A 23-year-old man who duct-taped his dog’s mouth shut and left the animal in a car parked at the Durango Community Recreation Center has been charged with animal cruelty.
Both the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office and La Plata County Animal Protection declined to comment for this story.
According to a complaint and summons filed in La Plata County Combined Courts, Animal Protection was called about 6 p.m. July 18 to the 2700 block of Main Avenue for a report of a German Shepherd-type dog that was found in a vehicle with its mouth duct-taped shut.
Three days later, Animal Protection ticketed Thomas D. Ethridge with cruelty to animals, a Class I misdemeanor. He is scheduled to appear at 8:30 a.m. Aug. 23 in La Plata County Court.
According to Colorado law, a Class I misdemeanor for animal cruelty carries a minimum sentence of six months in prison and a $500 fine, or both. A maximum sentence carries 18 months in prison and a $5,000 fine, or both. In both cases, a judge may order a psychological evaluation or anger management classes, and it is possible the dog can be seized.
However, courts do have discretion to impose alternative sentences, which can include probation, community service and other corrective actions through plea agreements.
Juliet Piccone, a Denver attorney who specializes in animal law, said Ethridge’s actions raise concerns on many levels. To start, the animal could have easily over-heated in the 89-degree day.
“He has the dog with its muzzle duct-taped shut, so the dog can’t pant,” said Piccone. “That car can become deadly within 10 to 15 minutes.”
Betty Dorr of Durango said her son and his friends walked by Ethridge’s car and alerted her of the situation. She immediately walked over to find Ethridge and his dog coming back from a walk on the Animas River Trail.
“We told him it was inappropriate, and he didn’t seem to be interested in our opinion of how he was treating his dog,” Dorr said. “Then we called 911.”
Dorr said Ethridge left before authorities arrived. However, she was able to take a picture of his car and license plate number, which Animal Protection tracked to Ethridge’s family in Florida.
Ethridge told The Durango Herald on Tuesday that he moved to Durango from Florida about a month ago, and since then, he and his 9-month-old male Belgian Malinois, Appa, have been living out of his car, struggling to find a job and housing.
That morning, Ethridge said Appa was vomiting random items he had eaten in the car, even chewing up the leash Ethridge used to keep Appa in an area of the car clear of items.
Later in the day, Ethridge said he went to the rec center to take a shower. He said he duct-taped his dog’s mouth shut so that he wouldn’t eat anything else in the car, and also because he was concerned that Appa, who is aggressive to other people, may attack someone through the window, which he left rolled down.
“I didn’t do this maliciously or to harm him,” Ethridge said. “I love my animal. ... I’ve spent every single day with him.”
Ethridge said when he found out Animal Protection was trying to find him, he went to the La Plata County Humane Society, without his dog, where he was issued the ticket.
Ethridge is in possession of Appa. He said he’s willing to face the consequences of his actions.
“I don’t think what I did was the extreme animal abuse of the century, but I understand it is against the law,” he said. “I totally accept what I did and the punishment for it.”
Piccone said Ethridge bought a breed that is typically used for police work, and he seems ill-suited to train it. As a result, the dog, as well as other people, are at risk, she said.
“He’s not only committing the crime of animal cruelty, he’s also in possession of a dangerous dog,” Piccone said. “He has this dog for ‘protection.’ That’s not a pet, that’s not safe, and that’s not humane.”