HOWLING FOUL: Aurora judge delays hearing in wolf-hybrid spat

“It’s horrible,” she said. “Impounding the dog and forcing DNA tests is pretty much the way Aurora is handling things these days, whether it’s a dog they think is a pit bull or a wolf hybrid in this case.”

20170315-Wolf-Aurora, Colorado

From left, attorney, Aaron Acker, Tracy Abbato, George Stapleton and Titio Serrano walk out of the Aurora Municipal Court on Wednesday March 15, 2017. Abbato and Serrano's dog is being held by Aurora Animal Services under suspicion of being a wolf hybrid. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

20170315-Wolf-Aurora, Colorado

on Wednesday March 15, 2017 at Aurora Municipal Court. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

Capone 3
Capone 1

The city's Animal Services Department alleges Capone, shown here, is a wolf-hybrid. The canine's owners assert the dog is a shepherd-mix. Photo provided courtesy of Tracy Abbato.

AURORA | A local family accused of owning a wolf-hybrid will not be able to retrieve their pet from the custody of Aurora Animal Services for another week while legal proceedings continue, an Aurora municipal judge ruled Wednesday.

Judge Loretta Huffine granted a request from the animal owners’ attorney, Aaron Acker, to continue a hearing on the animal’s fate for one week in order to give Acker time to review recently released city documents and organize witnesses. The next hearing is set for 1:30 p.m. March 22 in Aurora Municipal Court.

The case has garnered a great deal of media attention, pitting owners against the city’s animal control department.

The defendant in the case, Tito Serrano, is facing five formal charges in relation to his dog, Capone. The charges are: owning an aggressive or dangerous animal, owning a wild, exotic or dangerous animal, having an animal run at-large,  keeping an animal without proper registration tags and keeping an animal without rabies inoculation. Serrano’s attorney formally entered a not guilty plea on all charges.

The 11-year-old dog has been in the custody of the city’s Animals Services Department since Feb. 24, when officers found it without a collar on the 900 block of Jamaica Street, about one block from Serrano’s home.

The city deemed the dog to be a wolf-hybrid due to its “behavior, mannerisms and physical characteristics,” according to City Spokesman Michael Bryant.

Under Aurora city code, it is illegal for residents to own a wolf or wolf-hybrid.

However, Acker was optimistic about his chances of winning the case due to ambiguity in the city ordinance regarding what constitutes a hybrid.

“The statute doesn’t necessarily set forth what constitutes a hybrid animal in any specificity, so we’ve got experts that are going to say that, you know, a lot of dogs could have 2 percent wolf in them, so what constitutes an actual wolf?” he said. “(The ordinance) just says wolf — period and a hybrid animal … that could be construed from anything that has 1 percent  or .01 percent to 99 percent — it’s pretty unspecific.”

Earlier this month, city officials sent the canine’s DNA to a genetic testing lab at the University of California-Davis to determine if the animal is, in fact, a descendant of wolves. The test results are typically returned in about three weeks, according to Bryant. He said Capone’s DNA sample was shipped to California March 2. The wolf-hybrid test costs $120, according to the UC-Davis website.

The wolf-hybrid test can only detect hybrids within three generations, according to UC-Davis.

“Because of the close genetic relationship among dogs and wolves, wolf ancestry beyond three generations may be undetectable by these tests,” according to the university’s website for its Veterinary Genetics Laboratory. There are an estimated 300,000 wolf-dog hybrids in the U.S., according to UC-Davis.

The city has faced an onslaught of criticism tied to its handling of Capone’s case on social media in recent days. The story gained national attention after Fox 31 Denver first reported on the story earlier this week.

On Wednesday morning, the city released the following statement on its Facebook page: “We want to thank everyone for the discussion surrounding the current case involving Aurora Animal Services. Because this is an ongoing legal case, we are unable to respond specifically to some of your comments, but please know that we are reviewing and compiling all of the comments we receive. We hope there will be an amicable resolution to this situation. Thank you.”

The post gained more than 200 comments on Facebook.

“For the shelter to now be taking the family’s pet away … is really disheartening,” City Councilwoman Renie Peterson said. “I just think it’s wrong.”

If granted control of the animal by the court, the city could elect to have the animal transferred to a wolf sanctuary or euthanized.

“The primary goal would be to locate a sanctuary that specializes in such animals and can provide the animal with a new home,” Bryant said.

Serrano and his partner Tracy Abbato said they rescued the dog from an Adams County animal shelter when the animal was about nine months old. Serrano said Capone does not typically display aggressive behavior other than barking at passerby on the street. He added that the fence-jumping incident Feb. 24 was the first time the dog had ever run away.

Abbato said the dog bit one person about four years ago after an allegedly intoxicated individual entered the couple’s yard in north Aurora. She said neither she nor Serrano faced any criminal charges or fines following the incident.

The current charges facing Serrano come with varying penalties, from a $25 charge for a first conviction of having an animal running at-large, to up to $2,650 and/or a year in prison for owning a wild, exotic or dangerous animal, according to city code.

Serrano is also being charged $15 per day for each day Capone remains in the custody of Animal Services.

“(I feel) heartbroken because my dog’s still not coming home with us, but (I’m) hoping we’ll get him back next week after we get everything in line and have everybody shown that he’s not aggressive or a wolf or anything,” Abbato said after the court proceedings Wednesday.

Serrano said Capone’s absence at home has been difficult on his three children.

“It’s been pretty stressful not having him home,” he said. “And it’s been pretty hard on my kids, that’s the main thing.”

Serrano and Abbato also own an Italian Mastiff and a Great Dane, Serrano said.

The couple recently set up a GoFundMe page to try to crowd source the costs of attorney’s fees, a new fence and the $15 daily fine while Capone remains in the city’s custody.

Juliet Piccone, an Aurora attorney who litigates cases involving dogs, condemned how the city has handled the case.

“It’s horrible,” she said. “Impounding the dog and forcing DNA tests is pretty much the way Aurora is handling things these days, whether it’s a dog they think is a pit bull or a wolf hybrid in this case.”

Aurora voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure that prohibits pit bulls in the city in 2014.