Nina the Pit Bull Put Down After Owner Enters Witness Protection

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By Ashley Harrell

If you read my May 21 feature story about Deanna Johnson, a 48-year-old grandmother who witnessed a grisly murder in the housing projects and testified in court, then you might remember Nina.

That was Johnson’s two-and-a-half-year-old red pit bull.

Despite the efforts of Johnson, several animal rights activists from In Defense of Animals, and this reporter, at 5 p.m. today Nina was euthanized by Animal Care & Control.

It appears the workers in the Give a Dog a Bone Program – a non-profit run out of the animal control building – did all they could for the dog, which had become aggressive and threatening in the month-plus that she had been out of Johnson’s care.

Nina’s troubles began on May 6, the day the jury convicted the killer that Johnson had named in court. On that day, the district attorney’s office persuaded Johnson to enroll in its witness assistance and relocation program. It wasn’t a tough sell – police had just informed Johnson she’d be evicted if she didn’t take their offer, she said. Johnson said her police escorts gave her just 15 minutes to collect her belongings. Nina the dog could not go with Johnson, because the hotel she would be staying in did not accommodate pit bulls.

The D.A.’s office – which declined to comment – would not make arrangements for the dog, Johnson said.

So for nearly a week, the dog stayed in Johnson’s empty town home in the housing project where Johnson’s boyfriend Willie Hill came to walk and feed her. During that time, I called everyone I knew who might be able to keep a pit bull until Johnson could secure a more permanent home for herself and the dog. But pit bulls are known to be difficult, and nobody would do it. No shelters I called in the area had room for Nina. Desperate to find a place for the dog to stay, Hill sold Nina to a homeless man he knew from the methadone clinic, according to animal control records.

Two days after the homeless man purchased the dog, he let Nina and his other dog into a yard off of their leashes to pee, records say. The two dogs apparently jumped a fence and attacked another dog. When a woman next door attempted to break up the fight, Nina bit her.

That landed both dogs at the animal shelter. The homeless man came to retrieve his dog after a few days, but Johnson was forbidden by the D.A. from returning to San Francisco to claim Nina. The dog spent more than a month in the Give a Dog a Bone Program, working with the founder and director Corinne Dowling.

Although Tara Zuardo, a legal intern with In Defense of Animals, worked for weeks to reunite Nina with Deanna, and the group’s president Dr. Elliot Katz paid the dog a visit, it was to no avail.

During her stay at the animal shelter, Nina remained agitated and hostile toward her caregivers, Dowling said. Her eyes were dilated. She jumped aggressively against her cage and showed little affection. It eventually became clear that the dog couldn’t possibly be released to anyone but a trained professional.

“She is not a safe dog,” Dowling said. “I wish it weren’t true.”

I wished that, too, and until I visited Nina at the shelter today, I didn’t really believe it. The dog I had spent time with three months ago was playful and loving, if a little rambunctious. Although Nina required a lot of attention, Deanna was able to provide it. They were pretty much inseparable, and they made each other happy.

But a visit to Nina today confirmed Dowling’s analysis.

When I approached Nina in her kennel, she didn’t recognize me. To a large extent, I didn’t recognize her. She jumped aggressively against her cage and bared her teeth. She seemed anxious and made no eye contact. I was looking at a very different dog than the one I had known.

After a while, Nina did calm down a little for Dowling, though, and accepted food from her hand through the cage. When Dowling asked Nina to “dance,” she pranced in a circle. Still, the dog looked very troubled. “We’ve done all we can do,” said Kat Brown, the director of Animal Care & Control, and it seemed she was right.

I left the shelter in tears.


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