TURLOCK -- The life or death of a dog named Bolt is at the center of a growing controversy in Turlock.
The 3½-year-old Alaskan malamute is slated for euthanization next week by Turlock Animal Services after reportedly biting two women on the face in the past three months.
Bolt's owner, 26-year-old Dan Mendonca of Turlock, and his family are fighting for the dog's life and have collected more than 1,400 signatures of support through an online petition.
Bolt, a 150-pound black-and-white bear of a dog, bit 20-year-old Turlock resident McKenzie Leedom on the face while she was at Mendonca's home over Halloween weekend. Leedom was bitten once, resulting in punctures on both sides of her face that required at least eight stitches.
Turlock Animal Services supervisor Glena Jackson said an investigation determined that Bolt also bit another woman, Macie Gilstrap, on the face Sept. 30at Mendonca's home, requiring a staple on her chin to close the laceration. Both women were friends of Mendonca's before the incidents. They were treated at Emanuel Medical Center.
Bolt was impounded on Nov. 7 and was determined to be a "vicious dog" after an administrative hearing Nov. 27 before Turlock Fire Chief Tim Lohman. The dog is to be put down Dec. 11.
"If I thought my dog was dangerous, I'd never allow him to be around my nieces, nephews, little cousins even adults. He's a good, loving family dog. He's just a good boy," said Mendonca, who works as a big-rig mechanic in Ceres.
Mendonca's family has launched an online petition called "Free Bolt," as well as a Facebook community page titled "Save Bolt."
The family does not contest that Bolt bit Leedom, but said Gilstrap's injury was caused by Bolt's brother, Milo. Mendonca also contends that both Leedom and Gilstrap were intoxicated when they were bitten, which led to the incidents. Gilstrap could not be reached for comment.
But Leedom, who works part-time at a Turlock pet store and for a city after-school program, said the attack was unprovoked and vicious. She said she was sitting on the edge of Mendonca's bed petting Bolt when he bit her in the face. She would not say whether she had been drinking that night.
"If I was intoxicated or wasn't isn't relevant. It doesn't matter either way. If it was a 2-year-old who hugged or petted him the same way, it's the same situation," she said. "The fact is that dog bit two women in the face. I feel horrible that the dog has to be put down. I know Dan loves his dog, but there's a responsibility you have to take. My primary concern is that the dog would bite someone else and it could even be worse."
Fire Chief Lohman oversees Turlock's vicious and nuisance dog hearings and said the cases are relatively rare. In 2011, Animal Services conducted three vicious dog hearings, resulting in two euthanizations. This year, there have been three hearings (including Bolt's case), so far resulting in one euthanization.
At Bolt's hearing, Leedom and Mendonca both spoke, as well as a handful of friends of Mendonca's. Gilstrap was not present at the hearing. After hearing the testimony, Lohman said his job was to make a recommendation to the city manager, who then confirmed his decision to have the dog put to sleep.
"Quite honestly, one of the litmus tests for me is if a child were to walk up to a dog, do I feel like that child would be safe. And in this case, I felt there was a risk there and was concerned about that," Lohman said. "It's difficult. I understand that people love their pets, and it is hard on us to make those decisions. But we have to do what's best in the public interest."
Jackson, who also was at the hearing, said the decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. She said the severity of the bites is taken into consideration, as are the owner's actions to secure the animal and ensure it does not happen again.
Leedom's mother, Turlock resident Rayanne Leedom, said she understands why Mendonca and his family are upset. But she said the dog should be put down because the risk to public safety is too great. "I realize it's hard to think reasonably when it's the family pet," she said. "This is a no-win situation. My daughter suffered greatly and continues to suffer. People say he's a great dog, a lovely dog. They are all and wonderful and loving, until they are not. Then it's too late. A human trumps a dog any day."
Judy Rodrigues, Mendonca's mother, who lives in Fresno, said the family intends to file a motion to have an appeal heard in Stanislaus Superior Court. She said her son told animal services he would get muzzles and kennels, and is even in the process of moving out of Turlock to Modesto.
"We've done everything they've asked us to do. This dog bit her once, they're making it sound like he mauled her. That's not the case," she said.
The family expects it will cost about $6,000 in legal fees to fight the ruling. In the meantime Mendonca said because of his job, he can visit Bolt at the shelter only on Saturdays.
Mendonca and his family also claim that Lohman should not have heard the case because he played football in high school with Leedom's father. Lohman said he does know of the Leedom family, but does not know McKenzie or Rayanne Leedom personally.
Mendonca's family also suggests McKenzie Leedom's past volunteering for the Stanislaus Animal Serv-ices Agency has given her an unfair advantage. But Jackson said Leedom has never worked or volunteered with Turlock Animal Services, which is a separate agency.
"I totally understand Dan's position. I would be devastated if this was happening to my dogs," said Leedom, who has two dogs of her own. "But if my dogs did bite someone in the face, they would be put down. No doubt about it."
She is unsure whether her scars will require cosmetic surgery in the future. Since being bitten, she said she has become wary of dogs and nervous around animals. She said she also has been subjected to a lot of angry feedback from people upset that she wants the dog to be put down.
"I just want people to know the truth. I hope people can realize the severity of the situation and put themselves in my shoes. What would they do if it happened to them, their child or someone they love?" she said.
For his part, Mendonca said he understands the severity of the situation, but said the punishment does not fit the crime. "In all hopes, I want him to come home," he said. "But if they deem me too irresponsible, I'd love for him to go to a malamute rescue and be happy and free somewhere."
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2284. Follow her on www.twitter.com/turlocknow.