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The jumble of laws relating to property rights, nuisance laws, both the county and state’s “Right to Farm and Ranch” and Colorado animal cruelty laws may all come into play in an incident in which a dog was shot Nov. 29 in Chaffee County.

What is also in play is a growing conflict between two country neighbors, both of whom are sure they are right and the other is wrong.

The dog, named Maddie, was hit in the ear and is expected to recover. But the incident raises questions about exactly which laws the sheriff’s office is choosing to enforce, and which take precedent as more and more urban people move out into rural areas where agricultural norms hold sway.

Maddie, a mixed-breed dog belonging to Nelson Reininger of Salida, was shot Nov. 29 by a neighbor. The bullet sliced her ear and she is recovering. Photo/Nelson Reininger

In the Nov. 29 incident, neighbor Frank Mazza shot Maddie, one of Nelson Reininger’s three dogs. He owns two Great Pyrenees and a mix, which are livestock guardian dogs for his herd of alpacas; young Oakley dug her way out and Maddie followed. Both parties live on the tiny, private, Jerry’s Lane off U.S. 291 just outside Salida.

While Mazza claimed to the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office that the dog had gone on to his property and he felt threatened, Reininger says that he was a ways behind his dog and was calling for her while walking down the driveway where Mazza’s gate was open.

He heard two shots and his dog Maddie yipped.

According to Reininger, on Sunday, Nov. 22, Mazza warned that he would shoot any dogs found on his property. “Oakley, one of our Great Pyrenees had dug under the fence and wandered onto Frank’s property,” Reininger said. “This was the first occurrence in almost a year that any of our dogs wandered onto his property through his open gate.”

“Frank contacted the Sheriff department to complain.” he continued. “I was written a citation/summons for harassment which the DA subsequently dropped.”

A week later on Sunday, Nov. 29, Mazza made good on his warning, Reininger said.

“When she saw him with the gun, she began to bark. I was there, probably 50 feet away, going down his section of the drive to his open gate. Maddie was by his woodpile, and I was calling out to her, saying ‘come on Maddie, I’ve got biscuits’. She got startled when he came out of the garage… but she didn’t advance. All he needed to do was reach down with his hand; she’d have rolled over for a belly rub.”

“I placed a call to the sheriff’s at 11:18 AM to report that my neighbor shot our dog,” Reininger said. “I waited 20 minutes until a deputy arrived before heading out to secure Oakley.  My good friend helped locate her across the highway and she was secured without incident.”

That his dogs have gotten out, Reininger doesn’t dispute. He says that Oakley had become a digger in the past few months, burrowing under fences and usually heading toward U.S. 291, so he and his wife are on constant lookout.

The most recent incident involving Maddie losing part of her ear occurred following threats from Mazza. “He called me a week before last Sunday and threatened to shoot them,” said Reininger speaking with Ark Valley Voice on Dec 7. ” I asked where the dogs were and they weren’t on his property and we found Maddie by Eric Maltz’s ranch. I went and looked for the hole and filled it in. Then 10 minutes later the sheriff’s department showed up and said I was harassing [Mazza].  I was given a document to sign and told to show up the following Tuesday. Well, I called the DA’s office [District Attorney] and they listened and said ‘you don’t need to appear’.”

Nelson Reininger’s Great Pyrenees dogs are used to protect his herd of alpacas outside Salida. Photo/Nelson Reininger

Reininger points to Colorado’s Right to Farm and Ranch Statute, which stipulates that Coloradans who don’t want livestock on their rural property are required to fence them out. Ranchers aren’t required to fence livestock in (livestock guardian dogs by state statute are classified as livestock).  His neighbor, said Reininger, has fenced property but the gate Maddie entered was open.

Mazza, for his part, says that before the shooting incident, he had felt harassed by Reininger, who was taunting him with piles of pallets and trash that he was forced to look at. A week earlier, he said, “I was outside working, coming out of my garage and here comes my cat Maw — he’s 13-years-old and crippled — and I looked up and the big white dog was chasing him. A kid working in my yard tried to chase him. Well, I called the sheriff.”

Mazza adds that Reininger had threatened him if Mazza shot at his dogs, which he admits he had threatened to do. The day of the incident, he claims, “a different dog [Maddie] tried to bite me. He got me in a position where I’m close to a gun, and I grabbed it and shot. I heard him whimper. And he took off and I shot again when he was running away.”

He adds that in his opinion, which appears colored by past experiences not just current events, “I think the dog is dangerous. If it wasn’t for a fence between me and my wife and that dog last year, he’d have nailed her [the cat].”

According to Mazza, he asked the sheriff’s office, “If I have all the rights in the world to shoot an animal that comes in my yard and he said ‘you bet you do.'”

But Chaffee County Undersheriff Andy Rohrich said that people don’t have the right to shoot an animal that wanders onto their property unless the animal is threatening. He added that “in Colorado you have the right to protect your livestock” with dogs and that barking under their designated use is not a violation.”

However, he said the case remained under investigation and therefore limited information was available. Ark Valley Voice requested a copy of the report on Dec. 8, but has not yet received it; the Sheriff’s Office said the case had been sent to the District Attorney’s office for review.

If the dog was posing no threat, as claimed by Reininger, the case may fall under Colorado’s animal cruelty laws.  A first-time conviction of animal abuse is generally a misdemeanor, but aggravated animal cruelty – severe, intentional mistreatment – is a felony.

CRS 18-9-202 states that “a person commits cruelty to animals if he or she knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence overdrives, overloads, overworks, torments, deprives of necessary sustenance, unnecessarily or cruelly beats, allows to be housed in a manner that results in chronic or repeated serious physical harm, carries or confines in or upon any vehicles in a cruel or reckless manner, engages in a sexual act with an animal, or otherwise mistreats or neglects any animal, or causes or procures it to be done, or, having the charge or custody of any animal, fails to provide it with proper food, drink, or protection from the weather consistent with the species, breed, and type of animal involved, or abandons an animal.”

According to Reininger, this is the latest in an ongoing series of incidents with his neighbor, whom he has lived next to since 2014.  It began with the threat of a barking dog ticket in 2014 when Mazza reported his recently-acquired young dog Rowdy for barking, who he had begun to train (Reininger says on Facebook that the neighbor tried but failed to get him ticketed.) It expanded to infractions by Mazza on the ditch owner water rights to which Reininger is a member (and Mazza is not), a fence illegally put up blocking the ditch owners from maintaining the ditch, and then threats about his guardian dogs.

Reininger says that Mazza has threatened to poison his guardian dogs, and has regularly been verbally abusive of him and his wife Peggy, prior to the latest escalation to shooting Maddie. He defends his dogs and their value as guardians.

“My dogs are penned up at night, halfway into the barn. They don’t get to see and hear what is going on out there and don’t make noise. But when they sometimes bark, if there is something creeping around the alpaca….sometimes during the summer our windows are open, and I start to hear them growl, I let them out. They run the fence and I put them up for the night.”

With incidents escalating, Reininger, he says he’s now nearly lost one dog, and he doesn’t want to lose another. so a week ago he made the difficult decision to relinquish his young Great Pyrenees, Oakley to Ark Valley Humane Society, rather than risk her being shot, should the dog get out again. The dog has since been adopted into a new home.

“I couldn’t live with myself if that happened,” he concluded. He is considering what follow-up action he might take.

Featured image: Nelson Reininger raises alpacas west of Salida and uses Great Pyrenees dogs to guard the animals from predators; here with Oakley. Photo/Nelson Reininger.

Reporting by Jan Wondra and Tara Flanagan