One night in late September, Bear ventured from his Virginia-Highland apartment into the cool streets for a short stroll, his 26-year-old female companion by his side. It was just after 9 p.m. and the woman, Claire Davis, wanted to stop at the corner store at the end of the driveway to buy a bottle of water. Inside the squat brick building, Davis greeted the storeowner, Charlie, who was perched behind the counter. The circumstances were practically ritual. Davis would visit the store several times a week; Bear would sit outside and wait for her.
At that moment, an Atlanta police officer was walking up Virginia Avenue toward his squad car parked in front of the Village Food Market. The cop's eyes met Bear's, and the 4-year-old, medium build, white Labrador Retriever stopped him cold, according to a police report.
"I was about to turn the corner to the parking lot when a dog started barking and growling and showing his teeth. The dog charged at me," Officer D.B. Paul said in the report. "When the dog got about one to two feet from me I had to draw my weapon and fire one round at the dog."
According to the report, when a fellow cop later asked Paul if be believed his life was threatened by the Lab, he answered, "Yes."
But from her admittedly obstructed vantage point, Davis says she doesn't believe Bear was out for blood. She claims the dog, which her roommate has owned since Bear was a 9-week-old puppy, has always been gentle. And she says hardly enough time passed for the officer to ascertain Bear's motives. "It was about 10 seconds that elapsed from the time I set the dog down to the time I heard a gunshot," Davis says. "I turned around, and a police officer was walking around the corner and the dog had been shot."
Atlanta police policies for shooting man and beast differ. On the one hand, "an employee shall not shoot at any person except to protect his or her own life or the life of another person," according to Atlanta Police spokesman Sgt. John Quigley. But when it comes to canines, the standards are somewhat looser: "The discharging of a firearm at dogs or other animals shall be an action employed only when no other means to bring the animal under control exist."
And a dog shot by a cop, unlike the police shooting of a human suspect, doesn't warrant an internal affairs investigation, Quigley says. "As long as the officer feels that he's threatened with serious bodily harm and he doesn't feel that there's an appropriate option, then they can discharge their weapon," Quigley says.
In fact, the department averages a couple dog shootings per month, he says. Typically the shootings occur in the course of serving warrants "at known drug locations where they have pit bulls and other dogs."
But the Bear shooting, according to the police report, was neither drug nor gang related.
Atlanta Councilwoman Anne Fauver, whose district includes Virginia-Highland, said via e-mail that she was "distressed" by the shooting, specifically because of its proximity to the neighborhood's busy commercial district, but couldn't comment further until she learned the facts of the case.
According to the first cop to show up in response to Officer Paul's call for assistance, Davis was crouched on the sidewalk immediately after the shooting, saying, "It's gonna be OK, Bear." And it was going to be OK -- albeit after about $1,000 in vet bills. A bullet had torn a hole through Bear's hind leg after nicking his left ear.
"The dog was just sitting there," Davis says, "bleeding and shaking." In the meantime, a few more cops had shown up to look for evidence. They found the bullet, the report states, near the bumper of the patrol car. Only after the bullet was recovered, and after Davis was handed a citation for failing to control a dog, was she free to go, she says. In all, Davis says more than a half-hour passed before she was allowed to leave the scene and rush Bear to an emergency vet.
Ten days after the Sept. 22 shooting, Bear was pretty much back to his normal self, according to his owner, Davis's roommate Anna Kilinski. He was keeping busy by hopping on three legs around the airy apartment, carrying a wooly, squeaky camel toy, and rolling onto his back squirming for pets. The only signs of the past week's trauma were the scar on Bear's ear, the cast on his leg and the cards from neighborhood children posted on Kilinski and Davis's door, pleading for Bear to get well.
Kilinski and Davis both say they now understand the importance of keeping a dog on a leash, although the manner by which the lesson was learned bordered on the absurd.
"It's the principle behind it -- what could have happened -- that bothers me," Kilinski says. "My dog wasn't on a leash, but he didn't have a right to shoot him."