Truck driver Nathan Stewart adopted Sophie, a 5-year-old pit bull, from an Iowa shelter in December as a Christmas gift to himself. He told the Huffington Post she's an ideal travel companion for driving around the country as he does, because she's friendly and smart but her intimidating looks might deter would-be thieves.
She also saved Stewart's life twice within their first two weeks together, by keeping him awake as he was fighting road fatigue. "It's a constant battle," he said.
But in late March, Sophie was taken away from Stewart by authorities in Salina, Kansas. Her crime: she's the wrong breed.
“Sophie is the world’s sweetest animal,” Stewart told the trucking magazine Land Line, which first reported on his story. “She’s never bit anybody, she’s never bit another dog, and she doesn’t go after them. She is a human cuddler; she likes to be next to people.”
Sophie and Nathan Stewart in Stewart's truck. Photo courtesy of Nathan Stewart
The city of Salina bans pit bulls, and they've got an expansive, imprecise list of dogs that fall under that definition, including Staffordshire bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, American pit bull terriers, and "any other breed commonly known as Pit Bull, Pit Bull Dog, or Pit Bull Terrier."
Dogs which merely "have the appearance and characteristics" of such breeds are also prohibited within the city.
Sophie's genetics have never been tested to determine her breed, but Stewart calls her a pit bull. Though he has a Salina driver's license and says he was aware of the city's ban, he told The Huffington Post he "didn't think I was going to be there long enough for it to affect me."
By his estimate, he's driving 50 weeks of the year, and he was only in town briefly to visit a friend and pick up mail.
On March 29, Stewart left Sophie at the friend's house while going out to eat, he told HuffPost. The area in which he left her was "contained," he said, but the dog somehow got out and a neighbor called animal control after spotting Sophie outside.
But before authorities arrived, another friend with keys to the house had ushered Sophie back inside, where Stewart found her. Not long after that, animal control came to the house. The officers demanded that Stewart bring them his dog, he said, so they could inspect her to decide whether or not she was a pit.
What happened next is a matter of dispute. Stewart said he told the officers to come back with a warrant and was informed that none was needed in cases involving dogs -- which would raise serious 4th Amendment concerns, according to Adam Bates, an attorney and policy analyst with the Cato Institute's Project on Criminal Justice.
"The whole idea [of the 4th Amendment] was to abolish the idea of general warrants and raids of homes based on the whims or mere suspicions of government agents. A person's home is their castle," Bates said. "There were no exigent circumstances here that might justify a warrantless search of the home. The occupants weren't going to destroy the dog, nobody was in danger, there was no exigency at all."
Vanessa Cowie, Animal Services Supervisor at the Salina Animal Shelter, told HuffPost that no warrant was needed in Stewart's case because the dog was visible in plain sight through an open window.
Whatever preceded, Stewart did bring Sophie out of the house, and "they basically just looked at her and said, yep, she's a pit bull," he said.
Stewart was issued a citation for violating the Salina pit bull ban and given the option of loading Sophie into the van himself, or having officers do it. He chose the former.
"Give her some dignity. Do you know how heartbreaking that is?" he said.
A court date has been set for April 14. According to the Salina ordinance, Stewart could be fined up to $2,500, and sent to jail for up to a year.
Sophie, who is considered evidence, is being held by the city until Stewart's case is resolved.
"Sophie has shown no signs of aggression, and the staff are able to handle her easily," according to Cowie, who said that shelter staff are making sure that the dog gets exercise and attention.
Cowie, who assumed her job about a year ago, was instrumental in changing Salina policy so that seized dogs are no longer euthanized as a matter of course. As a result, many pits taken under the law can now be sent to out-of-town rescue groups instead.
In Stewart's case, she anticipates the court will eventually release Sophie as long as Stewart pays whatever fee the court levies against him -- and if he promises to take his dog out of town.
"The dog's not going to be euthanized," she said. "The dog is probably going back to Nathan."
That's good news, but Stewart said he's worried about others who might not get so lucky.
"I don't want anyone else's dog to have to suffer," he says. "It's ridiculous for any government to take a family member away."
He's far from alone in this sentiment. Breed specific legislation, or BSL, is typically enacted at a local level, but 19 states have now passed laws that hamper cities and counties from prohibiting or otherwise regulating dogs by breed.
Various efforts are underway in Salina, and elsewhere in the state, to scrap its pit bull ban.
"The city is spending an excessive amount of valuable resources to push these cases in court," said Kris Diaz, an animal advocate and anti-BSL blogger who's written about similar recent cases in Salina. "There have been some pretty egregious cases of enforcement of these laws, but what I see happening in Salina recently is not only beyond comparison but also beyond explanation."
"It's not the dog [that needs to be regulated], it's the owner," Midge Grinstead, Kansas director for the Humane Society of the United States, told HuffPost. "Any time you target the animal, it's wrong."
Grinstead anticipates a long road for that particular political battle.
Meantime, Stewart -- who is back on the literal road in his truck, without his partner -- is looking toward April 14.
"Come hell or high water, I will be in Salina for the court date," he vowed. "I will fight for my dog."
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