Lewis County to create dangerous animal citizen panel after Hank ‘fiasco'

Following last year’s polarizing, drawn-out legal battle over the fate of a dog named Hank, Lewis County is moving to create a citizen panel to decide the fate of animals that are deemed dangerous.

“We ran into some trouble (and) I felt like I made the wrong decision,” said Public Health and Social Services Director Danette York. “Of course that was a fiasco.”

York was referring to the case of Hank, a Staffordshire terrier mix who became a cause célèbre for dog lovers and animal rights activists far and wide. Hank, first known as Tank, had been designated as dangerous in 2016 by York’s office after being accused of killing two goats and injuring a horse along with another dog, who was never found by authorities. The other dog’s owners later said it was whisked away to an out-of-state family member.

However, county staff came to believe Tank was not dangerous, and York and Animal Shelter manager Amy Hanson changed his name to Hank and adopted him out to an unsuspecting family, who soon fell in love with him.

When the switch was discovered by county officials, Hank was again seized and York and Hanson briefly faced criminal charges that were later dismissed. After the long-running, high-profile saga played out over several courtrooms, Hank’s new family was able to bring him home last October, sparing him from the euthanization initially ordered.

Although county code makes the Public Health director responsible for determining dangerous animal designations, York has ceded that role to an animal control expert from Thurston County who handles cases under contract. The contractor costs the county $250 plus mileage expenses for each hearing; York said there have been about six in the past eight months.

Creating the citizen panel is designed to provide a more long-term solution.

“The underlying issue of it was I just didn’t feel like I was qualified to do that kind of work,” York said. “I don’t have any animal expertise. … Contracting is expensive, and there’s no budget for it.”

The proposed panel – known as a the Dangerous Animal Decisions Board – would be tasked with determining whether potentially dangerous animals meet that designation and must be euthanized. The county identifies such animals as those that have “inflicted severe injury on a human being without provocation” or killed a domestic animal or livestock.

“It’s a good step in the right direction to have citizens who have an interest in this area be on this panel,” county commissioner Edna Fund said.

The board would have five members chosen by county commissioners to have a “broad range of local opinion, experience and expertise with regard to animals and animal ownership.” Only three of the five volunteers would need to be present to establish a quorum for any given hearing. York said the county averages a little more than one dangerous animal hearing a month.

“We have a lot of people in Lewis County who are both animal experts and have an interest in them. What we were hoping was that we would find some of those,” York said. “It would save the county funding, but give us what we think would be a better outcome because we would have three minds considering one case.”

Fund said she is not concerned about finding qualified and willing candidates, despite the fact that board members might be exposing themselves to public backlash – especially in instances where they need to order an animal put down. Leaving the decision to multiple people and better outlining the guidelines will help eliminate that pressure, she said.

“With Hank/Tank, we had thousands of people involved in that,” Fund said. “I would think we would be able to recruit interested citizens who would get training. … I think from reading through the document, it looks like it spells things out more clearly, and I think it will be a better process for everybody.”

The proposal also expedites the process by which owners can appeal decisions to District Court, so animals don’t linger in the shelter while their fate hangs in the balance.

The proposal will require a public hearing and a vote by the Lewis County Commission to go into effect.