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When Des Moines residents Nick and Amy Pellegrin were considering where to spend their 2018 summer vacation, they looked at a number of outdoor-oriented destinations, but one thing in particular appealed to them about Wisconsin’s Madeline Island: its pet-friendliness. The Pellegrins and their two young children liked to vacation with their dog, a handsome Rhodesian ridgeback named Bruzzo, which often limited their choices.
“The fact that practically every cabin on that island was dog-friendly was really exciting for us,” Amy Pellegrin told me recently. ”[Usually, you] find locations that you want to go, and then you hit that box that says ‘Pet-friendly,’ and all of a sudden your options disappear. That’s quite the opposite on Madeline Island.”
In early July, the Pellegrins made the nine-hour drive (plus ferry ride) from Des Moines to Madeline Island. They spent several pleasant days at a cabin on South Shore Road, beachcombing, playing in Lake Superior, enjoying campfires and jogging. Early on the morning of July 7, 2018, as they were packing up to return home, Bruzzo squeezed by Nick Pellegrin in the doorway of the cabin and ran into the woods. Pellegrin assumed that Bruzzo had seen a squirrel or a deer and chased it. He wasn’t particularly worried, assuming that the dog would soon return.
As time passed and Bruzzo did not return, however, the Pellegrins became more concerned. After packing the car, they searched the woods and neighborhood around the cabin, then began looking further afield. At about 9 a.m., both Pellegrins heard what sounded like a “pop!” It worried them, but they tried to look past their fears. “We were trying to tell ourselves, ‘Well, that wasn’t [a gunshot that] we heard,’” Nick told me. “It was a car backfiring, it was … somebody [setting] a firework off. You know, that sort of thing.”
The Pellegrins had to check out of their cabin at 10 a.m., but they stayed on the island and continued to search. “We searched the island the whole day, talking to people, trying to get contacts on the island,” Nick said. As word spread, many Madeline Island residents and businesses joined in the search. Although there were no vacant rooms left on the island, the Pellegrins were able to take the ferry to Bayfield and find a room there. When Bruzzo still hadn’t turned up by the following day, the Pellegrins reluctantly decided to return to Des Moines without him. On the long drive back, Amy reached out on social media and began to form networks to help with Bruzzo’s safe return. Bruzzo’s story was featured on Lost Dogs Wisconsin and other sites, where it received a lot of exposure.
The day the Pellegrins returned to work, a concerned citizen on Madeline Island contacted them and offered them free use of a cabin on the island if they wanted to continue their search. Nick left work in the middle of the day, packed up, and made the nine-hour drive back to Madeline Island.
The owner of the property across the road from the Pellegrin’s vacation cottage was a man named Gene Nelson. A lifelong resident of Madeline Island, Nelson owned and operated a septic service company. As Nick Pellegrin searched for Bruzzo, he heard people say that Gene Nelson had shot dogs in the past. Five days after Bruzzo disappeared, Nick saw Nelson drive by in his septic pumping truck. He followed him to the Madeline Island Sanitary District and asked him about Bruzzo. According to Pellegrin, Nelson said that he hadn’t seen a loose dog, but that he would “keep an eye out.”
“I left that conversation feeling fairly comfortable that any human being that killed our dog, or felt any sort of justification for killing our dog, would have told us,” Pellegrin told me. “You have no idea how much I think back to that conversation … It baffles my mind to think that he wouldn’t tell me.”
The search continued through the summer. Nick Pellegrin made a number of return trips to the island. Locals set up feeding stations in the woods, which were a big hit with the wildlife, but no Bruzzo. Kayakers paddled the shoreline, in case Bruzzo was hurt on a beach somewhere. The word spread on social media, and more people responded. City workers and volunteer firefighters joined in the search. Still Bruzzo did not turn up.
As time passed, however, Gene Nelson was heard making comments around town that suggested he knew what had happened. When confronted about this by a reporter from the Ashland Daily Press, two and a half months after the search began, Nelson said that Bruzzo had come into his yard on July 7 and started killing Nelson’s chickens. To stop the attack, somebody—Nelson refused to specify whether it was himself or another person—had shot and killed Bruzzo. Nelson said he had buried the dog on his property. He hadn’t wanted to come forward before, he said, because he had shot a dog in the past, and he feared the community would react poorly to news of the latest shooting. He said Bruzzo had killed 13 of his chickens.
Nelson presented no evidence for his story. He took no photographs of the alleged chicken massacre, and he refused to produce Bruzzo’s body for examination. Nelson did offer the Ashland Daily Press a picture of a live chicken to back up his story. He asserted that he was fully within his rights to kill the dog, and he offered no apology for maintaining two-and-a-half months of silence while the community searched.
The community reacted poorly. Social media erupted with outrage and condemnation of Nelson, and Nelson erupted right back. When the Pellegrins first learned what Nelson had done, Nick Facebook-messaged Nelson to say: “We know. We will be suing you. Beyond burning in hell, you will pay.” Nelson responded by calling Nick a “shit sack,” accusing him of slander, and telling him to lawyer up. “Not saying I killed it, but it had to be killed because of you and Amy … If you ever get a pet again, please be a responsible owner, ok?” After a few more comments in this vein, both parties blocked the other.
On another acrimonious Madeline Island discussion thread (which has since been removed), Nelson wrote, “This is not the first time this has happened. About 12 years ago a local pit bull tore through the pen and killed all 27 [chickens], owners refused [to pay me] compensation. So I have dealt with this. And I say not only do Nick and Amy deserve the pain they are going through, they also deserve the pain and hate me and my family are. A LEASH and tags, identification…cuz it’s the LAW.”
The time before
Nelson’s previous dog shooting occurred in 2008, when two dogs owned by a neighbor got loose and ran onto Nelson’s property, where one of them, according to Nelson, attacked his chickens. The first the neighbors became aware of the situation was when they saw an enraged Nelson coming up their driveway holding a rifle and screaming, “I finally found the dog that’s been killing my chickens! I just put two rounds into your dog!” In a statement that Amy Bailey, the escaped dogs’ owner, submitted to the police, she wrote, “Gene’s rifle carelessly swung around from his back pointing straight at Paul. Paul claims he felt as if Gene may shoot him … Everyone who witnessed said they were scared and Gene had furious bulging eyes looking MAD.”
Later (according to Amy Bailey’s statement), when she and a friend were out looking for the injured dog, they went to Gene Nelson’s house and asked him where the dog was. Gene “immediately began screaming … ‘Shut the f*** up, you fat bitch. Get back in your car.’” They eventually found the dog with a bullet wound in her leg. She survived the encounter.
In that instance, Amy Bailey was issued two tickets by the police for having loose dogs. Nelson was not charged for shooting the dog. Bailey wondered if Nelson’s extreme aggression and threatening behavior was legal. She asked to file a complaint about it. The responding officer told her to write up a statement and submit it to the La Pointe Police Department, which Bailey did. Nothing further became of the matter. “Nobody did anything about anything,” said Bailey, when I spoke with her recently.
Bailey (who no longer lives on Madeline Island) was very willing to talk about that long-ago day. She said that she didn’t consider it out of the question that one of her dogs might have killed a chicken, but she had never actually seen any dead chickens herself. When I mentioned that Gene Nelson was saying publicly that he had lost 27 chickens in that attack, Bailey laughed. “That must have been some event, the 27 chickens [that my dog] killed in a matter of 15 minutes, you know? … The only blood that was on her was where she’d been shot in the leg.”
“I would have compensated him for his chickens,” she went on. “I am responsible with my dogs. I am. That’s just how I am ... If he would have said to me, ‘Hey, your dog over here killed a chicken. If this happens again, I’m going to shoot him,’ that would be totally neighborly, and I would give him money for his chicken.” But proof of dead chickens never materialized, and eventually the issue slipped away.
On October 8, I spoke with Gene Nelson on the telephone. I asked him the question that had been bothering me the most: Why did he lie to Nick Pellegrin five days after killing Bruzzo? In response, Nelson launched into a long complaint which managed to avoid my question.
“The guy came up to me and asked me if I had seen a missing dog, that he was getting ready to leave the island, and the dog was out chasing deer,” Nelson said. “That, on top of everything else, kind of upset me, that people think they can just come up here and let their dogs run and chase deer and whatever they want to do, and it’s all fine. And it’s not with me … It had no vet tags, it was chasing deer … and then [it came] onto my property and [started] killing my livestock.”
“Okay. But when he came and spoke to you, though, what did you say then?” I persisted.
“I was just upset with him. I didn’t say anything about any of it,” said Nelson.
“You must have been aware, over the next two months, that people were out looking for this dog.”
“Yeah. Yeah. To what degree, I didn’t know, but yeah, I was aware.”
“So you could have saved them a lot of trouble if you just said, ‘Oh, I know what happened.’”
“Well, do you think irresponsible dog owners like that deserve [that]?” Nelson demanded. “They would have saved a lot of trouble if they would have kept a leash on their dog.”
I asked him if he had taken any pictures of the dead chickens, and he said no. I asked him if he had filed a report with the police, and he said no. I asked why not. He laughed. “On the island here? Yeah, that doesn’t go anywhere.”
Nelson said he expected my coverage of the story to “make things worse again.” “It’ll hit social media again, and there’ll be the people that feel that the dogs have a right to run free. There’s a dog that was out by the airport, there’s a pair of them that ran free all the time, and one of them is at the bottom of the sewage treatment pond because it drowned. The owner just let him run, and it’s in the bottom of the sewage treatment pond still, and that’s another reason they shouldn’t run. And there’s a dog this spring that we’re seeing now, running down the middle of the road … and their owners allowed them to run. And people think that dogs have the right to roam free.”
“Well, it doesn’t sound like the Pellegrins thought their dog had the right to roam free,” I said. “It sounds like it got away from them.”
“That’s what they said in the other newspaper,” said Nelson. “What he told me, he said he let the dog out ... He said he let it out and it was chasing deer. That’s what he said to me, and that upset me also.”
When I asked Nick Pellegrin about this, he said, “That is absolutely false … I absolutely did not tell Gene Nelson it was intentional. Did I tell Gene Nelson that our dog took after a deer? Absolutely … [but] everything else he’s told you about that conversation, as far as us letting him run loose, is false.”
Nelson has refused to return Bruzzo’s remains to the Pellegrins. Nelson told me that if the Pellegrins reimbursed him $20 per chicken, he might consider it. The investigation by the La Pointe Police Department has been completed, and their report has been forwarded to the Ashland County District Attorney’s Office for review. It is unknown who might be charged with what, or if anybody will be charged with anything. As of press time, the DA’s office did not respond to my request for comment.
Despite the bad experience, both Pellegrins had nothing but praise for Madeline Island. “I would like our family to be perceived as showing support for the island and its community,” Nick told me. “It was frankly amazing. It actually brings a tear to my eye, thinking about the people who just went above and beyond, and cared about our situation, and were willing to help us.”
But were there any more trips to Madeline Island in the Pellegrins’ future? I wondered.
“No,” said Nick—unless it was to pick up Bruzzo.