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Police turn to net blasters, undercover cars in hunt for rogue Savannah dog duo



savannahnow.com, 20.07.2015

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      Police turn to net blasters, undercover cars in hunt for rogue Savannah dog duo
      Christi and Brian Ralph moved to Savannahs Gordonston community just a few weeks ago. Theyd heard rumors about wild dogs roaming the east-side neighborhood and causing problems, but they figured it must be a joke.
      That changed early July 1, when Brian took the trash out and saw two feral dogs standing outside the couples chicken coop. Inside were 10 chickens, dead or wounded after being attacked. They werent eaten, though.
      Its like they just wanted to kill small animals, Christi said.
      Brian grabbed a leg from a nearby table, then he and his 100-pound family dog chased the mutts away. But he says they came back and leered as he tended to the birds.
      They were pretty brazen, he said.
      The Ralphs arent the only residents whove had problems with the rogue dogs in recent weeks. Since the start of July, at least two others in Gordonston have reported finding dead chickens. Another, in nearby Twickenham, says shes seen cats killed on a neighbors property. Foxes stalk the area sometimes, too.
      Residents are saying the feral canine problem is reaching a head.
      God forbid the next time they bite someone its a child, said George Woods, whose wife, Kate, found dead chickens instead of eggs inside the couples Gordonston coop Tuesday morning. Its time to get these creatures handled.
      Police are trying to do just that.
      Dog fight
      Finding the dogs is the No. 1 goal of the Savannah-Chatham police departments Animal Control division, said Lt. Cary Hill, who oversees the unit.
      His civilian officers have been tracking them since August. At the packs height this spring, 12 dogs were running together.
      Now, just two are left, Hill said.
      Police say theyve received reports about the dogs killing other animals only in recent weeks theyd been nonviolent nuisances before.
      But much to Animal Controls chagrin, the dogs have become adept at dodging the cops.
      Theyre the most elusive that weve ever encountered, Hill said.
      The G-dogs as police have come to call them a reference to Gordonston, where theyre often spotted know what and whom to avoid. Animal control officers say the dogs stay away from the departments traps largely because people have released them from the devices in the past and now theyve learned not to enter them.
      But it goes beyond that.
      Theyve apparently memorized the sound of an approaching Ford F-250 the trucks used by animal control officers. The dogs bail before the vehicles get close.
      It even seems as if the dogs have begun to associate the police departments logo with capture. The first officer to respond to the Ralphs residence July 1 was a patrol officer in a squad car.
      As soon as the dogs saw the police car, they took off, Brian Ralph said.
      Officers havent even had much luck with tranquilizer darts.
      The dogs dont just collapse when a dart hits them. They run. Fast. The officers have lost sight of them before the drugs kicked in every time in dense, wooded areas where they couldnt continue pursuit. Besides, sometimes they get closest to the dogs in populated areas where its probably best not to be shooting tranquilizer darts.
      So theyre trying new tactics and bringing in reinforcement.
      In their effort to bust the G-dogs, animal control officers are using undercover police cars. Hill and animal control officer Christina Sutherin got right next to the dogs in an unmarked car last week Sutherin shot one with a dart and gave chase, but the dog escaped.
      To add to Animal Controls firepower, Hill has ordered net-blasting devices for the unit. They look like a large flashlight with a camera lens, and theyll shoot a net about 60 feet. The more a dog struggles or runs, Hill says, the more it will become tangled in the webbing and give officers a chance to secure it. Equipping staff with the net blasters will cost a few thousand dollars.
      Weve never had to go to this level of extreme as far as apprehension, he said.
      Resource allocation
      Animal Control has just six civilian officers, including a supervisor, who are allotted for a jurisdiction that covers all of Chatham County minus Tybee Island. Its a function of the Savannah-Chatham police department, but Hills the only sworn officer, and he also runs the SWAT team.
      Last month, the division had nearly 900 calls for service but couldnt respond to all of them. Savannah-Chatham patrol officers rode an additional 325 animal-related calls.
      Despite limited personnel and countywide calls about strays and wounded creatures, animal control officers say theyre doing their best to stop the G-dog duo.
      Any time we have sightings, any time theres an issue with them, were rolling, Hill said. Its going to get the attention it needs.
      To help in the evenings, patrol officers from Islands Precinct have also been working an overtime detail in unmarked cars trying to spot the dogs. Recently, an officer spotted one and alerted Animal Control. They got there in time to chase it, but, as usual, it got away.
      Following the dogs until Animal Control gets on the scene is all patrol officers can really do, though. Unlike animal control officers, regular police arent equipped with dog-catching equipment they have guns, Tasers and handcuffs, and they arent trained to apprehend animals that might get aggressive.
      Hill says he plans to offer the net-shooting guns to patrol officers working in unmarked cars in the evenings. That way, theyll be able to restrain the dogs until animal control officers arrive.
      Were gonna catch em, Hill said. Its going to happen.
      Tracking the G-dogs
      Sutherin, the civilian officer supervisor for Animal Control, looked more focused than tired late Thursday afternoon despite starting her day at 5:30 a.m. apparently a prime sighting time for the elusive G-dogs in the summer heat.
      Turning onto President Street from Truman Parkway in a black, unmarked police sedan, she pointed at the highway overpass to her right.
      Thats where they start, she said, referring to the western most point where the wild dogs have been seen.
      She pulled the car onto a dirt access road off East President, scanning the high grass and green marsh water as she slowly drove further south from the main roadway. Just that morning, she and Hill had chased the dogs through the desolate area after a resident spotted them.
      Hill had driven inward, where a paved road spans east to west, while Sutherin parked near East President and tried to cut off the dogs egress. They disappeared into the heavily wooded marsh somewhere in between.
      I literally tracked them down to the Savannah Golf Club, Sutherin said, describing how she could see their paw prints in soggy ground.
      Its a familiar scenario. Animal control officers have seen the dogs and nearly caught them so many times now that police more or less know their route. Theyre just not sure where the dogs hide out.
      The dog duos seeming path of travel spans a good few miles. Next, Sutherin drove through the Runaway Point subdivision on East President, then back west toward Pennsylvania Avenue. There were no signs of her suspects, and she said its one of the most frustrating cases shes worked as an animal control officer.
      Usually theres a solution, she said. Its amazing to me how street smart these dogs are and just how theyve learned the geography.
      She said the dogs seem to know which fences have holes, and theyre always able to avoid two officers trying to cut them off.
      They almost plot ahead, she said.
      She pulled in to Savannah High and drove the car behind a fenced-in field, stopping in front of some trees. Thats where she and Hill found the dogs last week. Hill had driven close in the unmarked car, and Sutherin, in the passenger seat, rolled her window down and sunk a tranquilizer dart into the female dog with a good shot. Then it took off, and Sutherin ran after it, but the dog made it through a small gap at the edge of the schools property and disappeared into dense thickets.
      It was just on the other side of the fence where officers caught four dogs from the pack in May. They were hiding out under a vacant house on Iowa Street, and officers were able to run them down after firing darts into them. Sutherin said the last two dogs havent been spotted at the house.
      For a second on Thursday afternoon, she thought she glimpsed one of them in Pine Gardens, hitting the brakes on Treat Avenue and reversing. But it was a smaller stray that looked somewhat similar.
      She and other animal control officers have seen them several times, she said. Theyre both shepherd mixes of some sort that weigh about 40 pounds a light beige and brown female and a reddish, rust-colored male.
      The G-dogs have been spotted running around a couple of apartment complexes on Skidaway Road, East Gwinnett Street, and nearly as far south as McAlpin Square, but so far officers havent received reports of them crossing Victory Drive.
      Sutherins last stop Thursday afternoon was Hillcrest Abbey East. The cemeterys where she and another animal control officer lost sight of the dogs July 1 after the Ralphs chickens were attacked. While running along a wire fence at the edge of the cemetery, the dogs vanished, slipping through a small gap and escaping into the golf club. She pointed to a broken piece of wire where a tuft of fur was still stuck.
      Every time the dogs escape by a hair, Sutherin said, it hurts especially after so long trying to catch them.
      Its almost like youve been kicked in the gut, she said.
      Cats, foxes, neighborhood watches
      The recent dog-on-chicken violence in Gordonston has some people in the area on edge.
      Jenniee Brannen of Twickenham says shes seen them kill feral cats on a neighbors property.
      Its almost like its a game to these dogs, she said. Theres neighbors that actually sit up all night long trying to guard their pets.
      Animal control officers removed 23 feral cats from that nearby property over two weeks in June, with cooperation from the owner. Foxes had been spotted in the area Sutherin says possibly drawn by the food that was left for the cats, and potentially the cats themselves.
      Brannen said she caught one twice in a bacon-rigged trap she set up in her yard for the wild dogs. She let it go, though, because it was late and the fox was making loud noises. She didnt want it to wake her neighbors, and she wasnt sure whether Animal Control would make an after-hours trip to fetch the critter.
      Sutherin says a fox a top carrier of rabies is the kind of animal that would be collected regardless of time.
      The two G-dogs arent the only feral dogs that have roamed the east side or other parts of the Savannah area recently. And others have been problematic, too. Police say theyre as confused as anyone as to why these two in particular have recently taken to attacking small animals. It could be pack mentality.
      But its clear theyre ferocious about it. One Atkinson Avenue resident reported the dogs jumping a 4-foot chain link fence then pushing in a 5-foot chicken wire fence on July 9 to kill her chickens.
      The Ralphs had a makeshift coop at their place, but the dogs pulled up metal fencing to get at the birds.
      That has created another worry for the couple who have several kids.
      We worry about letting them walk over to the park, Christi Ralph said. We feel like we dont have that freedom anymore. Were worried about these dogs.
      So far, there have been no reports of people being attacked, but no one wants to wait around.
      Hill says the last two G-dogs cant run forever.
      This has been a challenge for us, but heres where we say we will add resolve, he said Thursday. Well get them. We will.











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