With the help of fellow veterans, Minnesota vet gets his dogs back
By MATTHEW STOLLE | Post-Bulletin | Published: October 30, 2019
ROCHESTER, Minn. (Tribune News Service) — There are no more stalwart companions in Rochester resident Chris Volkart's life than his dogs.
But Vicious Mail Shredder, a rambunctious black Labrador, and Pretty Pittie Penny, an affectionate pit bull-terrier mix, benefit Volkart in ways that go beyond the normal man-dog relationship.
They calm Volkart when he is feeling stressed. They help him cope with depression and other symptoms associated with his military service.
Volkart has an 80% disability rating from the Veterans Administration, partially from the more than 70 parachute jumps as an Army parachute rigger.
Volkart, 47, also suffered a brain injury from a motorcycle accident years ago while serving. A car accident in Rochester after his service probably exacerbated it.
Last summer, Volkart faced the unthinkable: The prospect of losing his canine companions. The problem: His dogs kept getting out and running around his Northwest Rochester neighborhood.
The dogs were not aggressive or dangerous to neighbors, but the repeat violations triggered the more draconian elements of the city's dog-at-large ordinance.
After the third ticket, the city impounded his dogs and looked to bar him from owning the dogs again. It prepared to put them up for adoption.
Volkart argued in vain that he had been away when the dogs got out. He had been at a VA clinic on one occasion. He said it had been a negligent, rent-paying roommate who allowed the dogs to escape by leaving the door open. The city was unmoved. They were his dogs, it replied. They were his responsibility.
Volkart went to the Olmsted County Public Law Library to try to figure out the ordinance that had deprived him of his dogs.
He was on the cusp of losing them when veterans and veterans groups came to his aid.
Volkart traveled to the Twin Cities to seek legal help from the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans. The MACV group is best known for organizing regular "standowns" that bring together veterans from across the state and allow them to access a network of services.
Sara Sommarstrom, a MACV vetlaw director, called Jerry Perry, a Vietnam Marine vet and Rochester attorney, to ask if he would represent Volkart.
"She called me and said, 'They took his dogs away. They're going to take them away permanently. Can you help him," Perry said.
Perry thought the penalty way out of proportion to the violation. The problem lay with the way the city had merged the ordinance with the state's dangerous dog law. The dangerous dog law metes out stern penalties to owners whose dogs endanger or attack a person, including confiscation.
The city rule imposed the same dangerous dog penalties for what Perry thought was a more minor violation.
But Perry did not have the luxury or time for constitutional arguments. Volkart's day in court to determine the fate of his dogs was scheduled just days after Perry agreed to represent him.
"Instead of fighting this constitutional battle, the best thing I can do is try to get these dogs back for him," Perry said.
Perry's legal strategy boiled down to a simple plea to Judge Joseph Chase. The dogs are important to Volkart's emotional and mental well-being, he argued. He produced a letter written by a VA psychiatrist to that effect.
Chase said the ordinance tied his hands, Perry said, but he was open to the city and Volkart working out an arrangement that allowed him to keep the dogs.
The city also signaled a willingness to be flexible. It agreed that if Volkart built an enclosing fence around his house, got rid of his roommate and made arrangements to have the dogs sheltered when he was out of town, the city would return the dogs to Volkart.
"Mr. Volkart's issue was that his two dogs kept getting out and running around the neighborhood but were not aggressive towards people," Rochester Assistant City Attorney Chris White said in an email. "The City gave Mr. Volkart one last chance if he complied with the conditions meant to ensure the dogs wold not continue to run at-large."
The deal being agreed to, the task at hand was to get the job done. The city had set a deadline for meeting the conditions. Perry set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for the fence and to get the dogs out of hock. More than $700 poured in.
Other veterans and veterans groups called to offer help. And if they couldn't help, they donated money or called other veterans to help. American Fence Co. of Rochester contributed materials and labor. Bronson Ohm, a branch manager of the company, and Blake Blann, an estimator, are both veterans.
It was pouring rain the Saturday morning they had set for building the fence. So the six volunteers — five of them veterans — came back the next day. It took about three and half hours to build it, Perry said.
Volkart had a joyous reunion with his dogs last week, 75 days after they had been impounded. When they were presented to Volkart in the lobby of the Animal Control Center, the dogs jumped, leaped and crawled all over him. Volkart got down on the floor to play with them, and "they just went crazy," Perry said.
Asked about the help he got from veterans, Volkart called it "fantastic."
Perry said many people were rooting for Volkart. Clerks, veterans, and employees of the courthouse and the law library, once they heard about his story, were cheering for a positive outcome.
"There were a ton of people who were just reaching out to help. And I thought that was wonderful," Perry said