Skeets was not just any dog.
When the phone rang, the short-legged Corgi would run to the sound and howl — alerting his hearing-impaired owner, Jeanette.
"He was my ears. He was my life," the 76-year-old Wichita woman said. He slept by her. He stood between repairmen and his master. True to his breed, he was a herder.
Around 9:30 a.m. Feb. 12, Jeanette let Skeets into the fenced-in backyard right before the phone rang. If the call hadn't interrupted her, she would have ambled out on her replacement hip and knee to hang laundry in the crisp air. "The phone call saved my life," she would say later.
While she took the call, three pit bulls from next door somehow got through multiple fences — some as high as 6 feet — between the two yards. One or more of the powerful dogs mauled Skeets. At 5 1/2 years old, he was dead.
It could have been prevented, Jeanette and her veterinarians say. They blame the dogs' owner and the city, saying that the owner was irresponsible and city enforcement was lacking.
The owner, a woman named Kristi, said she is sorry for Jeanette's loss but didn't see the mauling coming. An official is defending the city's response to complaints about the pit bulls.
The incident occurred amid a continuing local and national debate about how much pit bulls — a controversial breed because of their reputation as fighting dogs — should be regulated.
The two women are not being identified with first names only because of concerns about their security.
'Plenty of warning'
Months before her pet's death, Jeanette said, she had at various times told her neighbor, City Council members, a 911 operator, police and city animal control officials that the pit bulls were coming into her yard and posing a danger.
One of her veterinarians, William Skaer, said of the city: "Had they enforced the existing ordinance" — including requirements that pit bulls be spayed or neutered and have an identifying microchip —"this wouldn't have happened. They had plenty of warning."
His daughter, Christen Skaer, another veterinarian, said: "I believe that animal control is underfunded and understaffed, and that contributed to this problem."
Don Henry, the city environmental services manager, who helps oversee animal control, said the problem was animals running loose, not a lack of staffing. At any one time, from two to five animal control officers respond to such calls, he said.
The city has known of complaints about dogs running loose from Kristi's address dating to July 2007, and "staff took appropriate enforcement actions in every case," he said.
The enforcement included filing charges and getting 15 misdemeanor animal-control convictions against the dogs' owner. The citations were for license violations and animals running loose. The city also euthanized two of the woman's pit bulls in an earlier case in which the dogs were aggressive. At least one of them chased a postal carrier, he said.
After the Feb. 12 mauling, the city euthanized three pit bulls involved in the attack, and 15 animal-control counts are pending against the owner, Henry said. The misdemeanor charges involve the mauling and accuse the owner of license violations, letting the dogs run loose, and failing to comply with pit bull requirements that they be spayed or neutered and have identifying microchips, he said.
Before the mauling, City Council members worked with city staff on the complaints, and animal control increased monitoring of the property in April 2009. Animal control staff advised police so they could help watch for the dogs, and the city "red-flagged" the address so that any complaints would get priority treatment, Henry said.
The last complaint involving the pit bulls' address came in June 2009, he said.
Jeanette said the most recent incident before the mauling occurred in December, when she reported to 911 that the pit bulls had shredded a pillow in her backyard.
The pit bulls' owner is also to blame — for irresponsibility, said Christen Skaer, the veterinarian whose clinic had treated Skeets.
Kristi, the dogs' owner, said: "I'm appalled with what my dogs did." Still, she said, "I would not have expected in a million years that they would ever do anything like that.
The city's recently toughened animal control law limits the number of pit bulls per household to two unless the owner has a current animal maintenance permit that would grandfather in more than two.
It appears the owner in the mauling case had such a permit, Henry said.
Christen Skaer said she questions why someone should be able to have such a permit if they had "that many" violations.
"It's like being allowed to have a driver's license if I have 15 DUIs," she said.
"They didn't do enough," she said of the city's enforcement.
Henry said it is "important that we deliver the message that as tragic as this situation was ... this really reinforces the importance of responsible ownership," including not having more animals than can be maintained and properly cared for and not letting them run loose.
"Pit bull owners need to be aware that they have a stronger breed," he said. "They can be determined animals."
William Skaer said pit bulls are different from other dogs "because of the power of the jaws, and they were bred for fighting. They can be wonderful animals if properly raised."
Kristi said she is a single mother with five children, ages 12 to 21, and that she got her first pit bulls about four years ago to help protect her family. Over the 15 years she has lived at her home, thieves have stolen a trailer, bicycles and other items.
To help secure her house, she put up a sign on her door with a picture of a pit bull and "Warning. Bad dog."
One of her pit bulls, a 90-pounder named Big Momma, had four litters. "She was the most loving dog," Kristi said.
Kristi said she sold the pups and considered herself "a little bit" of a breeder.
"These dogs were raised around kids," she said. Her 12-year-old would wrap his arms around the dogs and roll around with them. The dogs never harmed her children. "They were a pet, just as much for security purposes," she said.
Besides Big Momma, there were Big Momma's two sons, Kujo II and Hydro. Kujo II was named after Kujo I because they looked alike.
Kristi said that about a year ago she turned Kujo I and another of her pit bulls, Milo, over to the city to be euthanized after Milo barked at a postal carrier and Kujo kept clearing a 6-foot fence. "I couldn't contain him," she said.
In a letter dated June 19, 2009, the U.S. Postal Service told residents of "a continuing problem with a dog that is loose in your neighborhood. This is a very serious situation." If the problem continued, residents would have to get their mail at curbside boxes. Five days later, the residents received a letter saying that front-door mail service would continue because the owner had relinquished her dogs to the animal shelter.
Kristi still had three other pit bulls, the ones that eventually were involved in the recent mauling.
Kristi said she sometimes took her dogs into her front yard so the animals could relieve themselves and that she promptly brought them back in.
"Before this incident, they never harmed anybody or anything," Kristi said.
Source of worry
But Jeanette said the dogs had long been a source of irritation and worry for her and others.
Sometimes the pit bulls would wander into her garage, she said. Sometimes, she would turn around while outside and find a loose pit bull staring at her. Sometimes, her visitors wouldn't get out of their cars or leave her porch because the pit bulls were out.
Last March, almost 11 months before Skeets died, Jeanette was trying to communicate her concerns.
In a note dated March 13, 2009, she wrote to Kristi about one of her dogs: "I go into the backyard to come into the house, and he has me stopped against the garage door."
In a May 6, 2009, e-mail to City Council members, Jeanette wrote: "Do I have to be literally attacked by this dog to do anything?"
The day that Skeets died, a neighbor walking out to get her newspaper heard a number of dogs barking.
"And then I heard this really agonizing, painful cry from a dog," she said.
She went inside, looked out a window and saw two pit bulls — one at each end of Skeets. His body had gone limp.
Jeanette didn't realize Skeets had been attacked until after it happened. After the phone call, she saw the pit bulls at her back door. She went next door, knocked with her cane and told Kristi's daughter: "Your dogs are in my yard."
Kristi had been asleep. She told Jeanette that her dogs were in a back room, where she had left a window open about an inch for circulation. Later, Kristi said she concluded that the dogs had nosed open the window and pushed through the screen to get outside.
"I thought they were secure inside the premises," Kristi said.
She has yet to figure out how the three pit bulls and her 9-pound poodle got into Jeanette's yard.
That morning, as Kristi walked to Jeanette's back yard, Kristi saw Skeets' still body, lying near a birdbath in the patchy snow. She said she had a "heart-sunk feeling knowing that the dog was probably dead and my dogs had probably caused that."
"I put my arms around her, repeated to her that I was sorry."
Jeanette's 30-pound house dog didn't have a chance against the pit bull jaws. His throat had been ripped open, his chest and abdomen punctured.
After Jeanette saw him, she began to sob.
Later that morning, Kristi said an animal control officer told her, "You know we have to take the dogs."
"I didn't have a choice," she said.
"I love my dogs, but at the same time, it's not OK for what they did. So I know they had to go."
Kristi estimates that Big Momma was worth $1,800.
Jeanette said she invested about $5,000 in Skeets, including surgeries.
'An innate fear'
Kristi said she faces a March night-court hearing on the case involving the mauling.
She said she might get another pit bull, "but not anytime soon."
"They're a handful, and it takes a lot of prep to make sure they're secure in your yard and cannot get loose," Kristi said.
She said a key question for her is whether she can afford secure fencing. If not, she said, "then I need to do the responsible thing and not bring that kind of dog to this situation again."
Even with the three pit bulls gone, Jeanette said, "I still have an innate fear" that a dog from next door will harm her or another dog.
She said she needs proof that no more pit bulls live next door.
As it stands, Jeanette said, "My question to the city is: Why am I not safe in my own backyard?"