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Friendly and verdant Ferguson Park, east of White Rock Lake, would have been a great place to hang out Monday — if not for the reason I was there.
All the other folks at the park, tucked into one of Far East Dallas’ tidy 1950s subdivisions, visited for the fun of it. Young giggly girls free from school routines shared secrets in the shade of the playground apparatus. A pair of teens hit balls on the tennis courts. A retiree walked a dog so plump that it waddled like a duck.
But as I followed the wide new trail that winds around the playgrounds, ball fields and spray park, I had but one thought: Which tree did that poor injured woman claw her way up Saturday morning to escape a dog attack so vicious that it left her in need of blood transfusions?
With so many people shooting each other to death in this city in recent weeks, you might have missed the news about Saturday’s dog attack. Dallas police hardly have time to chase down irresponsible pet owners as they battle the spike in violent crime. And Dallas Animal Services is already fighting the good fight against the city’s loose dog problem.
But this story comes down to personal responsibility. We all owe it to each other to make sure people can walk through our neighborhood parks without fearing we’ll be tormented by aggressive dogs.
A man walked a dog past tennis courts at Ferguson Park on Monday near the site where two people were mauled by three Rottweiler-mix dogs on Saturday morning.
The woman and her husband, who live near the park but whose names city officials have not yet released, were taking their regular walk about 8:30 a.m. Saturday when three dogs from a house just across the street charged at them.
The scene unfolded in a split second amid the tall trees that shade the tennis courts. The dogs attacked the screaming woman, and, as her husband fought to pull them away, they turned on him. By the time the first officers arrived, the Rottweiler-mix animals had the man pinned down as his wife looked on helplessly.
The police officers, unable to free the man, shot at the dogs, killing one and injuring another. The third fled toward the owner’s home, but Dallas Animal Services field officers contained it along with the injured animal. Both were euthanized over the weekend.
At last report, the couple remained hospitalized with serious injuries as Dallas police continue to investigate what charges, if any, to bring against the dogs’ owner.
I started writing about Dallas’ loose dog problem, which most often bedevils the city’s working-class and impoverished neighborhoods, five years ago. Much has changed for the better for both people and their pets, thanks to City Hall’s demand for accountability, a new-and-improved Dallas Animal Services and a bigger spay-neuter effort.
But still, too many folks just don’t get it — or just don’t care: You can’t be lackadaisical about ensuring that your dogs stay behind your fence. An apology from a negligent owner is a pitiful response for the physical harm and emotional terror wrought on victims such as the couple at Ferguson Park.
Dallas Animal Services Director Ed Jamison is even more frustrated than I am by yet another mauling. He and his staff have worked day and night to solve this problem. He says the Saturday attack is particularly sad, “given the history we have here.”
Jamison is referring to the May 2016 death of South Dallas resident Antoinette Brown, all but eaten alive by a pack of loose — but, again, owned — dogs. This gruesome tragedy highlighted the need to get control of the large number of dogs roaming the streets, particularly in southern Dallas. The incident also led to Jamison’s eventual hiring.
Since Jamison arrived in Dallas about 18 months ago, his department has picked up a record number of dogs and issued more citations than ever before while posting live-release rates unimaginable just five years ago.
Some days, the Dallas Animal Services boss and his team feel that the city’s beefed-up enforcement efforts are paying off. For example, so far in 2019, bite reports are down a little over 8%.
A couple walks their dogs Monday night at Ferguson Park, where police were forced to shoot at three dogs that attacked a couple from the Far East Dallas neighborhood.
But none of that matters much to Jamison this week as he deals with the aftermath of Saturday’s attack by owned dogs. “The message is not getting through," he said. "It all starts with them containing their animal.”
Police have not yet publicly identified the owner of the dogs that ran amok in Ferguson Park, but many in the neighborhood know him. I won’t identify him either because he has not yet been charged. When I got a hold of him Wednesday, he declined to answer my questions and told me he’d have to call me later. In off-camera interviews with two local TV stations over the weekend, he sounded contrite about the incident and maintained that the animals escaped through a hole under his fence.
However, Jamison said the DAS field officer who chased down the third dog found the gate to the man’s backyard wide open before he finally was able to roust the sleeping owner.
This also is apparently not the first time the man has been involved in animal-bite incidents. The animal shelter’s record-keeping was haphazard before Dallas police commanders took it over in 2016, but Jamison’s team has been able to piece together this history: The same man whose dogs attacked the Ferguson Park couple surrendered another dog for euthanization after a 2012 bite incident and turned over two more after the same thing happened in 2014.
“How many times do you have to allow your dogs to get out of your yard and bite somebody before you do something to guarantee it won’t happen again?” Jamison said. “Irresponsible owners are to blame, but it’s the pets that end up paying the price.”
That goes double for the unsuspecting victims of loose dogs that can become dangerously aggressive.
Just a year ago in southwest Dallas, 56-year-old Ronnie Bell lost his arm and nearly died after he was attacked by dogs that were able to get out of their owner’s yard through an open gate. In April 2018, home surveillance video captured the terrifying southern Dallas scene of two loose dogs — seemingly coming out of nowhere — attacking a mail carrier and causing serious injuries.
The City Council responded to those and other attacks by voting last summer to reinforce the ordinance regarding dangerous dogs. The amendment to an existing ordinance establishes a criminal penalty for dog bites, clearly defines an “aggressive dog” and outlines requirements owners must follow.
This new tool ensures that Dallas Animal Services can hold owners accountable in cases that police don’t press charges.
Saturday’s horror occurred in a neighborhood that has worked hard to rid itself of loose dogs. Ellen Childress, a former crime-watch leader and one of the residents whose homes back up to Ferguson Park, is especially concerned about the safety of the children who play there.
Just days before the Saturday attack, two dogs that Childress described as pit bulls parked for a while on her front porch and later behaved so aggressively that a neighbor was scared to get out of her car. Once Dallas Animal Services was called, a field officer arrived quickly and captured the animals.
Nonetheless, Childress said the violent mauling “caught everyone by surprise. We haven’t had a loose dog problem in a long time, so people felt comfortable out walking and so many children are here for the splash park.”
Once again, those using Ferguson Park are on high alert. One walker Monday evening held his dog’s leash in one hand and a thick piece of wood in the other. In some Dallas neighborhoods, that’s the norm.
As Jamison said, the fix has to start with dog owners themselves. “Why does another tragedy have to happen instead of people just doing the right thing?”
A youngster rides his bike Monday along the trail in Ferguson Park where three dogs attacked a couple out for their Saturday morning walk.