By Natalie Johnson and Justyna Tomtas / The Chronicle
After months of court hearings, petitions, protests and emotional visits through a chain link fence at the Lewis County Animal Shelter, Hank the dog has gone home.
“I feel great,” Jann Propp-Estimo said through tears after a Thurston County Superior Court Judge ordered Hank’s release Wednesday. “I feel vindicated.”
Judge John Skinder ordered Wednesday that Hank be released immediately to owner Jann Propp-Estimo and her family, granting a preliminary injunction requested by animal rights attorney Adam Karp.
Skinder told the court he based his decision on the legal principle of equity
“Equity gives the court the ability to do what is right and fair,” he said.
Furthermore, he “rescinded and voided” an earlier court order to euthanize the dog.
Hours later, Propp-Estimo picked Hank up from the animal shelter and took him home.
Her husband Gary Pringle was also present.
“It feels wonderful now,” Propp-Estmo said. “There’s a lot of things I could say, but I just want to move forward.”
The couple said it had been a long road.
“She has five months of sleep to catch up on,” Pringle said of his wife who continued to fight for Hank’s release despite several earlier court orders that did not secure the animal’s safety.
Propp-Estimo said she knew Hank never took part in the acts he was accused of because of his polite temperament.
Through various Facebook pages, websites and petitions, the following of Hank’s story grew internationally.
“I am in awe of what has come to pass from a single Facebook post,” Pringle said. “One little posting on a Facebook page to what it has grown into. It’s not just a local movement, it’s global. I think when you have the support of that many people from around the world, you can’t give up. You can’t quit.”
Buddy, the couple’s grandchild, was not able to pick Hank up from the Animal Shelter, but was at the court hearing. Propp-Estimo said he was excited by the news as were the other people in the courthouse who broke out in excitement once the Judge left the chambers.
“When I turned to him and said ‘we won’ he was so happy,” she said.
Amy Hanson, the manager of the Animal Shelter, said the moment of Hank’s release felt surreal.
“We are so happy for the dog and his family,” she said as she wiped away tears.
Hanson, along with her boss, Danette York, of the Public Health and Social Services Department were responsible for adopting the dog out after his name had been changed, according to court documents. Both faced criminal charges that were later dismissed.
Hank, who started life as Tank, was declared to be dangerous by Lewis County staff in April 2016 after he was accused along with another dog of killing two goats and injuring a horse. The second dog was never taken into custody by Lewis County Animal Control, and is now reportedly living with the original owner’s family out of state.
Tank was seized by Lewis County and designated as dangerous. However, county and animal shelter staff came to believe Tank was not dangerous. They attempted to find rehabilitation opportunities, and failing that, changed his name to Hank and adopted him to Propp-Estimo’s family, with no mention of his previous “dangerous” declaration.
Early this year, county officials learned of the situation and seized Hank from his new family. Since then, he has been held at the Lewis County Animal Shelter.
Wednesday’s hearing was a continuation of one initiated Oct. 13 after Karp requested a temporary injunction stopping Hank’s court-ordered euthanasia.
As part of his ruling, Skinder gave a summary of the case for the many people in the court concerned about Hank and the rights of other animals.
“I know this is a case that many of you are very interested in,” he said. “This is the fifth court that had some contact with this case.”
First, Lewis County District Court Judge R.W. Buzzard ruled with the county that Hank was dangerous and ordered him to be euthanized. Karp filed an appeal allowing Hank to stay in the animal shelter pending future hearings.
A Grays Harbor Judge then considered Karp’s appeal motion and upheld Buzzard’s ruling.
Karp then appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, but that appeal was dismissed to focus on the request for the preliminary injunction in Thurston County, Skinder explained.
Skinder did not question the rulings of previous judges, but explained that Hank’s case concerned the distinction between a strict interpretation of the law and the legal principle of “equity.”
Skinder cited a 1968 court ruling regarding the principle of equity, which he said set a precedent that citizens have a right to expect the same standards of treatment by the state as by any other citizen.
He also noted, as did Karp, that Propp-Estimo and her family had “clean hands” in the situation. While irregularities in Lewis County employees’ actions have been well documented, Skinder said that Propp-Estimo had done nothing wrong in adopting a dog that she had no reason to believe was dangerous.
“Ultimately, there was a fraud committed that deeply harmed her and the dog,” Karp said, arguing that Propp-Estimo and her family shouldn’t be penalized by losing Hank because they adopted a dog under fraudulent circumstances out of their control.
If she knew the dog was dangerous and sought to keep the dog in spite of county code, that might be a different story, Skinder said.
“But that’s not the situation here,” he added.
While the inconsistencies in Lewis County employees’ actions might not be significant to Hank’s fate under a strict legal interpretation, they do matter under the principle of equity, Skinder said.
Based on that, he granted the preliminary injunction, ruling that Hank be released under restrictions defined in Lewis County code for a dog deemed “potentially dangerous.”
The decision leaves an opportunity for either Lewis County or Propp-Estimo to bring the case back to Lewis County District Court to challenge Hank’s status as “dangerous.”
However, it also provides an opportunity for Karp to request a permanent injunction sparing Hank’s life in a future hearing in Skinder’s court.