TURLOCK -- An Alaskan malamute slated to be euthanized by the Turlock Animal Shelter has received an outpouring of support and scrutiny since his case became public.
Bolt, a 3½-year-old pet of Turlock resident Dan Mendonca, was deemed "vicious" by the city after biting two women in the face and was set to be put to sleep Dec. 11. Since then, the 26-year-old Mendonca and his family have gone public with their story, creating an online petition with more than 2,800 signatures and a Facebook page with more than 3,200 likes.
The first woman bitten, 20-year-old Turlock resident Macie Gilstrap, has come forward to discuss the incident publicly for the first time. Like the second victim, 20-year-old Turlock resident McKenzie Leedom, Gilstrap contends the bite was unprovoked.
Both women, who were friends with Mendonca and each other, were treated separately at Emanuel Medical Center for their injuries. Gilstrap required a staple on her chin. Leedom had punctures on both sides of her face and had at least eight stitches.
An administrative "vicious dog" hearing before Turlock Fire Chief Tim Loh-man on Nov. 27 determined Bolt's fate. Mendonca's sister, Modesto resident Diane Rodrigues, said the family has hired a lawyer who filed a stay motion in Stanislaus Superior Court on Thursday, postponing Bolt's euthanization. They hope to have their case heard in court within 30 days.
Mendonca has two Alaskan malamutes, Bolt and Milo, brothers from the same litter. Mendonca contends it was Milo who bit Gilstrap and Bolt who bit Leedom.
Gilstrap said she was at Mendonca's house Sept. 30, sitting on the floor and petting Bolt when the dog bit her once on the face. At first, she said, she was unsure which dog it was, because the black-and-white animals look alike. But, she said, she is now sure because it was the larger of the two dogs; Bolt is the bigger brother at 150 pounds.
"In my opinion, if it was up to me, I wish Bolt wouldn't get put down," she said. "I wish he could be trained and taken care of responsibly. If Dan was to really watch the dog, I would be OK with it. But if not, and this is to happen to a child or someone else, I would feel responsible. Either way, it's out of my hands, it's up to the law."
Leedom told The Bee she was sitting on Mendonca's bed the night of Oct. 28 petting Bolt when he bit her once in the face. Leedom reported the bite to animal services, which during its investigation uncovered Gilstrap's earlier bite. Initially, when Gilstrap went to the hospital, she said she was bitten by a stray dog to protect Mendonca.
Mendonca contends the women were drinking at the times of their incidents. Both women declined to say whether alcohol was involved but said it should not matter.
"It is irrelevant, and I don't feel like that has anything to do with what happened that night," Gilstrap said. "I fully remember everything that happened that night. I don't think anything else should matter than two girls got bit."
Longtime Modesto veterinarian Jeff Kahler, of Veterinary Medical Associates, said that from the victims' accounts of their bites, he does not think Bolt should be put down. He said the behavior, while violent, was not necessarily aggressive.
"It's more like, 'I am not appreciating what you are doing, get away from me,' " said Kahler, who has more than 25 years' experience as a vet and has written The Bee's pet column since 2001. "An aggressive dog is one that will continue the attack posture."
Determining whether a dog is vicious is difficult, he said, but the notion that once a dog bites a human it has a "taste for blood" is false. "It does not imply recidivism in any way. It would make me know that the dog would be capable of doing it, but not necessarily that it will have a propensity for it."
Kahler said the dog biting both women on the face probably has more to do with the proximity of their faces to the dog's mouth. Both said they were at eye level with the dog.
Like Kahler, certified canine behavior counselor Lisa Moore does not have firsthand knowledge of the cases. But based on the victims' accounts, she also believes the dog should be spared.
Moore, who owns Top Notch Kennels in Modesto and has written a pet behavior column for The Bee since 1995, said viciousness is relative because "all dogs bite." She said state and city codes often fault dogs for their natural behavior.
"To expect humans to take no responsibility and blame the dog is ridiculous," she said. "When there is a dog who has bitten a person, it is the failure of a person either the person who was bitten or the owner of the dog has failed to keep that dog and other person safe."
Moore has served twice as a canine behavior expert in court cases in San Joaquin County. She said if a dog bites, there is always a reason from anger to fear to protection. She said people often miss the subtle cues that dogs give when agitated or uncomfortable.
She said if Bolt is returned to Mendonca, he should take immediate steps to modify the dog's behavior and create a secure environment. That includes keeping Bolt away from people, crating him around visitors and meeting with a behavior counselor and trainer.
"Above all, that owner needs to learn how to be a responsible dog owner," Moore said. "It is frustrating when I see cases like this. This is totally, 100 percent preventable. That doesn't make the dog a bad dog, that makes the dog a dog."
As for the humans in the case, the damage from the bite continues to reverberate. Gilstrap said she has been deluged with people angry with her because of Bolt's predicament.
She said she was stuck paying her $2,000 medical bill alone. She works two part-time jobs and does not have health insurance.
Gilstrap said she was not present at Bolt's administrative hearing last month because she had to work. Both Mendonca and Leedom spoke at the hearing.
"People are calling me a dog hater, a drunk," she said. "It is all not true. I work hard, I am a caring person. I have a dog myself. I wasn't messing with the dog. They are trying to make McKenzie and me look like bad people."
Mendonca said he wants Bolt to come home but would be willing to give him up to a malamute rescue group to save his life. Randee McQueen, who is head of rescue with the Bay Area Siberian Husky Club and on the board of the Northern California Sled Dog Rescue, said in her experience, reports of human bites are rare.
She said her Bay Area group, based in Campbell, would be willing to look at the case and consider rescuing Bolt.
"There is a line to be drawn in each area in terms of what is vicious and what is not," she said. "Both Siberian huskies and malamutes tend to be extremely friendly. We always joke that people want to adopt them to be protective and they are just not that kind of dog."
More information at Free Bolt (www.thepetitionsite.com/204/437/473/free-bolt) or Save Bolt (www.facebook.com/SaveBolt).
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2284. Follow her on www.twitter.com/turlocknow.