Dead Dog Walking

What happens when a husband-and-wife team fight to save the life of every violent dog?

The inmate wants out of his darkened cell. He paces, calling out day and night until his throat is raw. His nails bleed from trying to claw his way through concrete walls to freedom.

His name is Cujo, a coiled 51 pounds of brown and white pit bull. When a keeper draws back a curtain, washing the cage in daylight, Cujo hurls himself against the cell's wire door, his jaws snapping. If the door gave way, a second chainlink gate would stop the dog's escape. No one around Cujo takes any chances.

Cujo is locked up at Multnomah County Animal Services in Troutdale, a compound off West Historic Columbia River Highway and surrounded by trees, tall grass and bramble. He has been here since he mauled the face of a 4-year-old girl. County officials consider Cujo a "dangerous dog," a legal finding that would allow them to euthanize him. Cujo may never walk out of his cage again except to die.

Some animal-rights activists say the death penalty is no more ethical for dogs than it is for humans. Officials with Animal Services disagree, arguing they must protect the public. "These dogs are a potential threat to society," says Randall Brown, Animal Services' chief field supervisor. "There's a potential that they could harm another human."

The county's rules lay out the steps necessary before a dangerous dog can be euthanized, and the decision to put the animal down could be carried out in as few as three weeks.

But Cujo has been locked up for 15 months. Cujo's neighbor, Dewbie, is a brown pit bull who bit three strangers in a matter of weeks, breaking skin each time.  He's been in custody for 19 months. Tiger, a tawny, cat-killing pit bull, has been locked up nearly as long.

County officials say it's been years since so many violent dogs have been in solitary for this length of time. Animal Services can neither euthanize nor free these tail-wagging hard cases. That's because the fates of these dogs are tied up in court, thanks to a psychologist named Gail O'Connell-Babcock and her lawyer husband, Robert "Reb" Babcock.

Portland is dog heaven, where no-kill shelters are common and large swaths of city parks have been dedicated to four-leggers.

But even among animal advocates, the Babcocks are unusual. For two decades, the Babcocks (she is 72, and he is 71) have waged a dog-by-dog fight to save the lives of the most violent canines—even when the dogs' owners walk away and county officials say they can find no humane long-term shelter to keep the dogs away from the public.

The Babcocks say they believe there is rarely—if ever—a dog that deserves to be called dangerous. They say dogs bite when they're put in bad situations, either by the owners or even by the victims of a dog attack. The Babcocks say they work to help the dogs' owners, given that the county's determination to eliminate risk around violent dogs leads to the ruthless idea the animals must be killed.

"It's easier to blame the dog," O'Connell-Babcock says. "That would be like our blaming our child on the playground when he punches someone, and saying, 'That's a dangerous child, we need to get rid of him.'"

The Babcocks' crusade has often been portrayed in the news media as good-hearted, if eccentric. But their tactics have a hidden price.

O'Connell-Babcock routinely labels Animal Services as dishonest, manipulative and uncaring. They have also intentionally dragged out Cujo's case, even though the owner isn't sure he wants the dog back. The cost to taxpayers of caring for Cujo, Dewbie and Tiger has hit $34,000, including $6,000 for back surgery on Tiger in April.

Meanwhile, the dogs grow more manic. Both Cujo and Dewbie are too dangerous to take on walks. Animal Services workers try to distract them with videos of squirrels and other wildlife on a 32-inch TV, recently purchased by a donor. County vets—hoping to decrease the dogs' obsessive behavior—have Cujo and Dewbie on anti-anxiety meds.

The Babcocks blame the county for the dogs' condition. O'Connell-Babcock likens her struggle to save dogs in the county shelter to the battles waged by Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony and Nelson Mandela.

The county says the Babcocks are the ones who have allowed the dogs to deteriorate. The couple has often left other animal-rights advocates uneasy.

"I applaud their efforts to make a difference in the lives of shelter animals. It's just not my style," Sharon Harmon, executive director of the Oregon Humane Society, says of the Babcocks. "Extreme and idealistic people do have impact. But you can see how polarizing they are."

The Babcocks say that—regardless of how they are perceived—they are trying to save lives.

"My client," O'Connell-Babcock says, "is the dog."

On the morning of April 2, 2014, Eleazara Ballesteros-Perez visited a friend in Gresham and took her daughter, Yalitza, a 4-year-old who loves dogs. Yalitza went outside to play with several other children in a fenced yard. One of the residents owned a pit bull. That dog was Cujo.

A few minutes later, one of the children ran inside.

"The dog is attacking the baby!" he screamed.

Cujo had clamped its jaws around Yalitza's head and face. Ballesteros-Perez yanked on the dog's ears until it released the little girl, and then covered her daughter as Cujo lunged again. Ballesteros-Perez kicked at the dog until someone could control it.

At Oregon Health & Science University, ER doctors found a nearly 3-inch gash on the top of Yalitza's head and deep holes in both cheeks. Sasha Ballesteros, Yalitza's aunt and guardian, says chunks of the little girl's skin hung off her face.

Multnomah County Animal Services investigates dog bites, and the agency put an officer on the case after learning about the attack on TV news. The initial story said the dog had been a stray that walked up and attacked the girl.

The Animal Services officer went door to door, and two days later pieced together the real story. The officer seized Cujo and cited the dog's owner, Luis Rocha, then 22, for owning a dangerous dog.

A "dangerous dog" classification is reserved for dogs that cause "the serious physical injury or death of any person." In 1986, the county created a five-level scale for aggressive dogs after a pit bull in Gresham killed a 5-year-old boy who wandered into a fenced backyard.

In 2013-14, the latest year for which the county has statistics, Animal Services labeled four dogs as dangerous dogs and 256 as "potentially dangerous." Since 2010, according to Animal Services, the county has euthanized four dogs classified as "dangerous" and 44 considered "potentially dangerous." (The numbers include dogs that were put down for health reasons.)

"Euthanasia is always a last resort," says county attorney David Blankfeld, who represents Animal Services in disputes. "It can be for a variety of unfortunate reasons such as illness or poor rehabilitative prognosis due to lack of a bite inhibition."

In many cases, the owner of a dog classified as dangerous or potentially dangerous voluntarily signs off on euthanizing the animal.

Others, like Cujo's owner, fight back.

Despite the attack on Yalitza, Luis Rocha says he disagreed that his dog Cujo was a threat. Rocha says he got the dog as a puppy and named him Cujo because he "just liked the name." He declined to say if he also named Cujo after the title dog in Stephen King's 1981 best-selling novel (and a 1983 movie) about a rabid, homicidal Saint Bernard.

"If he was a dangerous dog," Rocha says about his dog, "why would I want him around my kids?" Rocha says he wanted to fight back. "I didn't know what to do," he says.

Then he heard from Gail O'Connell-Babcock.

She had learned about Cujo as she does about much of what goes on at Animal Services: through weekly public records requests about the shelter's intake. In the last week of June, for example, she requested documents for 59 dogs and four cats.

(The Babcocks pay the county as much as $400 a month for the reports. County officials say that barely covers the costs of dealing with the Babcocks—they estimate that responding to the couple uses 40 hours of staff time a week—the equivalent of a $50,000-a-year employee's time. The Babcocks dispute that claim.)

Once she identifies the dogs, O'Connell-Babcock then sends out letters to the owners of dogs cited for violating county code and volunteers her help.

In her letter to Rocha, O'Connell-Babcock offered Reb Babcock's legal services free of charge.

Rocha says he was relieved. "There was somebody who was actually there that cared," he says.

Animal Services issued 8,866 violations in 2013-14. Most are for unlicensed animals, but the violations include everything from stray pets to animal abuse. The county and pet owners settle most tickets. When cases such as Cujo's don't get settled, both parties enter what amounts to animal court. A hearings officer issues a decision after reviewing evidence, listening to witnesses and considering the owners' pleas.

It's at these hearings where the Babcocks begin to tie Animal Services in knots.

County records show the Babcocks have represented 147 dog owners in appeals between 2010 and 2014. Reb Babcock (who does virtually all the dog legal work for free) took 23 cases to hearings in that time. Records show he lost all but one.

"They will use every argument or appeal that they can," says Blankfeld, the county's counsel, "and wait until the last possible day to file an appeal."

Reb Babcock says he continues his legal fights for the dogs because he believes the county's view of how to eliminate the risk of another attack is too narrow.

"There's a philosophy that killing is safer," he says. "And there's a philosophy, which I have, that let's find out what, short of killing, will achieve a reasonable degree of public safety."

In Cujo's case, documents show, Rocha, the dog's owner, had originally said the little girl had been attacked by a stray dog that had wandered into his yard. Rocha also said he had seen the entire incident, and asserted the wounds on Yalitza were mere scratches caused when Cujo jumped on her while playing.

Testimony and other evidence showed Rocha had lied. The dog was indeed his, and he hadn't actually witnessed the attack. Other witnesses, including Yalitza's mother and Rocha's wife, saw Cujo bite the girl.

Yalitza told her story at the hearing. "The dog bit me everywhere," she testified, "and would not let me go."

Reb Babcock defended Cujo in part by downplaying the harm done to the girl. He argued Cujo should not be classified as "dangerous" because the county had failed to prove that Yalitza's wounds constituted "serious and protracted disfigurement."

"Looking at the little girl today, and looking at the improvement over time, it is not disfiguring now," Babcock told the hearings officer.

Babcock made the argument even though Yalitza had appeared at the hearing with scars caused by Cujo still visible on her face.

Today, Babcock says he's sorry for Yalitza, but he blames adults who left her unsupervised with Cujo. He also says she appeared to be fine when she testified about the attack. "She was really over it, in terms of psychological trauma," he says.

He also believes the scars weren't that serious and might not be permanent.

"If my daughter had that blemish," Babcock says, looking at a photo of Yalitza's face, "that wouldn't trouble me at all."

Sasha Ballesteros, Yalitza's guardian, says the girl, now 6, isn't over the trauma of the attacks—she continues to fear strange dogs. Yalitza healed but still has scars, including a patch on her head where hair won't grow, and she asks Ballesteros when the marks will go away.

Ballesteros says Babcock's comments about Yalitza leave her feeling angry and sad. "This guy doesn't have a heart or compassion for what people go through," she says.

In July 2014, the hearings officer dismissed Babcock's arguments, ruling that Cujo had launched "an unprovoked, unrelenting attack." The only reason the injuries weren't worse was because the girl's mother stopped Cujo when she did.

The hearings officer declared Cujo a dangerous dog and left it to county officials to determine whether he should die.

When he loses before a hearings officer, Babcock has taken dog cases to Multnomah County Circuit Court. He's filed at least 30 petitions since 1996.

In Cujo's case, Babcock filed the petition and then did nothing in court for months. He tells WW he took no action in the case because he thought the delay might put pressure on the county to change its position. "I will admit I dragged my feet," Babcock says.

He finally filed paperwork three weeks ago to get Cujo's case moving, only after WW asked about it.

"The fact that these people can openly admit to stalling makes them nothing short of hypocrites," says Multnomah County spokesman David Austin. "They claim that they care about dogs, but delaying these things only hurts these dogs."

Rocha, Cujo's owner, tells WW he hasn't heard from the Babcocks for a year and didn't know about the appeal.

"As far as I know," Rocha says, "the whole case was closed and we lost." (The Babcocks say that isn't true—they say they told Rocha of the appeal, and that he approved.)

Meanwhile, Cujo has spent 459 days in his cage.

Rocha worries Cujo would need rehab before coming home.

"That's just like sending a guy to prison," Rocha says. "He's not going to return the same."

The Babcocks met as undergrads at Swarthmore College outside Philadelphia in 1961. Reb came from Indiana. Gail says she grew up wealthy in Brazil. They were friends in college. He became a maritime lawyer, and she earned a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Miami. Reb says both went through "a couple of marriages apiece" before they wed in 1985. They now live in Sherwood with at least two dogs. (They declined to say how many they now own.)

O'Connell-Babcock says she had little interest in animal rights aside from mailing checks to the Humane Society. That changed in 1995, when she read a story in The Oregonian about Pookie, a Rottweiler sentenced by the county to die after mauling the foot of a 2-year-old girl.

She went to Pookie's hearing and was appalled by the lack of fairness. "It was when I fell down the rabbit hole," she says. "The way you become an activist is, you witness injustice."

She got her husband to take up Pookie's case. He challenged Animal Services in Multnomah County Circuit Court and won Pookie's freedom. A judge said there were extenuating circumstances that suggested the dog wasn't dangerous and didn't deserve to die. In court, Babcock argued the 2-year-old girl contributed to the bite because she trespassed when she stuck her foot through Pookie's fence.

The Pookie case won the Babcocks lots of media attention and emboldened them to keep fighting the county. (WW did a cover story on the Pookie case, and in 2010 called O'Connell-Babcock a "crusader" for her unrelenting watchdogging of Animal Services.) Dozens of stories have followed over the years, not all flattering. In 2006, The Oregonian reported the Multnomah County sheriff excluded O'Connell-Babcock from the shelter for a year because she was "abusive, disruptive or threatening" to staff.

O'Connell-Babcock says the exclusion came when she refused to leave after closing hours in an effort to save a dog's life. "They set me up and collected evidence," she says. "It's like any insular culture that doesn't want somebody there."

O'Connell-Babcock says that, over the years, she's helped with the adoption and rescue of several hundred dogs from Animal Services. She frequently mails information packets, at her own expense, to people who have had their dogs impounded or received a ticket. She's taken in several dogs accused of biting people.

Animal Services is an "open door" public shelter that accepts all dogs and cats, regardless of breed, health, or temperament. Local animal-rights advocates over the years have focused on bringing down the county shelter's kill rate. It's worked. In 1995, the shelter euthanized 53 percent of the animals that came through its doors. Today, that number is down to 9 percent, and most are euthanized because of health or behavior issues.

The Babcocks accuse Animal Services of falsifying the live-release rates. "The county has an absolute duty as a public shelter to do no harm to the entire range of animals in their care," O'Connell-Babcock says. "They have failed that responsibility miserably."

County officials—who have grown weary of the Babcocks' broadsides—call her statements "absurd."

"You would think that we were holding these animals in Guantánamo Bay and subjecting them to torture," says county spokesman Austin. "Animal Services staff are there because they like animals. Gail feels like we kill animals and lie about it. It's like saying librarians hate books."

For some animal-rights advocates, the Babcocks' methods are welcome. "Gail has just devoted her life to help these dogs that have nobody, have nothing," says Robert Nixon, founder of the Humane Political Action Committee in Mahomet, Ill., who often works with the Babcocks. "They choose to work this thankless job because it's the right thing to do and there's not many people who do it."

Fans of the Babcocks say the county is more interested in making sure the public doesn't know what happens inside the shelter.

"Reb and Gail are immensely talented and energetic," says Toni Reita, who runs Happy Tails Rescue in Goldendale, Wash., a rescue for Rottweilers that has taken dogs from Animal Services. "But until people know what's going on, no one is going to care. It's easy to turn your head when you don't know."

Other animal-rights advocates see the Babcocks' methods as counterproductive.

"You just can't be associated with [Gail] professionally because of her poison pen," says Ron Murray, executive director of Oregon Dog PAC and a frequent critic of Animal Services. "People dismiss her because of her virulent personal attacks."

Others wonder about the harmful effects the Babcocks' protracted fights with the county have on the dogs they're trying to save.

"Keep the dog in a damn shelter for six months?" says Amy Sacks, director of the Pixie Project, a Portland animal rescue center. "Put it in a warehouse for six months because no one has the balls put it to sleep? It's an insane use of resources. One must think of the quality of life, both for the animal and the potential adopter."

The Babcocks advocate creating an education program for owners of dogs that bite. They also call for sending some dogs classified as dangerous or potentially dangerous to shelters or sanctuaries willing to handle them.

County officials say the Babcocks' argument is often unrealistic.

"Most sanctuaries don't want dangerous dogs, nor do humane societies or rescues," says Michelle Luckey, legal aid officer at Animal Services. "They would end up holding onto nothing but dangerous dogs until the end of their lives. Adoptable dogs would be turned away."

Animal Services does work to reform some violent dogs. For example, the Babcocks fought unsuccessfully for more than a year to free Tiger after the pit bull killed two cats. Animal Services workers saw that Tiger posed no threat to people, moved him out of the security kennel and sent him for short stays in cat-free foster homes.

O'Connell-Babcock isn't impressed—she thinks Tiger should never have been held in maximum security in the first place. She thinks Cujo could have been released months ago. The same, she says, is true for Cujo's pit bull neighbor, Dewbie.

Dewbie also remains in limbo because of the Babcocks' legal action. Shelter officials consider Dewbie more of a challenge than Cujo—it takes two people to handle him, using 6-foot poles that hook the dog's collar. Like Cujo, Dewbie is on trazodone, an antidepressant, to lower his stress.

O'Connell-Babcock says the county should give each dog a "psychological intervention."

“Abused and neglected animals recover,” she says. “One moves along the path to recovery.” 

The fight for dogs like Cujo and Dewbie, she says, is about saving a life: “It took Nelson Mandela, what, 16 years to get out of jail?” 

The Babcocks have routinely gone to court to protect dogs that have attacked people or other animals. Here are 5 cases from their files.     



The day after Christmas 2012, a Wood Village woman went to a neighbor's fourplex to complain about gossip she'd been hearing about herself. When she knocked on the door, she would later say, she heard the neighbor call out, "Come in." When she entered, an 8-year-old pit bull mix named Dott attacked her, taking a bite out of her neck a police report described was "the size of a small fist."

According to records, Reb Babcock argued the county couldn't prove that the woman had actually been invited into the apartment. Testimony showed the resident didn't hear the woman knock. Babcock noted county code states a dog may not be considered dangerous if the aggressive behavior "was directed toward a trespasser."

The hearings officer found the victim of the attack "could have reasonably been construed by Dott as threatening to his owners." Dott went free.

Babcock accuses some of the county's hearings officers are biased against him. "But sometimes you get a hearings officer," he says, "who follows the law."


In October 2014, a pit bull named Smokey attacked the landlord entering an East Portland rental property. She required 105 stitches, mostly on her arms, and was hospitalized for nearly a week.

An Animal Services officer testified that the wounds— the dog's bites had exposed bone—were the worst she'd seen in 22 years on the job. When the county impounded Smokey, the pit bull was still covered in the victim's blood.

Babcock fought the county's designation of Smokey as a dangerous dog, but lost before a hearings officer on Feb. 13. The county code says Animal Services is supposed to wait 20 days before euthanizing a dangerous dog, allowing the owner time to appeal.

But Animal Services moved quickly, records show, injecting Smokey with a sodium pentobarbital mix called Fatal-Plus only six days after the hearings officer's ruling.

County officials dispute they moved too fast, claiming the waiting period didn't apply in this case. 

"They're obligated to follow the rules they wrote," Babcock says of the county. "There's no question they jumped the gun on this one."


Animal Services took custody of Dewbie in October 2013 after the pit bill bit two people along the Willamette River in separate incidents over two days—a jogger running under the Burnside Bridge on the eastside, and someone walking in Tom McCall Waterfront Park.

Dewbie's owner was homeless. The county quarantined the dog and deemed Dewbie a Level 4, the classification just below dangerous. Records show that Animal Services considered euthanasia for Dewbie.

Still, the county returned Dewbie to his owner two weeks later. Within a month, Dewbie had bitten someone else, a woman near the Southeast 122nd Avenue MAX station. Animals Services seized the dog.

Dewbie's owner appealed but didn't show for a hearing in February 2014, and the county won by default. Babcock claimed the owner, still homeless, was not given formal notice of the hearing. (Babcock refused to show up in her absence.)

Babcock argued in Multnomah County Circuit Court that Dewbie should get a hearing. A judge disagreed, and Babcock has asked the Oregon Court of Appeals to review the question. Dewbie is still in the county shelter and could face death. 

"I don't think you have to kill a dog to solve this problem," Babcock says.

Narimen Rhodes was the woman Dewbie bit near the MAX station. She was surprised when WW told her the dog was still in detention and his case on appeal.

"I think he should be put down," Rhodes says. "I hate to say it, but there could be more people he could attack in the future. I don't want him out on the streets again."


Erin McGibbon recalls the day in December 2013 when she saw two pit bulls running loose in her Sumner neighborhood near Northeast 87th Avenue and Alberta Street.

"They were fighting over something, like a tug of war," McGibbon later recalled to investigators. "I realized it was my cat Markus."

McGibbon recognized the dogs as pit bulls one of her neighbors often failed to keep in his yard.

One dog took off, and the other continued to chew on Markus  (now clearly dead) until McGibbon threw a rock at it.

A neighbor shot and wounded one of the pit bulls, Chata, claiming it was threatening him. Chata was eventually euthanized at DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital in Northwest Portland.

The other pit bull, Tiger, was well known to Animal Services. He had reportedly killed another cat, and Tiger's owner had been sent 13 tickets for animal code violations over the past two years, county records show.

Animal Services denied Tiger a hearing. Babcock fought in Multnomah County Circuit Court for a year, arguing the county erred. He won, and Tiger got his hearing in April. But the hearings officer sided with Animal Services and the case is now back in circuit court. Tiger remains impounded.

Gail O'Connell-Babcock recalls confronting the county's attorney, David Blankfeld, outside the hearing room, telling him Tiger could go free if the county was willing to settle.

Blankfeld recalls how McGibbon wept during the hearing as she described witnessing the pit bulls maul her cat. Blankfeld says he wanted to know how O'Connell-Babcock felt about it.

"What about the cat that got torn apart?" Blankfeld says he asked her. "What about the victim?"

"Shit happens," he recalls O'Connell-Babcock replying.

O'Connell-Babcock says she doesn't recall saying that to Blankfeld.


This Australian shepherd-husky mix attacked a 7-year-old girl outside her Troutdale home in August 2001, sending her to the ER for multiple stitches. The county impounded Snickers, classified him as dangerous, and had him examined by a certified dog trainer, who concluded euthanasia was "the only safe and humane option."

Five months later, a worker opened Snickers' cage to clean it out, and the dog lunged at one of the sanctuary's founders, an 85-year-old woman, knocking her to the ground and biting her head and neck. (Gail O'Connell-Babcock says the woman was at fault for improperly grabbing the dog's collar—"a known trigger," she says.)

The woman died a year later of causes unrelated to the attack, and a Wisconsin jury found the worker negligent and awarded the woman's estate $180,667.

According to the Babcocks, Snickers was put down.

The Babcocks say it's an old case, but Snickers has become a cautionary tale for Animal Services officials.

“That’s why we’re cautious about putting [dangerous dogs] in foster care or in a sanctuary,” says Randall Brown, Animal Services’ chief field supervisor. “That’s probably about as bad as it could get.” 

WWeek 2015

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.