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Dog Bite

by Stephanie Sides

He showed it to me later that Saturday afternoon: A three-inch gash angling from left to right down the back of his right calf as I looked at it from behind. It was surrounded by a purple, swollen mass the size of a béisbol, as he put it.

But baseball’s not his sport, I thought. His sport is fútbol, the Spanish name for what we call soccer. Thank goodness the swelling wasn’t that severe.

Ismael had been bitten by a dog at the barn. By a Dalmatian, deceptively named Pongo after the loving lead character in the movie 101 Dalmatians.

Ismael and I were friends. He wouldn’t talk with me unless I spoke Spanish with him. My Spanish was good enough that he could tease me into using it. When I spoke English because I was lazy or tired, he’d say, “You no entiendo [I don’t understand],” which I knew was bullshit. But it made me smile: He was encouraging me to improve my Spanish. But I often felt irresponsible in allowing it because that gave him no incentive to improve his English.

I’d happened to mention this dog to my horse vet not long ago. She usually had opinions about things, which was ok because I always learned something from her. She explained, “They were originally trained to run along the sides of wagons to protect wealthy people from bandits. Now, they’re just crazy because they don’t have enough to do. They look good, though, on top of the Budweiser Clydesdale wagons.” That image, like in the movie, made them seem harmless.

When I first moved my horse with my group to this barn, in November 2001, I wanted to become friendly with Pongo. He made concrete an earlier fantasy I’d had about getting an Appaloosa horse and a Dalmatian dog. What a great image that would make as we rode along the trails: Spotted horse, spotted dog.

I had petted him a few times with this image in my mind.

Then one time he put his mouth around my right forearm. I asked a horse friend, who was more of a dog person, whether to worry about his behavior. She thought it was just a sign of “friendship.” I told her recently how wrong she’d been. At this point, though, she too knew the dog was dangerous.

The dog attacked me on December 31. I think it was the same year we moved to the barn. I remember the date more than the year because it was New Year’s Eve, and I had plans to go to a party that evening.

The attack was unprovoked.

From behind.

It was the same MO Ismael experienced: a bite on my back right calf.

I’d never had a dog do this to me. But I was lucky - the skin wasn’t broken, and there was no apparent need to go to a doctor. Thank goodness for the toughness of Levi 501s, which I have been wearing since my college days. At the time I thought I should write the company an appreciative testimonial.

As odd as this experience was, odder still was the lack of response from the people around me to the news about what this dog had done. Were they all that dull and uninterested, I remember wondering at the time.

I think I was even more upset by this non-response than I was by the bite itself. I came home and sat, wondering about it and whether I should do anything. I sat for so long that my neighbor and best friend, whose party I was supposed to be at, called wondering where I was.

A day later, I called the barn owner, an old guy who’d owned the barn for years and years. He had the reputation of threatening to sell the place, also for years and years, for the right number of millions, which never seemed to materialize. And he was cheap, refusing to invest any money whatsoever in the place until it crumbled to the ground. We imagined this guy as Scrooge, reveling over all the money he was hoarding that might otherwise have gone into upgrading the sadly decaying barn we were coming to love.

After he heard my story, he replied with his own: a heartfelt one about how, long ago, he’d been bitten by a dog that had required 600 stitches. I believed the number because it seemed so extreme, but it should have given me pause as to the guy’s veracity and integrity. Still, I believed he was sincere about doing the right thing to keep us all safe. At the least, I supposed he would insist that the dog be tied up, though I don’t remember requesting that. Seemed like a small penalty for the dog’s egregious behavior.

But nothing happened.

Juan, the barn manager and dog owner, though he knew of the dog bite and that I spoke Spanish, didn’t apologize. Nor did he do anything to contain the dog. My welfare aside, was he so out of touch about the potential ramifications for him and his family? Were dog bites somehow not a matter of consequence to him? What if his dog had seriously injured me? What if I’d chosen to make an issue of it? I wanted to have this conversation with him to understand his lack of response. But his English was poor, making it easy to hold this lack of communication against him and, for him, I suppose, not to have to deal with me about this. At least he never tried. Nor did I.

It was like it never happened, and, if it did, it didn’t matter because there was no legal record.

That should have been my ticket to blow sky high.

But at the time it was so subtle.

So I carried a dressage whip around the property for a while and kept my distance from the dog. My boyfriend recognized him as a classic cur: So when I felt threatened by the dog, I faced him down, which would cause him to retreat. That gave me some degree of confidence that he’d leave me alone. What I didn’t appreciate was how many other victims there had been and were going to be.

I came to learn over the intervening years that the dog had bitten my trainer, another trainer, a barn mate twice, even a little girl. And these were just the bites I knew about. These bites always took place in what the dog considered his home turf: just below the owner’s apartment upstairs in one of the barns and near our group’s area where a couple of horse owners fed him treats. If there was any reason for his behavior it was that he was protecting his territory. It would have been worse, and much scarier, to have imagined that the dog’s behavior was entirely random.

And it wasn’t like we didn’t talk with each other about everything on a daily basis. It was a female community after all. Everyone seemed to know about this problem.

Still no one spoke up. No one did anything.

So, considered against my own experience, I got really pissed about what had happened to Ismael.

I was responsible. I knew this dog was aggressive but hadn’t pressed for his removal back when he attacked me. Admittedly it was under a different manager. But I remembered e-mailing the new management my concerns about this dog.

Sunday morning, the day after Ismael had been bitten, I sent an e-mail to the barn owner who’s never disappointed me with his responsiveness. By Sunday night, oddly, I hadn’t heard anything from him, so I got even madder.

I felt angry too at the others at the barn that had been bitten and, for whatever reason, chose not to make a formal issue of it.

So, feeling as if I were shouldering the responsibility for many, I looked Animal Control up on the Internet and sent them an e-mail. It was Sunday night.

But there’s something about e-mail that’s just not satisfying in a crisis. So I picked up the phone. And I hate the phone. But I did it because I had to. I talked to a woman who must have been hired because her skill set clearly included the ability to talk people down. I wasn’t hysterical exactly but in a rare state of assertiveness.

And then I was brought up short by what Animal Control told me: We only investigate dog bites that have broken the skin.

As if all the other bites just didn’t matter.

The good news, if you weren’t Ismael, was that this was the first; only one person had been “seriously” injured. The bad news was that Pongo had been allowed to wander around for years, wantonly terrorizing who knows how many people with impunity, always with a deceptive wag in his tail, happily accepting treats that were offered.

But why should he think he’s done anything wrong? He’d never been punished. And in this case, would punishment have made any difference? More importantly, would punishment have prevented the dog from biting Ismael?

In the spirit of full disclosure, I followed my call to Animal Control by copying the e-mail message I’d sent them to the barn owner. He finally responded later that night thanking me for the information about the dog bite, suggesting I contact him in the future by phone in such circumstances because he didn’t typically read e-mail over the weekend, and promising that he would talk with Juan the next day to determine what to do to keep his boarders safe from Pongo. I was glad the barn management had changed.

The barn owner's subsequent message the next day promised a new facility to house the dog and an odd statement about allowing access to the dog for those who wanted it. The two women who fed the dog had complained.

I’d warned them about my concern that the dog might someday turn on them. I became convinced they thought I was crazy because they wouldn’t discuss it. One even taunted me about my “attitude.” Were they so delusional that they thought they were off limits from the dog’s aggression? And did they think all the rest of us had made up surprisingly consistent stories about all these dog bites?

Then I realized: The danger is only relevant to the beholder. If one doesn’t perceive the danger to oneself, it doesn’t exist. Even if it does in fact for other people. Or maybe they don’t perceive any danger to themselves and, even though they might perceive it for others, their relationship with the dog is more important.

I called Ismael that night and left a message in the best Spanish I could muster: I was concerned about him and asked him to let me know if he needed anything. When I had called before, he had always picked up, so having to leave a message left me feeling more anxious about how he was doing.

Ismael called me the next morning. Not having health insurance, he did the next best thing: He approached Juan for compensation to pay his medical bills. Juan said he had to “talk to the barn owner.” We both guessed that was Juan’s way of saying no.

Denial. Avoidance. Obfuscation. These were my educated white-girl words layered on the white-brown/two-class situation we had before us.

How could “no” mean no? It wasn’t possible. Juan was a better person than that. Besides, he had recently bought a third car, a used Mercedes SUV, so he must have had $100 to do what I considered the right thing. Why wouldn’t he want to take care of his Mexican compadre when his dog had clearly injured him? Did he not believe it had happened, just like the women who fed the dog treats?

I met Ismael later that morning and gave him the money he needed for the prescriptions. He looked so beaten-down. Like he had no one to rely on. What was that like to be so utterly at the mercy of whatever happened and the literal kindness (or more likely not) of strangers? If I were to explore it, I hate to think what I’d find out. It wouldn’t be pretty. But if I had the courage, it would probably cause me to change many aspects of my lifestyle to support a more compassionate response to others that needed help. But that takes effort, and comfort can be so enervating.

Ismael returned to the barn on Wednesday, mercifully with the big smile, sense of humor, and happy energy he’s known for. He came back before the doctor recommended because he was “bored to death at home.” He was back literally and, more importantly to me, in spirit.

What’s been most disheartening to me about this situation has not been the dog’s behavior. Though I wasn’t the one that experienced the bite that punctured the skin that caused the victim to go to the doctor. I realized you can make this incident sound as silly as a children’s story – and as harmless, just like the dog seemed – if you wanted to.

What’s been most disheartening about this situation is the human response.

On the one hand, I got silence and apparent refusal to take public action by my barn mates, other than the unofficial grumbling among them about the dog’s behavior, which served no useful purpose.

Juan proved unwilling to pay Ismael’s medical bills, when it seemed like he could afford to pay and do the honorable thing.

And the people who complained that they no longer had access to this dog in spite of his consistent aggression? I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t realize the danger. Not to mention the much larger danger to others they had been contributing to by continuing to feed this dog. Both seemed to love children. What if the dog’s next target was a small child? Would they be able to live with that? Would they realize they were responsible, as I was for Ismael’s maiming? In some ways, I was angriest at them because, unlike Juan who was shirking responsibility, they were actively denying it.

But did we not all act that way in general with respect to our beloved animals? I’d had occasion to question my own sanity with respect to my horse who, at age 23, you’d think might be calming down; but she periodically would have her crazy, dangerous moments when I wondered whether she’d hurt me or someone else.

I’d long thought that the horse world was a microcosm of the world at large. Our interactions with horses provided an opportunity to experience life’s ups and downs and face our various fears. So, since the dog bite took place in that context, I was already primed to consider the larger significance of it; whatever I learned would probably also apply more generally to my life.

The day after I contacted Animal Control, I began feeling the twinge of a sore throat. After an up-and-down week, I finally tanked on Saturday and spent the next four days in bed.

Was it due to the toxic fallout from the fires that had raced through San Diego County the month before? Admittedly, I’m an outdoor person who spends at least an hour a day walking, not to mention the time I spend each day at the barn. Or was it the emotional turmoil of deciding to speak out when it was needed about that damn dog against all the reasons not to? As a young child I had been taught: If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it. That’s a pretty good way of teaching someone to stay shut up.

I’d had a similar reaction about speaking up just two months before. My book club was reading Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid, by Jimmy Carter, who had taken a lot of heat after publication that his book was too pro-Palestinian. Because most of the club members were Jewish, sent their children to Jewish school, and were involved in their temples and the Jewish community, I was worried how this discussion would go. I was pro-Palestinian, having studied the situation in the Middle East in a course entirely devoted to the issue; before that I had studied classical Arabic in a summer intensive course taught by a Palestinian. I was worried that I'd be outnumbered by those who were better informed and had very strong opinions. I was so stressed about this upcoming meeting that I failed to finish the book (which I had never done before), then lost my voice the morning of the meeting, making it impossible to attend. It was my body literally preventing me from speaking.

But I didn’t realize at the time how symbolic that was until I cast it against the back drop of the dog bite. This time I had barely had my say before I got sick.

So at least I was making progress. And I was glad that I was finally beginning to give voice to something that had been repressed deep inside where, if it remained tied up, was likely to do worse long-term damage. I often wonder if such repression is not the genesis of diseases like cancer.

I write this final draft, emerging from one of the worst illnesses I’ve had in years.

Finally, on the mend, I feel guilty I took this dog away from his family, particularly Juan’s little boy. But I think the dog might have been crazy enough to attack even him. I really don’t think I’m crazy for thinking that. If the dog doesn’t, maybe I am crazy. But I’d rather be accused of that unfairly than seeing this lovely little boy hurt.

I also know that, if the dog were to attack the wrong person, say the three-year-old son of a couple that boards several horses at the barn and lives in mega-wealthy Rancho Santa Fe, the likely response would be for the couple to sue the barn owner, which might cause the barn to shut down altogether, which would cause our small group to scramble to find a nearby, however suitable, place to board our horses.

So, yes, there is some self interest here. I admit that.

At least I tried to sound the alarm. It’s gotten some people’s attention, but I’m not sure it’s done anything more significant than piss others off, let alone change anyone’s view of life or their behavior. And my “stock” at the barn with some people has dropped. If anyone approves of what I’ve done, they’re not telling me.