DEXTER, Maine — A federal investigation has been launched into a report that a Dexter postal worker pepper-sprayed a small dog Saturday and allegedly sprayed a young girl who came to the dog’s rescue.
Tom Rizzo, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service’s Northern New England District, confirmed Monday that his office had requested an investigation by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
“First of all, we certainly hope the child is OK, but some of the important facts that have been reported in the media are in dispute,” Rizzo said.
Caitlin Wintle of Dexter said Monday that she and her daughter Kelsey Wintle, 7, had been standing at their front door getting ready to take out the garbage Saturday morning when they let Allie, their 8-month-old Chihuahua, outside.
She said Allie was frolicking on the lawn of their property as the postal worker rounded the corner of the house. When the dog started barking, the female postal worker sprayed the dog repeatedly with pepper spray, according to Wintle.
“She starts spraying her continuously even when Allie put her nose into the grass and took her paws and started trying to get it out of her eyes,” Wintle recalled. Her daughter ran down to pick up Allie and when she did, Kelsey got the pepper spray in her face “because the woman kept spraying it,” Wintle said. Mayo Regional Hospital emergency responders treated Kelsey at the scene.
Rizzo said Wintle’s dog, which was “barking and baring its teeth,” was not restrained when the carrier rounded the side of Wintle’s property. He said the carrier, who was bitten last year by another dog, was afraid for her safety.
Since the incident, Wintle said, her daughter has had trouble sleeping and has complained that her eyes feel like they have sand in them. Wintle said she planned to take her daughter to the emergency room to have her eyes checked Monday afternoon.
The Maine State Police also responded to the incident Saturday.
Dexter Police Chief Jim Emerson said Monday the matter was turned over to the state police because the young girl involved is the granddaughter of Cpl. Alan Grinnell of the Dexter Police Department.
Penobscot County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy said Monday he had asked state Trooper Larry Anderson, the investigating officer, to forward his report of the incident. Almy said his office would review the report to determine whether to file charges against the 57-year-old postal worker.
The longtime postal worker, who is well-respected, was reassigned to another duty on Monday, Rizzo said. He said the carrier, whose name is not being released, was badly bitten on her arm by another dog last year while delivering mail and had to have stitches.
“She was forced to take time off from work, and for this reason alone I think we can all understand why she might have been extra careful when faced with a loose and barking animal,” he said.
Nationally, more than 32,000 mail carriers are bitten by dogs every year, according to Rizzo. Last year, the Northern New England District, which represents Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, reported 73 dog bites, and an additional 27 incidents were reported of employees being chased by dogs, he said. Those who were chased suffered injuries such as falls.
“This is not at all an insignificant problem for us, not to mention the pain and suffering and expenses that are borne by the carrier and the [carrier’s] family,” Rizzo said. “In many instances, and this is not at all unusual, carriers are badly wounded despite a pet owner’s insistence that their dog would never bite anyone.”
To help counter those problems, the Postal Service provides its carriers with a very “diluted” pepper-based repellent spray that is supposed to stop, at least temporarily, a dog attack, Rizzo said. He said the spray leaves a yellow stain on the animal that helps the animal control officer identify the dog. “Postal workers do not carry Mace,” he stressed.
The pepper spray is 99.65 percent mineral oil, is accepted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and has been registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Rizzo said. “It’s not only a safe and effective way to reduce bites, but also is a humane method of controlling animals,” he said.
If postal workers see a dangerous dog and it’s possible to avoid the house, they are instructed to skip the house, but this was not the case, Rizzo said. The carrier was on the property and did not see the dog until she rounded the corner. “If the carrier feels that he or she would be putting themselves in any risk of their personal safety, we recommend that they bypass that situation,” he said.
In Maine, postal carriers not only have to deal with dogs and other animals, but also must contend with the weather, insects such as bees and spiders, rusty and jagged-edged mailboxes and motor vehicle accidents, according to Rizzo.
“If a pet owner’s dog attacks a letter carrier, they can be held liable for all medical expenses and other costs,” Rizzo said. “We have [done that], and while it’s not frequent, I would not consider it at all unusual.”
Wintle said her dog was loose but it never left her property Saturday. Both Maine law and a Dexter ordinance prohibit dogs from running at large, except when used for hunting. Neither specifies that a dog has to be on a leash while on its owner’s property.
“I am so devastated because, my gosh, my daughter and dog are like these little angels [to me],” Wintle said. She said she strongly hopes the Postal Service examines its policies, procedures and training when using pepper spray especially when young children are around.