Animal expert: Dog mauling was ‘unusual’

Posted Nov. 16, 2010, at 7:52 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:37 a.m.

LAGRANGE, Maine — A Mattawamkeag-area woman who was mauled Friday by a dog in LaGrange is expected to be operated on later this week at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, according to her friend Vaughn Adams of LaGrange.

Karen Stewart, 41, had been visiting Adams when she was severely mauled by an unsecured American bulldog mix owned by one of Adams’ neighbors.

Stewart, who was bitten more than 20 times on her head, face, arms and legs, was airlifted to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and was later transferred to the Boston hospital. She remains in critical condition, Adams said Tuesday en route to the hospital. He said hospital officials have been working to clean her wounds in preparation for the first of what could be many operations.

The hospital would offer no information Tuesday on Stewart’s condition.

Meanwhile, a national specialist in animal behavior said Tuesday that something “unusual” must have happened when the woman was mauled.

Based on dog bite statistics, it’s rare for a middle-aged woman to be bitten by a dog, according to Dr. Bonnie Beaver of College Station, Texas, executive director of The American College of Veterinary Behaviors.

Beaver said about half of the estimated 4 million to 4½ million dog bites in the U.S. every year involve people under age 21, mostly children under age 10, followed by about 30 percent that involve the elderly. The remainder of the victims are primarily men because they tend to be more aggressive in their behavior, she explained.

“Middle-age women are very low in those demographics, so something unusual must of happened,” Beaver said.

About 20 people a year in the nation die as a result of dog bites, Beaver said.

Stewart had been out for a short walk Friday night on Forest Street in LaGrange when a dog owned by Adam Bemis, 28, apparently knocked her down and then “ripped her apart,” according to Adams. He said the dog chewed her forearm, took out her elbow and left deep gashes throughout her body.

Bemis has been charged with keeping a dangerous dog and may face additional charges, according to Lt. Wesley Hussey of the Maine State Police.

Norma Worley, director of the state animal welfare program, said Tuesday that in the wake of Friday’s attack she has been advising state police on laws involving dangerous dogs. The dog that mauled Stewart will be held until court proceedings against Bemis have been concluded, she said. According to state law, the judge has quite a bit of leeway in determining the dog’s future, which could include euthanasia, she said.

State police have called the dog an American bulldog, while a town official said it was a bull mastiff. Suzan Bell, executive director of the Bangor Humane Society, where the dog is under quarantine for at least 10 days, said Tuesday that it is an “American bulldog mix, the best we can tell.”

Confusion over the breed of dog involved in an attack is not unusual, according to Beaver. Dog bites are not required to be reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The data the CDC has collected on bites over the years are based on news media reports. For example, some stories have called dogs involved in attacks pit bulls when in fact they were boxers or pugs, she said.

Regardless of the confusion, Beaver said the majority of the dogs that bite are of mixed breed. She said there is no such thing as a purebred pit bull. A pit bull, by definition, is a dog that stands roughly 3 feet high and has a large head, she noted. It isn’t a breed specifically — it’s a physical type.

But Beaver said that certain types of large dogs are more likely to do damage in an attack.

“We know that unneutered dogs are more apt to bite,” she said. “We know that unlicensed dogs are more apt to bite, and we know that poorly vaccinated dogs are more apt to bite.”

Typically after a severe dog attack, laws or ordinances are passed that prove to be ineffective, Beaver said. Instead, laws already on the books should be enforced, she said. If they were, she added, many such incidents would not occur.

“Passing a law does not protect the citizens,” Beaver said. As an example, she said, Denver adopted an anti-pit bull ordinance about 10 years ago but still has as many pit bull attacks as it did before the measure passed. Most animal control officers are not well-funded, so they can’t adequately do their jobs, Beaver said.

Education about dogs and their behavior also is a must, she said.

“The bottom line,” she said, “is as long as people and dogs live in the same environment, there will be dog bites.”

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