Pet piranha bites off tip of Illinois toddler’s finger

Posted June 25, 2012, at 1:41 a.m.

MAINE TOWNSHIP, Illinois — A little girl is recovering at a hospital after she apparently stuck her hand into the family fish tank and a piranha bit off the tip of her finger this week at their Maine Township home.

The 18-month-old girl was at her home in the Bay Colony residential complex Tuesday night, said Frank Bilecki, a spokesman for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

The parents suddenly heard their daughter start crying and rushed over to find her finger bleeding. They became frantic when they found the child’s fingertip was severed and assumed the culprit was their 65-pound family pit bull, said Bilecki.

They called 911 and an ambulance took her to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, where a doctor realized this was not the case.

“He said: ‘This is not a dog bite,”’ Bilecki said.

Authorities called her father, who was still at the home, and he immediately plunged his hand into the fish bowl, grabbing one of two piranhas.

“He had no fear; these were truly fatherly instincts,” Bilecki said. “He grabbed a knife and cut it open and found her fingertip right there.”

The piece of her finger was taken to the hospital and doctors were trying to re-attach it, but Bilecki did not know if that operation was successful as of Friday afternoon.

The father “was so emotional about it they almost had to drive for him,” Bilecki said of the sheriff’s officers who helped out.

Bilecki said he did not know if the tank, which was close to where the girl was playing, was covered or how the child got access to it.

Bilecki said the mother and father are not facing any citations after the incident.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services was called to make sure there were no “issues,” said Bilecki, who added that it was his understanding that there were none.

Sheriff’s police, also, did not show any calls at the home.

“We checked out logs to see if we had any other previous calls and there were none whatsoever,” Bilecki said.

“The parents are truly distraught and freaked out by the incident,” said Bilecki. “They appear to be good parents in an unfortunate situation.”

The girl is their only child and no other children live at the home, said Bilecki.

The Shedd Aquarium gets one or two calls a year from pet owners or physicians wanting to know how to treat a piranha bite. But the experts there rarely hear about one of the fish nipping off a fingertip, said George Parsons, director of the Shedd’s fishes department.

Parsons said piranhas, which can be sold legally in Illinois, are wild animals with razor-sharp teeth and powerful jaws that can do major damage.

The most common type of piranha sold in pet shops is the red belly, which can grow up to eight inches long with a mouth the diameter of a shot glass, he said. It’s not clear what type of piranha bit the girl.

Despite their wild instincts, piranhas are typically a shy breed — they tend not to interact with people, Parsons said. As they spend time in tanks, they’re conditioned to know that food always comes from the top, he said.

“Anything that disturbs the water from the top they associate with food, and they’ll try and go after it,” he said. “I’m sure it wasn’t a malicious attack, but more of a mistaken instance.”

Parsons said piranha owners need to do research on the fish — it’s important to have a large aquarium and use a plastic tong to feed them so there’s no chance of the animal biting someone’s hand. He also recommends a secure top with a lock so people can’t reach into the tank.

© 2012 the Chicago Tribune

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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