When Alane Koki applied to become a member of an Orange County citizens' committee studying whether the county should limit the practice of tethering dogs on chains or ropes, she submitted a 13-page résumé citing numerous accomplishments as a scientist and medical researcher: a doctorate in zoology, a dozen patents, and publication in more than 50 journals.
With those credentials and a Hillsborough address, Koki seemed a reasonable appointee for the seat designated for an "animal wellness/health expert," and county commissioners put her on the panel on Feb. 6.
What Koki didn't list in her application, however, was her long history of breeding pit bulls in other states and her association with local kennel owner Tom Garner, a nationally known breeder of pit bulls and a convicted dog fighter whom commissioners declined to appoint to the committee the same night they approved Koki.
As details emerge about Koki's background, local and national officials worry that her membership on the committee is an attempt to scuttle any potential limitations on tethering, a common practice used by breeders and trainers of fighting dogs—along with some family pet owners—which is increasingly recognized as inhumane.
"There's so much money in dogfighting, now that I look back with 20/20 hindsight, I shouldn't be surprised that the dog-fighting lobby would go to lengths like this—they have a lot to lose," says committee member and Orange County Commissioner Mike Nelson.
One national animal advocate who has followed the activities of Garner for several years and Koki since last summer says he believes Koki is a plant to protect Garner's financial interests.
"I think she has come down here to help Tom Garner to provide a smokescreen of scientific jargon in order to distort the issue," says John Goodwin, the deputy manager of animal fighting issues at the Humane Society of the United States.
Koki did not return repeated phone calls.
Garner, who breeds and keeps about 50 pit bulls on his 11-acre property on Spike Road near Hillsborough, denies having any business relationship with Koki, saying he's never bred his dogs to hers.
"That's absolutely not true," he says.
Both Garner and Koki are known in dog-fighting circles across the country, Goodwin says, and Koki referred to herself as the owner of Thundermaker Bulldogs when applying to be chosen as an expert witness in a Wisconsin dog-fighting case.
"There certainly is a connection between Koki and Garner," Goodwin says, calling Garner "one of the most prominent and well-known breeders of fighting dogs in the world."
On archived versions of the Thundermaker Bulldogs Web site, which include a picture of Koki cuddling a dog, descriptions of individual pit bulls detail bloodlines for several generations. For example, one Thundermaker "stud" listed in 2001 named "Goodson's Dozerboy" lists Garner's dog, "Garner's Frisco" as his sire and "Garner's Ch Chinaman" as his grandsire. Asked about those bloodline connections, Garner says he "is unaware of [Koki] having a Web site." The only connection he has with Koki, he says, centers on a study she's conducting about the effects of tethering on dogs.
"My relationship with her is that she's a member of a committee that was appointed here in Orange County, and she asked if she could do some research out here, and I agreed," Garner says, apparently referring to a study Koki says she's conducting—and wants to present to the committee—on the physiological effects of chaining on dogs.
Garner declined to be interviewed further.
"I'm not sure if I want to talk with you because I don't know if you are actually a neutral source or if you are part of the animal rights extremists," Garner says.
There is other evidence that Koki may be involved in breeding dogs for fighting. On July 7, 2006, authorities in Dane County, Wis., taped a conversation between Koki and a man named Robert Lowery, a former sheriff's deputy accused of dog-fighting and drug trafficking. A transcript of the conversation was introduced as evidence in Lowery's trial.
"Does Jeff still have that Lucky dog?" Lowery asked Koki over a recorded jail phone line.
"No ... it lost again," she responds.
Koki also tried to gain possession of Lowery's pit bulls, which were seized and held at the Dane County Humane Society. Koki visited the shelter twice to try to convince the staff to turn the dogs over to her, says Dave Madden, the animal care director.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania officials have been investigating Koki for nearly a year, after discovering about 50 pit bulls on her property in Mohrsville, Pa., according to Harry Brown, executive director of the Animal Rescue League of Berks County, which is responsible for animal control there. Koki did not have the license required to keep more than 26 dogs, Brown says, and several months into the investigation, most of her dogs were removed.
"We went back up to her property to pull a warrant for operating without a kennel license and found she had moved all but 11," says Brown.
It's also unclear whether Koki actually lives in Orange County. She lists a home phone in Pennsylvania on her resume and and she's not registered to vote in North Carolina, though she gave a street address of 215 Ashe St. in Hillsborough, a house in a run-down neighborhood surrounded by a privacy fence.
The owners of the house, Samuel and Wanda Burgner, did not return phone calls.
In e-mails and other documents obtained by the Independent, Garner defends the practice of tethering dogs, saying they get more exercise than dogs in pens, among other arguments, and accusing anti-tethering activists of being "extremists."
Koki, meanwhile, touts a study she says she's heading up that looks at the physiological effects of tethering on dogs, citing a long list of scientists who are collaborating with her and proposing that she be allowed to present her findings to the committee. In the two months the committee's been meeting, Koki has never mentioned being a dog breeder, or specifically advocated a pro-tethering stance, Nelson says. The commissioners set aside a seat for a pro-tethering advocate, but after declining to appoint Garner, the only applicant for that particular seat, it remains vacant.
The 14-member board is in the process of gathering information and making recommendations about tethering, including consulting with officials from other jurisdictions that have limited or banned tethering. In North Carolina, New Hanover County and several municipalities have banned the practice altogether; other areas, including Durham, are considering it; there is a proposed bill in the legislature this session to enact statewide laws as well. The Orange committee, which meets next on April 11, is due to make recommendations to the Animal Services Advisory Board by June 1; that board will in turn advise the county commissioners whether to change the law.
"Arguments for an anti-tethering law are very strong, regardless of any shenanigans," says Nelson.