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The Outdoors Digest | PREDATORS

Pets gone wild

When dog mobs are free to roam the urban fringe, trouble follows.

February 03, 2004|Ann Japenga | Special to The Times

Steve Jenkins was jogging on the outskirts of Palm Springs on New Year's Day in 2002 when he was surrounded by a gang of 20 dogs. The hounds tore chunks of flesh from his arms and legs, pulling him down each time he tried to stagger to his feet.

Predatory dog packs like the one that attacked Jenkins, a Pasadena drummer, are emerging as a threat to wildlife and humans nationwide. In Montana and Colorado, dog mobs routinely kill deer, antelope, moose and elk. In a Colorado Division of Wildlife report, one department says they field reports of dogs chasing big game almost daily.

In January 2003, in a forest preserve in Chicago, a 48-year-old woman was killed by a dog pack. And in Daly City, Calif., last October, 20 wild dogs killed 13 sheep at a 4-H club and stalked students at a neighboring elementary school.

In Southern California, more and more wildlife workers are reporting run-ins with dogs.

"It's a significant and very important threat in the urban fringe areas," says Jill Heaton, principal investigator for the University of Redlands Desert Tortoise Project.

Heaton herself was recently charged by six dogs while doing fieldwork on the Twentynine Palms Marine base.

There is no central clearinghouse to track assaults by dog packs on either humans or wildlife, so the scope of the problem is not known. But because of the unpredictable nature of the attacks, some outdoor workers now fear dogs even more than classic predators such as cougars.

"I personally would be more concerned with a feral dog than I would a coyote or a wolf," says Judy Bartzatt, chief ranger at Joshua Tree National Park, where, in the spring of 2002, a pack of dogs attacked bighorn sheep near Stubbe Spring, killing at least one.

The danger is greatest in the so-called urban shadow where Californians go to play. These are recreational areas on the outskirts of population centers such as Twentynine Palms, Barstow and the Coachella Valley.

Dogs are less of a concern in remote wilderness, but if you hike or bike anywhere near human habitat, dog packs should be on your list of potential hazards. Sparsely populated areas usually have few animal control services.

There's also a liberty-loving contingent on the outskirts of cities that likes the idea of emancipating their pets, if just for a day.

As Colorado wildlife manager Tonya Sharp said in a report: "They think that if they buy 5 acres they can let their dogs run loose."

"We're seeing the tip of the iceberg. As urbanization increases, it's going to get worse," says Henry McCutchen, chief of resource management at Joshua Tree National Park.

It's not hard to imagine purely feral dogs, or ownerless canines, going on a rampage. But in a chilling twist to the trend, the culprits usually are not truly feral dogs -- they're pets.

Known by the terms "free-roaming" or "free-ranging," according to Rhys Evans, a Twentynine Palms ecologist, the predators are pooches that go home at night to eat Gravy Train. Misguided owners let them run free during the day, and they join other marauding pets. In Jenkins' case, his attackers were strays that were being fed each night by a local dog lover.

Because wild animals must kill to eat, they tend to be efficient killers. But free-roaming dogs don't need to eat. "They chew for chewing's sake," says Kristin Berry, research wildlife biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Moreno Valley.

When desert tortoises are attacked by foxes or coyotes, they're normally killed and consumed, adds Heaton. However, tortoises assaulted by free-roaming dogs wind up alive but maimed, with scales and legs ripped off. In some study plots, Heaton says, as many as 40% of tortoises have been mauled by dogs.

As jogger Jenkins found, free-roaming dogs maim, chew and mutilate in a kind of ritualized pack play. Jenkins was rescued from his New Year's mauling by a passing ATV driver. Two surgeries and a year of rehab later, he was back to drumming in his oldies band.

There is as yet no areawide plan to control the free-roaming dog menace. Understaffed animal control departments are left to deal with the hazard by trapping and euthanizing wild dogs.

Meanwhile, some dog owners continue to argue for freedom. As San Diego columnist Logan Jenkins wrote, defending his practice of letting his golden retriever off rein: "Lassie never wore a leash."

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