The case of Annie the dog has taken an unexpected twist, with attention now being focused on protecting the new owner from harassment or worse at the hands of those who want Annie returned to her former owner, Chuck Hoage of Nipomo.
The County Counsel’s Office on Tuesday inadvertently disclosed the names of the people who adopted the 8-year-old Australian shepherd. County Counsel Warren Jensen has spent a day trying to put that genie back in the bottle.
His office disclosed information about Annie’s adoption in response to a California Public Records Act request by Kitty Crockett of Atascadero.
Crockett told The Tribune that she sought the information to help Hoage in case he pursues legal action. She said she has no intention of “outing” the new owners.
Officials never intended to disclose the new owners’ names, Jensen wrote, but in redacting the document, his office missed a reference. The records act allows public agencies to redact information that officials believe could put someone in harm’s way.
Jensen wrote in an e-mail to The Tribune that Hoage, Crockett and Dave Congalton — the local radio talk show host who has spearheaded the move to have Annie returned — all have pledged to not identify the new owners.
Jensen added that Crockett told him she had given the information only to two people, whom Crockett later identified as Congalton and Hoage. Crockett told The Tribune she has told nobody else, nor will she.
“I told him (Jensen) I’d hold my powder,” Crockett said.
Annie’s new owners apparently live in Arroyo Grande, according to police there, who have stepped up patrols in the neighborhood, which they will not disclose.
The county decided to redact the dog adopters’ names because officials worried that Hoage’s partisans might picket or confront the new owners — a possibility stoked by online commentary on newspaper and social networking websites such as Facebook.
“(If) getting the dog back means releasing and publicizing the names … so be it. If the new owners want to be p----- then they deserve what is ahead of them after their names become public,” a supporter identified as Joel Miller of Arroyo Grande wrote on the Facebook group “Give Chuck Hoage His Dog Back!”
The group had more than 2,950 members as of late Wednesday.
“If this was my dog they stole,” a group member identified as Whyte Rabbitt wrote, “they would not have a house to return to! Hope they’d have good insurance. I’d also put big signs everywhere. Honk if you Hate dog thieves!”
While not all online commentators agree — some call those who seek confrontation “tin pot vigilantes” — others point out that it only takes one out-of-control person to create a serious problem.
Congalton says he is very concerned about the new owners’ names being released.“I’ve been trying to tone things down,” Congalton told The Tribune on Wednesday. “Animal people can be very passionate.”
Annie hit the headlines early this month when The Tribune published a story about the dog being startled, running away from Hoage and being adopted out to new owners by county Animal Services. Hoage said he wanted the dog returned.
The dog’s fate has become a cause célèbre that has drawn in even county government, which is trying to negotiate Annie’s return.
The new owners, however, have steadfastly refused, without giving any explanation. That in turn has triggered a furious verbal war online, with people taking sides — many of them passionately.
Jensen argued that the identity is protected from public disclosure, and he warned “any member of the public who uses or disseminates the information we inadvertently disclosed could be held liable for civil damages for doing so.
“We are requesting that anyone with that information keep it confidential and that they advise anyone else known to have that information to do the same,” Jensen wrote.