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A Deadly Dog Attack Upends an Elite Westchester Farm

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On a cool, windy day in February, two big white dogs escaped from a well-known nonprofit farm in Westchester County and ended up on a public footpath deep in a New York State park.

They encountered a 10-pound miniature poodle on a leash. The larger dogs attacked, killing the poodle and then severely injuring its owner. Acting on the recommendations of state law, a local judge ordered the dogs to be euthanized.

The disturbing encounter’s aftermath has been considerable. The farm, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, which is connected to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Pocantico Hills, filed an appeal on Thursday to stay the dogs’ euthanization.

A lawyer for the miniature poodle’s owner, Yong Ging Qian, said she was considering a lawsuit against the farm connected to what she said in a hearing in Mount Pleasant Justice Court were her substantial injuries: a mangled hand, several broken ribs, brain hemorrhaging and a mild heart attack.

The dogs — Luna, a Great Pyrenees, and Owyn, an Akbash — were guardian dogs, bred and trained to protect livestock. They had escaped on Feb. 6 from the farm in Westchester County, 15 miles north of New York City. The restaurant, where a meal costs in the range of $400 per person, has earned two Michelin stars for its innovations in farm-to-table cuisine as well as a Michelin green star, awarded to restaurants “at the forefront” of sustainable practices.

The attack has focused attention on Stone Barns and Blue Hill, as former farm employees, breeders and nearby farmers questioned whether it engaged in practices that created a dangerous situation, an accusation that the farm denies.

“That two of our dogs had a first-of-its-kind incident after 20 years does not reflect on the broader safety of our guardian dog and livestock program,” a spokesman for Stone Barns said in an email. “To the contrary, it shows how safe the dogs we put into service are.”

How the guardian dogs were able to encounter BaoBao, the poodle, remains in dispute. It seems likely, experts said, that their escape stems from inadequate fencing and the farm’s failure to maintain control of its dogs. According to Bill Costanzo, who leads the livestock guardian dog program at Texas A&M University’s Agrilife Research and Extension Center, livestock guardian dogs naturally roam vast territories. The low fences at Stone Barns aren’t much of a deterrent against that instinct.

“It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” Mr. Costanzo said.

Stone Barns Center is a unique farm. It is bounded by the Rockefeller State Park Preserve, more than 1,700 acres of forest and pastures crossed by carriage trails that attract more than 350,000 runners, hikers and dog walkers a year. The center was created in the early 2000s by David Rockefeller to pioneer new methods in sustainable agriculture. It opened in 2004 in partnership with Blue Hill at Stone Barns, where the chef, Dan Barber, hoped to model a sustainable food network that is healthy for farmers, animals, restaurants and diners.

“It’s about seasonality, locality and direct relationships with your farmer,” Mr. Barber wrote in his book “The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food.”

The farm keeps herds of cattle, sheep and goats. Using mobile electrified fencing, it often rotates livestock among temporary paddocks set up on different pastures to improve the health of the animals and the grasslands, a spokesman for the center said.

Just beyond the fencing, the state park is a habitat for coyotes and foxes. Rather than use lethal methods including traps and hunting to protect its livestock, Stone Barns Center uses livestock guard dogs — which can grow to 150 pounds — to scare predators away.

But the farm’s fencing was often ineffective at containing the livestock, according to three former employees.

Goats and pigs have escaped, they said, and in 2018, a herd of cattle stampeded away from the farm, according to reporting by Eater; one steer was recovered six weeks later, following a search that involved a New York State Police helicopter.

The cows, the farm’s spokesman said, were sent to the farm by mistake and were too large for the farm’s fencing to hold. “Any suggestion by The Times that this incident had anything to do with our program or practices would be false,” he wrote in an email.

Former employees say livestock escapes were a regular occurrence at the farm.

“I used to get calls from the park staff once a week” about farm animals found in the preserve, said Mike Peterson, who worked as Stone Barns’ livestock director from 2018 until 2021.

“These assertions are false — it has never been common for our livestock to leave their enclosures, and it is not common now,” a spokesman for the farm said.

But according to workers and the farm’s spokesman, the farm’s livestock dogs have been known to slip past the fences. That’s a problem, Mr. Costanzo said. If they escape even once, he and other experts agreed, the dogs will consider the state park part of their territory.

“You can’t just have guardian dogs roaming the countryside,” he said.

Opinions from outside experts are irrelevant in this situation, the farm’s management said.

“An expert could not credibly opine on what led to this incident without having met our dogs, learned their history, walked our pastures and learned the details about how we operate,” the spokesman said in an email.

Employees and guardian dog experts described the center’s movable fencing as a primary means of escape. The netting is no taller than three and a half feet.

“That is not high enough to keep a livestock guardian dog from just jumping over it,” Mr. Costanzo said.

Like many current and former workers at the Stone Barns Center, Mr. Peterson, the former livestock director, grew close to the dogs, calling them “very sweet.” He said his son had played with them when he was a toddler.

Late on Thursday afternoon, Stone Barns Center filed an appeal to the judge’s order, which will stay the order to have the dogs put down pending a decision by an appeals court. If a reprieve is granted, several local breeders and farmers offered to take the dogs in.

“These are beautiful dogs,” said Georgia Ranney, a farmer near Stone Barns Center who has offered to rehouse the dogs. Euthanizing them would only add to everyone’s grief she said, adding, “They shouldn’t have been running around loose.”

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