Alessandro Renzetti was getting ready to go to sleep when he heard screams outside his Normandy Isles home. He ran outside barefoot and saw his neighbor crying as she tried to pull her beagle from the grip of another dog. At least, he thought it was another dog.
Without stopping to think about it, Renzetti grabbed a broom from his garage and began smacking the big white animal.
"At that moment," he says, "I saw that it was not a dog. It was a wolf."
Actually, it was a wolfdog: part wolf, part dog. Under Florida law, any hybrid that's up to 75 percent wolf is considered a dog and thus legal to own. Miami-Dade County, which bans pit bulls, follows the state law on the wolf mixes.
But after the March 4 attack on Brady the beagle — which survived after requiring more than 60 stitches — residents of the Miami Beach neighborhood are clashing over whether animals that are more wolf than dog should still be allowed to be kept as pets.
The battle made its way onto a community Facebook page ("Who thought we could say 'Watch out for wolves' in Miami Beach?" moderators wrote), where some residents fretted over their small dogs and others called for the wolfdog to be DNA-tested. Ultimately, the administrators stopped posting about the incident because they say a network of wolfdog enthusiasts began harassing commenters.
Luca Lavieri, who with his girlfriend owns the two wolfdogs, Eva and Lupin, says the neighbors are being discriminatory against his pets. He insists his wolfdogs, which are kept in an enclosure behind his house and have their own Instagram account, are playful and friendly toward humans. He suspects the incident with the beagle happened because Eva was in heat and says many kinds of dogs occasionally attack others.
"They're not like a vicious animal," says Lavieri, who considers himself an ambassador for the creatures. "They're so complex. They're amazing animals."
U.S. laws on owning wolfdogs vary widely. Eleven states ban wolf/dog hybrids, and several others have restrictions on their ownership, such as requiring them to be registered or tattooed for identification. But some states allow animals that are up to 99 percent wolf to be kept by private owners. Lavieri, who likes wolfdogs because "for them, family is everything," says he has not had serious problems with his pets in the past — not even when he lived in an apartment building in Miami Beach.
The attack that set off the neighborhood quarrel happened around 10 p.m. March 4 while Donna Stoner was walking her three-year-old beagle on a leash on the 1600 block of Bay Drive, according to a Miami Beach Police report. She and her dog were almost home when Eva, out on a walk with Lavieri, broke free from her leash.
The wolfdog pounced on the smaller dog, snatched him from the ground, and tossed him from side-to-side. Stoner screamed for help, and Renzetti appeared. After he used the broom to hit Eva a few times, she let go of the beagle, and Lavieri, who had been looking on in horror, grabbed her by the tail to pull her away. The beagle lay motionless on the ground.
"This was extremely bad," Renzetti says. "It's not like a fight between two dogs that are same size. The small dog was almost dead."
Lavieri says he took responsibility for what happened and paid for the beagle's $2,400 veterinary bill. (Stoner did not immediately return a message for this story.) The police department filed its report as information-only. Miami-Dade County Animal Services says it verified Lavieri's wolfdogs are below the 75 percent legal threshold but has opened an investigation into whether Eva should be classified dangerous, spokesperson Lilian Bohorquez says.
Weeks later, Lavieri says he's frustrated with the online debate over wolfdogs. He says that misinformation is being spread about his pets and that neighbors are gossiping without paying mind to the facts. He adds that anyone can come meet his animals. "The Rottweiler is more dangerous," he says.
But Renzetti says there is nothing abnormal about being afraid of having part-wolves as neighbors.
"In my mind, it's really simple: You cannot control a wild animal. You cannot," he says. "If you want to see a wild animal, go to the zoo or go to the circus. Don't bring him home."
Update: Below are photos of the beagle, which Stoner sent Friday afternoon. She and her husband say he is doing well, though he's now afraid of large dogs.