Wife's death fuels man's push for dog control

Ed Chinnis talks about the events that led to his wife’s 2007 death. Ann Chinnis (in framed photo) died from a hemorrhage she suffered when she hit her head on cement after a dog jumped at her.

Ed Chinnis didn't even realize at first that the person lying on the sidewalk was Ann, his wife. Neighbors surrounded her trying to help. Not until he saw her clothes did he know.

Not until later would he hear that a dog had jumped at her, and she fell to the pavement. The same dog chased him a few days earlier.

The 72-year-old retired nurse died later that night in 2007 from a hemorrhage she suffered when she hit her head on the cement in Wescott Plantation -- the same North Charleston neighborhood where complaints and lawsuits over nuisance dogs spurred Dorchester County Council Chairman Larry Hargett to ask the council to rework current animal control and noise laws.

Hargett wants a "livability ordinance," a set of laws that regulates nuisances. The current animal and noise laws have no teeth, he said.

That would be a validation for Chinnis, who now lives in Mount Pleasant. He struggled to get anyone to listen while trying to call attention to the problem after his wife's death. What happened might have been an accident, he said, but it wasn't an accident that killed Ann.

"That dog killed my wife. I got no help at all. You're there with your wife getting killed, and nobody is helping at all," Chinnis said.

And the problem as he sees it is simple: There is a leash law in the city, a leash bylaw in the neighborhood, and some dogs aren't restrained. Their owners don't act like that is a problem, he said.

"People think more of their dogs than they do of other people," Chinnis said. "I'm trying to make more people aware dogs should be controlled."

Hargett agrees. He'd like to see animal control enforcement turned over to the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office. Half the calls he gets in his Wescott-area district involve loud noises from cars, motorcycles or dogs. Court officials have told him the current laws are unenforceable.

"It's a loosey-goosey thing, and I'd like to see it tightened up," Hargett said.

The council voted earlier this week to create a committee to consider the ordinance, but did so warily.

Simply put, people love their dogs. Earlier attempts to tighten controls on pets have been hotly opposed by residents. Animal control officers on calls periodically have to call for armed deputy backup, Sheriff L.C. Knight said. "You never know how someone is going to react. That's their pet."

The Chinnises had moved to Wescott only a few months before the incident, partly because it was a neighborhood where they could take walks. They hadn't even hung all their pictures yet, Chinnis said.

After a two-mile stroll that night, Ann had gone ahead of him around a bend to hurry home. They had been married 15 years. His first wife died after 47 years.

Ann's death and the circumstances left Chinnis desolate. A Navy radioman who fought in World War II, he said, "Never in my life did I imagine I'd come back to the States and see my wife killed by a dog."

Chinnis went into a depression and began to fall repeatedly, alarming friends and his doctors. The retired real estate agent is now 87 years old, and keeps a walker near his couch and the coffee table where two Bibles share space with magazines and a novel.

Asked how he pulled himself through, he said: "I'm still pulling myself through. I think of her every day."

Chinnis sued the neighbors and homeowners association for wrongful death, lawsuits that were settled without admissions of culpability but with payments to her estate.

"I told the judge, it wasn't the money. It was my wife's death, and no money could take the place of her," Chinnis said.

He sold the house and moved back to the condominium they had moved from. He couldn't be in the house any longer, he said.

When people come by with unleashed dogs in his Mount Pleasant neighborhood, Chinnis stops them to point out the leash bylaw and tell what happened to Ann.

He hears it a lot -- not my dog.

"I tell them, 'Well, you'd better have plenty of insurance.' "

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or follow him on Twitter at @bopete.