struck a nerve around the Island and beyond. As the news was reported on the Gazette website, reaction poured in, most of it civil and heartfelt. People winced at the terrible, violent death of a small horse named Magik. Rumors that the horse was killed by a coyote — another volatile topic on the Vineyard where there have been a handful of reliable coyote sightings in recent years but none down-Island — were quickly put to rest by the Edgartown animal control officer and a respected Island wildlife biologist.
A good animal control officer knows her canine constituency, and such was the case with Barbara Prada, the longtime Edgartown animal control officer, and the incident involving Mugsy, the American Staffordshire-bulldog cross. Less than twenty-four hours after the horse was killed, Ms. Prada, aided by the Edgartown police, had identified Mugsy as the dog that had killed the horse.
Then the conversation continued. Readers condemned the owners of the dog for letting him run loose. There was debate and discussion around issues of breeding and training, and around the question of whether the dog should be destroyed or sent off Island to a new home.
Mugsy’s owners have taken full responsibility in the matter and the dog will be euthanized in the coming week following a mandatory ten-day quarantine at the town pound.
There is an understandable temptation to find a villain in this story, but what may be more exceptional is how, despite the horrific nature of the incident, everyone directly involved has tried to do the right thing.
The dog officer quickly identified the culprit, and determined another dog that may have been present was not to blame. The owners of the dog made a wrenching but responsible decision to have the dog euthanized. The owner of the horse — justifiably stunned, grieving for the loss of her animal and worried about the safety of other animals at her small farm off Meetinghouse Way — nonetheless told the Gazette this week that she will not press further charges.
The Vineyard’s relationship with dogs is changing these days. Animal control officers on the Island are seeing more incidents involving loose pets. There is also no doubt more publicity around these incidents. Last year a wandering dog that was found killing chickens on a small farm in West Tisbury was shot by the farm owner, a legally permitted protection for farmers under state law. As in Edgartown this week, the incident stirred emotional reaction and debate and an apparent struggle to make sense of it all.
The Vineyard has never been a place where it was acceptable for dogs to run free, but in the past dogs that did wander were less likely to get into trouble because there were fewer people and far fewer houses. Today the Island is no longer truly rural, but rather a kind of suburban place in rural clothing. The sense of endless open space can be deceptive: It is quiet, peaceful and with plenty of rural feel and small farms, but down nearly every road and byway lie dozens of houses in the woods and on the plains, many of which are homes to dogs.
Whenever there is an increase in density, whether among people or animals, the opportunities for friction increase, and adhering to responsible behavior becomes more urgent. In addition to care and feeding, all dogs need firm, gentle leadership from their owners and a routine that includes regular exercise. Island dogs are lucky; there are many places here where they may be safely walked in beautiful natural settings. Owners also have an obligation to keep their pets under control.
Incidents involving dogs will never completely disappear; that’s why we have animal control officers in our towns. Horrendous though this incident was, there is much to admire in the way those involved showed responsibility and restraint. Energy spent trying to place blame is better spent seeking lessons for the future.