Great Falls residents and Animal Control officers are on the lookout for two dogs that may be responsible for area cat maulings and a predatory attack on a deer. Homeowners along River Park Road are so alarmed by the escalation in the attacks that many have stopped going outdoors unless it’s daylight, and even then arming themselves with protection.
Authorities are trying to catch two dogs. One is a German shepherd, and the other appears to be a black Lab mix. The pair were caught on camera by a resident, taking down and disemboweling a white-tailed deer last week.
Don Barnett, who lives on River Park Drive where the deer attack occurred, has had three cats attacked by the duo. "Some neighbors are only going out during daylight. I only go out to get the paper when I’ve got my cane with a knob on it," Barnett said.
Residents are afraid that the dogs have escalated from cats to bigger game, and they fear for their children. "We’ve got grandkids that come over here. We’ve got a new policy - no jogging, no going out," said Barnett.
Edwin Behrens, who witnessed the deer attack, said, "The concern is there are a lot of kids in this area. Once attack animals successfully take down big game, they are a danger to humans. Everyone is concerned about the children now."
Animal Control officers have been unable to find the dogs or to identify them, but according to Cmdr. Michael Lucas, they are following up on several leads. Animal Control officers are reluctant to talk about specifics of the case because it is an ongoing investigation. They will say, however, that there have been a variety of incidents in the Great Falls area and there is a possibility the deer incident might tie into a previous case.
The dogs are wearing collars. The German shepherd even has blue rabies tags, but that does not mean they are family pets gone bad. "There’s a chance that some family has just let them go, that after the cat attacks the owner thought it was better to just let them go. It could be that they’ve gone completely feral at this point," said Barnett.
Lucas believes the tags indicate that these are house pets, not wild dogs. "The fact that they’re wearing collars and tags is prima facie evidence that they are owned and being taken care of," Lucas said.
"I’ve been around a long time, and this was the wildest, worst animal sounds I’ve ever heard," Behrens said of the attack on the deer. "These two big dogs viciously attacked this deer from the rear in a coordinated attack. It took them about 20 minutes to kill her. They weren’t experienced in how to take down a big animal, but in the course of it, they were learning."
The German shepherd appears to be the "alpha dog" leading the attack. Barnett said Animal Control officers were concerned and shocked to learn that the second dog was a black Lab, or a mix, because attacking prey is not normally in their disposition.
Residents are also critical of the response time by county officials. Behrens says that when he called to report the incident, "curiously, the police’s first response was that the carcass was an owner’s responsibility. I said I was more concerned about a two-dog pack ID’d as killer dogs, and they said, ‘Oh, that is a legitimate report. We will have someone from Animal Control come over as soon as someone is available.’" Meanwhile the dogs leisurely ate the deer for over an hour.
Animal Control officers took almost two hours to arrive on the scene. "By that time they were long gone. They [the officers] drove around but couldn’t find anything," said Behrens.
The ratio of Animal Control officers to citizens is startlingly low. "If this was an emergency, someone would have been out there immediately," assures Lucas. There is only one officer assigned to the Great Falls district, and that officer simultaneously handles calls in another district, as well.
"Animal Control says they have to notify the owners first before they can do anything. Now how are they going to tell that to parents if a kid gets killed, that they had to notify the owners first? Driving around just isn’t going to cut it Now that they’ve taken down a deer, what’s next - a child?" asks Barnett.
Lucas said, in this instance, the owners do not need to be notified before action is taken. "There is an Animal Trespass Ordinance, where the owner must be notified, but not for running loose like this. That’s a different kind of scenario," Lucas explains.
Area veterinarians are seeing an increase in cat maulings and attribute them to these two dogs, according to Barnett. Great Falls Animal Hospital, where Barnett spent over $1,000 repairing his cat after it was attacked by the pair of dogs, "said they’d had episodes that they didn’t tie together until we told them about this. The vet told us they knew of other cats. Some vet, somewhere, has on their records that a family has these two dogs. They just haven’t connected the dots yet," Barnett said.
Barnett was able to positively identify the dogs as being the ones who attacked his cat (who lost all of her claws defending herself and suffered multiple puncture wounds and a broken leg), because another neighbor witnessed the event.
Elaine Tholen wrote to Behrens that she and her sons witnessed the attack, and she ran out of the house screaming, which drove the dogs away. She says her children remain traumatized from seeing the mauling. "As someone who spends a lot of time outdoors near our home and who has always encouraged my sons to get outside and play in the woods around us, these dogs are making me a bit uneasy," Tholen wrote.
Lucas says there is no reason at this juncture to believe the dogs are people-aggressive. "A dog that is aggressive towards an animal isn’t necessarily going to go after a person," said Lucas.
Residents on Beach Mill and in Falcon Ridge have also reported missing cats after the dogs have been seen in the area.
"We think they seem to have a run pretty close to one end of Great Falls to the other," said Barnett.
Animal Control, while contending there is no reason to be alarmed, warns that residents should not approach the dogs if they are seen. "These dogs, or any other dog that is unknown — it is not a good idea to approach them," said Lucas.
Recognizing that a pet owner who sees his cat being attacked will be tempted to intervene, Lucas advises the best thing to do is to get a broom or other substantial object to separate the dog and cat. "Sticking your hand down there is not a good idea," said Lucas.