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Pit bulls stir emotions like no other breed

| Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, 5:50 p.m.
FOR RELEASE SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 2012, AT 3:02 A.M. EST. This Oct. 26, 2012 photo shows Sugarbaby, a 10-year-old pit bull available at the Center for Animal Health and Welfare, in Williams Township, Pa. (AP Photo/The Express-Times, Bill Adams)
FOR RELEASE SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 2012, AT 3:02 A.M. EST. This Oct. 26, 2012 photo shows Sugarbaby, a 10-year-old pit bull available at the Center for Animal Health and Welfare, in Williams Township, Pa. (AP Photo/The Express-Times, Bill Adams)

BETHLEHEM — Lisa Earich had just gotten out of her Postal Service mail truck to deliver her first stop when she heard a voice saying the dog had gotten out.

“I saw him run past the truck, and it was like he was looking for me,” the 49-year-old mail carrier said. “When he saw me, he just stopped in his tracks and started running toward me really fast.”

The dog was a 70-pound pit bull — a breed that equally stirs fear in dog-bite victims and passion in its advocates — and it had latched onto her before her dog repellant could take effect.

“He was just gnawing on my arm and gnawing on my arm,” Earich, of Bethlehem, recalled of the Oct. 11 attack on Elayne Street in Bethlehem.

The woman watching the pit bull, identified by police as 46-year-old Nelly Santiago, pulled the dog off her, but he got loose again.

“I was on the ground at that time, crying in so much pain,” Earich said. “He came at me again. She must have lost control of him. His tooth went into my eye socket. My hand went to my face and all it was was blood. I was screaming, ‘My eye!' I thought my eye came out. She got him away and he came back again.”

The dog attacked her three times that day, nothing like the little nips from other dogs during her 15 years on the job. Santiago and her son, Hector Vazquez, 21, both of the 1500 block Elayne Street, were cited for failing to confine the dog and obtain proper licensing and vaccinations for it.

Earich got about 36 stitches, mostly on her face and ear; antibiotics; a tetanus shot; and several rounds of rabies shots that began with injections in each arm and leg. She can still see out of the bitten eye.

She escaped with her love for dogs intact. She likes several on her route, and her black Labrador, Bailey, plays with pit bulls at the city's dog park off Illick's Mill Road.

But the attack won't leave her mind, especially when she returns to work, she said.

“Physically maybe I'm hoping I would be better in like two weeks or so, but I don't know about mentally,” she said a few days after the attack.

She told her supervisors, “I didn't think I could ever set foot on that street again because I would visualize the attack again, and they told me they don't expect me to.”

Few dog breeds elicit the passion that pit bulls do.

The breed is seen by advocates as a victim of unfair media coverage, and by critics as a dog hardwired for violence.

October became National Pit Bull Awareness Month last year — Oct. 27 has been National Pit Bull Awareness Day since 2007 — but supporters say myths about the breed still abound.

“We began to sort of blame the dog for what the people were doing,” said Donald Cleary, spokesman for the National Canine Research Council.

Cleary believes news stories about pit bulls inspire intense media coverage.

But the real issue, he said, is much simpler. Attacks like the one on Earich are cases of owner responsibility, he said.

“Someone let a dog escape. If you want mail delivered to your home, you need to control your dog. I don't think it's any more complicated than that,” Cleary said. “Everybody must take care of the dog they have.”

Dog bites are tricky injuries, said Dr. Jonathan Shingles, director of emergency medicine at St. Luke's University Hospital in Fountain Hill. They can crush bone and tissue and create more problems than other superficial wounds.

Shingles said all bite wounds are prone to infection and other problems because a dog's mouth can be full of bacteria and the animals need certain vaccinations. But a dog bite can go beyond the physical.

“Bones will heal. Skin will heal,” Shingles said. “But it's also traumatic.”

Shingles said he has seen and treated bites from a variety of breeds.

“The fact of the matter is, certain breeds of dogs get certain amount of attention,” Shingles said. “But some of the worst damage I've seen is from lap dogs. Any dog has the potential to do serious damage.”

Denise Rader, spokeswoman for St. Luke's, emphasized education, especially for children, for behavior around dogs.

A 10-year-old Towson, Md., boy, Dominic Solesky, had his femoral artery severed by a pit bull in 2007. His father, Anthony, 52, made it a mission to have dangerous dogs exposed for what he believes is their instinct to kill.

Solesky was behind Maryland's recent law that calls pit bulls “inherently dangerous” and stiffens penalties for owners whose dogs attack. Solesky said he felt he lacked sufficient recourse to respond to the owner whose dog nearly killed his son.

“I don't know even how to try to remember the fear that I felt,” Solesky said.

The law has come under fire in Maryland by pit bull owners and advocates, but was upheld by the state appellate court this spring.

David Lee, co-founder of the Lehigh Valley Pit Bull Awareness Club, said his heart goes out to victims of dog attacks, particularly young ones. But Lee said the problem is irresponsibility of owners, not dogs predisposed to hostility.

“I completely understand the passion behind it,” Lee said. “The easiest thing to do would be to get a dog out of the wrong person's hands before something tragic happens.”

Debi El Chaar, head dog trainer at Chaar on Airport Road in Hanover Township, Lehigh County, said she's met as many aggressive golden retrievers as pit bulls.

El Chaar said she uses pit bulls to help socialize dogs. “You must judge each dog individually,” she said. “Any dog will bite.”

Being aware of a dog's warning signals, which are often motivated by fear, is the best way to prevent problems and learn how to fix them.

Lee said pit bull owners who want to change perceptions must educate.

“Let people know why you have a pit bull,” Lee said. “When approached, you've got be ready with the right answers. If (fans of the breed) are not willing to speak up, then no one is going to speak up.”

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