Dog Days of Winter Can Be Deadly

Stray voltage on the slushy streets of New York poses an electrocution risk to anyone on foot, but particularly dogs.

February 26, 2006|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — On the shelves at Trixie & Peanut, a boutique in Manhattan, are indulgences for dog owners concerned with image: pink sequined tank tops, moss-green lizard-skin collars, rhinestone barrettes shaped like tiny bones. Then there are specialty products for a different kind of shopper: People who don't want their pet to be electrocuted.

For them, the shop's owner recommends $79 hiking boots with thick black rubber soles that might protect them if they should walk over one of the city's unpredictable sites of stray voltage.

Add this to your list of urban anxieties: During the snowy months of late winter, when salt mixes with slush, electric current escaping through uninsulated wires can be conducted up to the street through manholes, streetlights, service boxes, grates or cracks in the sidewalk.

New Yorkers became painfully aware of the phenomenon two winters ago, when a 30-year-old woman named Jodie Lane was electrocuted while walking her dogs in the East Village. Lane's death opened people's eyes to the risks posed by the wires that weave in and out of the city.

But dogs -- whose skin touches the ground -- have known it all along.

For years, Garrett Rosso wrote it off as eccentric behavior on the part of his Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Java and Kai. They would startle and run ahead or strain on the leash, refusing to go near certain spots on the sidewalk around his apartment.

Paul Schwartz, an East Side veterinarian, would see dogs that had burns on the bottoms of their paws, or, in one case, a dog whose spinal cord had degenerated so badly that it died. At the time, "I chalked it up to God only knows what disease. Now that it's happened year after year after year," he said the cause was no longer a mystery.

New Yorkers were reminded of the phenomenon last week, when a chow-collie mix named Barkis was electrocuted near Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

The dog's owner, a music producer named Danny Kapilian, was walking Barkis when the dog "started yelping and jumping" and lunged into the street. Assuming the dog was reacting to rock salt on the street, Kapilian bent down to wipe his paws. For a moment, Barkis seemed calm. Then he went into a fury -- eyes flaring, teeth gnashing, so violently that Kapilian was afraid his sweet-natured dog would attack him.

Barkis then fell, flopping on to the sidewalk, and went into convulsions. Kapilian sat beside his dog for 40 minutes, a crowd gathering around him, while he waited for help. When two animal technicians reached down to try to move Barkis, they too were shocked.

"I was screaming at people, 'Leave us alone. Get away from me,' " Kapilian said.

Barkis had walked over a section of sidewalk conducting 70 volts of electricity intended for a streetlight -- which had been removed in 1999. Con Edison had been informed that the city planned to remove the streetlight but had not discontinued the electricity supply, said Michael Clendenin, a spokesman.

Barkis died an hour and 20 minutes after he was shocked. Kapilian said he was considering suing Con Edison.

"It was a horrible, painful death," he said.

At the heart of the problem is the aging infrastructure of a densely built city in which nearly all electrical wiring is located underground. After Lane's death, Con Edison began doing something it had never done before: testing hundreds of thousands of sites each year for stray voltage, which typically escapes when casing around wires has disintegrated or corroded.

Surveys of 410,000 pieces of equipment in 2004, after Lane's death, turned up more than 1,400 sources of stray voltage, which were then repaired. Then, last year, a survey of more than 730,000 sites turned up about 1,100 sources of stray voltage, most of them streetlights, overwhelmingly in the outer boroughs of the city.

Although workers can neutralize sites, Clendenin said there was no guarantee they would remain safe -- or that other sites would not become dangerous, because of the ongoing effects of vibrations from traffic and subways and the effects of water and salt.

In the wake of this month's blizzard came a cluster of electric shocks: Four pedestrians, including a 15-year-old runway model, were stunned Feb. 11 while walking near Times Square; Barkis died a few days later; and on Thursday, a Brooklyn dog trainer was shocked while walking over a manhole belonging to a private company.

Clendenin said Con Edison's safety record was among the best in the nation for electric delivery systems.

"We know there is some risk in delivering electricity," he said. "We strive every day to deliver it as safely as humanly possible."

Roger Lane, who immersed himself in the subject of electrical engineering after his daughter Jodie's death, said annual testing was no substitute for a system that would warn Con Edison and the public -- in real time -- of leaking electricity. The current system "implies a certain failure rate," he said. "That failure rate is discovered by dogs and people."

And dog owners, more than any other group, have begun to gather evidence. Rosso collects and displays photographs of exposed wires sticking out of lampposts in his neighborhood. Dog owners post information about hot spots to blogs such as Shock and Paw. Greg Komar, a part-time dog walker in the same East Village community, got a note from one of his clients asking him to make sure the dog didn't step on metal plates. Eric Miranda, a songwriter who was a friend of Jodie Lane's and saw her die, won't take his dog down a street unless he knows where all of the sewer caps are.

"My life was changed dramatically from the event," he said. "There's always people flocking to this neighborhood. It almost seems pathetic how naive they are, but we were naive too."

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