This article was originally published in The San Diego Union-Tribune by Karen Pearlman
EL CAJON — El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells has one more thing he can put on a pretty full resume: Rescuer.
The 59-year-old Registered Nurse with a doctorate in clinical psychology used his experience in emergency rooms to render emergency aid to a woman who was being mauled by an unleashed dog in his Granite Hills neighborhood last month.
According to a report on the dog attack shared by the San Diego Humane Society — and corroborated accounts from Wells’ wife, Bettie, and a neighbor who assisted the mayor in the rescue — a 3-year-old male American pit bull terrier who lives across the street from the Wellses, went after the woman’s dog at about 8:53 a.m. Monday, Sept. 27.
The Humane Society report said that the victim was walking her on-leash dog, a small breed, on a dirt sidewalk along Granite Hills Drive. According to Bill Ganley, the San Diego Humane Society’s chief of humane law enforcement, the presumed owner of the pit bull said her dog exited a vehicle in front of the home and instead of heading to the house, went after the small dog.
The Humane Society’s report said that the victim, described by Bettie Wells as an older woman with long silver hair, picked up her dog to get it out of the pit bull’s range. Then the pit bull attacked the woman and bit down on her arm.
“The owner of the dog that did the biting said that the dog regularly chases rabbits in the back yard and her thought was that her dog thought the other dog was a rabbit,” Ganley said.
Bettie Wells said she heard blood-curdling screams from across the street and when she ran out to see what was happening, she saw a woman in distress, her back on the ground and a large dog biting down on her arm. Wells said she then called out to her husband who sprang into action along with their next-door-neighbor Rick Chiles.
“I was really worried this dog was going to kill this woman,” Bill Wells said. “The dog was ripping her flesh down to the bone.”
Wells and Chiles worked as a team to distract the dog, both of them hitting him with their fists and kicking him with their feet, finally using the handle of a broomstick to break one of the dog’s ribs, causing him to release his grip.
“It was awful, the pit bull was just chewing on her arm,” Chiles said. “We started kicking the snot out of the dog, and it did nothing to stop him. He wouldn’t let go of her. I’ve seen some pretty bad things in my life and this is in the top three or four. Imagine us kicking the dog again and again and he didn’t even act like we were doing anything.”
After the pit bull let go of the victim, Bill Wells removed his shirt and wrapped it tightly around the woman’s arm, which he said at that point “resembled hamburger meat.”
“I saw spurting blood,” Wells said. “She was very upset, and she was telling me she thought she was going to die. I told her, ‘You’re not going to die. You’re going to live.’”
Wells said she bled through the shirt but he had learned about pressure points in basic emergency medical training and had seen enough trauma work on patients in emergency rooms. He said he was able to “dig into her arm” with the blood-soaked shirt, and pushed hard on a known pressure point to keep the bleeding down until Heartland Fire paramedics arrived.
He also said the victim had hit her head on the concrete and that another neighbor brought over a cushion from a lawn chair to provide some measure of comfort.
The Humane Society’s report said a man who cares for the pit bull was able to grab that dog and take it away from the vicinity of Bill Wells and Chiles, both of whom were rendering assistance to the victim. Bettie Wells said she had already left the chaotic scene to chase after the victim’s dog with another neighbor.
The victim’s dog, who had been bitten by the pit bull also, was still on a leash and running loose through the neighborhood. Bettie Wells said they captured the dog and that she was able to show the victim that they had her dog before the ambulance took her to a hospital.
“That’s all she cared about was if her dog was OK,” Bettie Wells said.
Wells said that she was heartened that fire personnel offered to provide aid to the victim’s dog.
Ganley said he could not provide the victim’s name, but said that the woman was healing, that her dog was “OK” and that she told him she was grateful the mayor had intervened on her behalf.
The dog’s presumed owner is a woman who lives on Granite Hills Drive, with a backyard that backs up behind the bleachers at the Granite Hills High School stadium. On Oct. 6 she was served with a “Dangerous Dog” declaration by the Humane Society. The owner said that the mayor had introduced himself to her and then declined to be interviewed for this story.
The Dangerous Dog declaration — a written document that contained several errors, including the wrong address of the dog’s owner, the wrong date of the attack and an incorrect statement that the owner of the dog waived a hearing on the matter when a hearing was actually held, Ganley said — was signed by the woman who claimed ownership of the pit bull.
As part of the declaration, among other requirements, the owner of the dog must keep “BEWARE OF DOG” signs in several spots along her fence, and the dog must be confined in a substantially fenced and gated enclosure. The dog will need to be on leash and muzzled whenever it is out in public, must be neutered and wear a “dangerous dog” tag with a valid dog license at all times. The owner of the dog also must take out $100,000 in liability insurance.
If the owner doesn’t comply with these restrictions, the Humane Society can issue a misdemeanor citation or impound or euthanize the dog. Any damages caused by the animal would need to be determined in a civil lawsuit. Ganley did not say whether the victim of the dog attack was filing litigation.
“The mayor jumping in to help out goes long way,” Ganley said. “That is a traumatic incident and the aftermath is tough. I can’t say enough about what he did.”
Bill Wells said he is angry that the dog was back across the street after 10 days in quarantine at the Humane Society’s Gaines Street shelter in San Diego. He said he is questioning the city’s new contract with the Humane Society. The San Diego Humane Society since October 2020 has handled El Cajon’s animal control needs and runs its shelter on Marshall Avenue. The city’s animal services were previously overseen for decades by El Cajon’s police department.
Wells said more needs to be done to protect the neighborhood and that there needs to be justice for the victim.
“So this woman could have been killed by this dog, and may be permanently disabled by this, and certainly needed surgery,” he said. “She will need weeks, months, years of recovery. At what point does a dog have to be put down? If he severed her arm? How much damage has to be done? What if a neighborhood child is killed next? They need to figure this out — this is going to be a big problem for us.”
The San Diego County Department of Animal Services said it investigates more than 6,000 dog bites or attacks every year.
According to the county, every year in the United States, about 800,000 people require medical treatment after a dog bite, with the vast majority of dog bites occurring on the owner’s property. The Insurance Institute estimates that up to one-third of homeowners’ liability claims are for dog attacks.
According to the National Pit Bull Victim Awareness organization, 27 of 37 dog bite-related fatalities in the United State in 2021 have been “attributed to pit bull type dogs.”
Bettie Wells said she was traumatized by the incident and said she was doing all right until she saw that the dog was back in the neighborhood. Now she said she is in fear for her grandchildren and the family dogs, none of whom are allowed to go outside in front to play anymore.
Wells said she was incredulous that the pit bull owner expressed no concern about the victim, only telling the mayor that she was concerned about the possibillity of losing her home.
“Bill looked at her with all the calmness, after all that hand-to-hand combat, and said, ‘You probably want to call your homeowners’ insurance and tell them what happened,’” Bettie Wells recounted.
Wells said a house next door to the one with the pit bull is for sale, and that she contacted the realtor to share her concern. Chiles, who works in real estate, says the house on the other side of the pit bull is about to go on the market and that prospective buyers need to be informed about the dog.
Bettie Wells said she also contacted the Grossmont Union High School District and Granite Hills High to let those entities know about the incident that happened so close to the high school.
Ganley said that while the Humane Society “can’t be there 365 days a year,” it does do “spot checks” to be sure that the owners of “dangerous dogs” are following agreed-upon rules. He also said that the group depends on people living nearby to be its extra pairs of eyes.
“We rely upon alert neighbors to keep an eye out,” he said. “If they report a person not following requirements, we’ll act swiftly, and if we have remove a dog, we will. If neighbors see a dangerous dog is off leash, we want them to call, and we will charge those owners. We want to ensure the safety of the public.”
Photo Cred: Jarrod Valliere/ The San Diego Union-Tribune