Early one morning in February, as Debbye Benson prepared to take her kids to school, she heard her son shouting from across the yard. Benson turned to see her 12-year-old running and climbing onto their fence as two dark figures chased him.
About 12 of her family’s chickens and three rabbits were strewn dead across the yard, fur and feathers scattered.
The pit bulls had returned.
Benson’s experience is just one instance of a sometimes daily problem in the Melrose and Keystone Heights area where groups of dogs have been ravaging cages and chicken coops, attacking livestock and harassing community members. In the month of March, Putnam County Animal Control had a total of 78 calls about roaming dogs in the county. Twenty-three of these calls came from the Melrose, Florahome and Palatka area.
Lisa Suarez, Animal Control supervisor for Putnam County, said if the Animal Control employees do not actually witness the loose dogs, they need to have a hearing with witness testimony and evidence to be able to place fines on the dog owner. This process can be slow and Suarez said some residents do not want to go through the trouble.
“That’s the hard part about our job, but there is a process,” Suarez said.
Mary Lynn McDavid, a resident of Keystone Heights since 2009, said she has been wary of loose dogs ever since she was chased into a lake by two dogs one morning.
“I was terrified,” McDavid said. “I did the only thing I could think of and ran fully dressed into the water until I was thigh deep.”
The dogs did not follow McDavid into the deeper water, but she said she had to scream for help until the owners came and brought the dogs home.
Despite the calls that McDavid and Benson have made to animal control services, they said they believe very little has been done to address the issue in the rural neighborhoods.
“Animal Control won’t do anything,” McDavid said. “They told me to catch that pit that chased me into the lake and that they would get it then. That’s enforcement?”
Suarez said Animal Control recommends that residents try to contain any loose animals they find on their property. The county also rents dog traps that humanely capture the animals.
The problem areas are largely rural along the borders of Bradford, Clay and Putnam counties. Services like Animal Control and law enforcement can be slow to respond to emergencies or complaints.
“It’s a good 45 minute drive before we get there,” Suarez said. “By then the dog could have wandered back home.”
“(Timing) is an obstacle on any animal call because the animals are mobile,” said Maj. Brad Smith, Undersheriff for Bradford County Sheriff’s Office. “It could be a mile down the road but it takes time for the people to call in.”
These services are often spread thin and struggle to cover remote parts of their county. Putnam currently has three animal control officers on patrol across the entire county. Bradford County has just two dedicated animal service employees.
“We are understaffed, but I don’t think the county budget would allow me to have more officers,” Suarez said. “In an ideal world, it would be great to have one officer for each of the five districts.”
In Alachua County, which covers part of the Melrose community, commissioners met April 9 to address the rising number of dog attacks. Recent attacks have resulted in the death of a 2-year-old boy and several pets. At the meeting, commissioners approved an irresponsible pet ordinance that creates penalties for people whose dogs are deemed a threat or nuisance.
The morning her son was chased was not Benson’s first encounter with the pack of dogs. She said there were other instances when they attacked her livestock. Though she was able to chase the dogs away and keep her son safe, she said they killed 21 of her chickens and eight rabbits.
Without the assistance of Animal Control, Benson said she and her husband had to take matters into their own hands. In the following weeks when the dogs returned, Benson and her husband shot one and trapped another in a cage. The captured dog escaped before it could be picked up. Putnam County Animal Control does not pick up dead animals, so Benson and her husband buried the dog they shot.
“I don’t want to shoot a dog. None of us wanted to shoot a dog,” Benson said. “It’s not fair to the dog, the owner should be in control.”
When Benson shared her story on Facebook, most community members seemed to agree that shooting the dogs was the only way to keep her property and livestock safe.
“I don’t like to shoot animals,” Neal Robinson, a local, commented on Benson’s post. “But those sound like killing machines and I don’t think they are going to stop.”
Other people who live in the neighborhood are concerned about the idea of their neighbors shooting at wandering dogs. Heather Adkins, co-owner of the Twice is Nice consignment shop in Melrose, said she is worried about her neighbors going too far.
“I don’t like people talking about killing everything they see,” Adkins said.
Though there have not been any more attacks on her property recently, Benson said she still worries about her children. In the mornings when she goes for walks she said she carries a stick or pepper spray with her in case of a dog attack.
“You watch anybody who walks or runs around here and they usually do have a stick,” Benson said.
She also believes that the problem will continue in rural areas like her neighborhood without a dedicated animal control worker covering it full time.
McDavid said she always has her stun gun when she walks and has seen neighbors carry golf irons and pistols when they go out.
“The anxiety I feel is unfair,” McDavid said. “Enough is enough.”