TURLOCK — The life or death of a dog named Bolt is at the center of a growing controversy in Turlock.
The 3½-year-old Alaskan malamute is slated for euthanization next week by Turlock Animal Serv-ices after reportedly biting two women on the face in the past three months.
Bolt's owner, Dan Mendonca, 26, of Turlock, and his family are fighting for the dog's life and have collected more than 1,400 signatures of support through an online petition.
Bolt, a 150-pound black-and-white bear of a dog, bit Turlock resident McKenzie Leedom, 20, on the face while she was at Mendonca's home over Halloween weekend. Leedom was bitten once, resulting in punctures on both sides of her face that required at least eight stitches.
Turlock Animal Services supervisor Glena Jackson said an investigation determined that Bolt also bit Macie Gilstrap on the face Sept. 30 at Mendonca's home. The chin laceration required a staple. Both women were friends of Mendonca's before the incidents. They were treated at Emanuel Medical Center.
Bolt was impounded on Nov. 7 and determined to be a "vicious dog" after an administrative hearing Nov. 27 before Turlock Fire Chief Tim Lohman. The dog was to be put down Tuesday. But Mendonca's sister, Modesto resident Diane Rodrigues, said the family has hired a lawyer who filed a stay motion in Stanislaus Superior Court on Thursday, postponing Bolt's euthanization. They hope to have their case heard in court within the next 30 days.
"If I thought my dog was dangerous, I'd never allow him to be around my nieces, nephews, little cousins -- even adults. He's a good, loving family dog. He's just a good boy," said Mendonca, who works as a big-rig mechanic in Ceres.
Mendonca's family has launched an online petition called "Free Bolt," as well as a Facebook community page titled "Save Bolt."
The family does not contest that Bolt bit Leedom, but said Gilstrap's injury was caused by Bolt's brother, Milo. Mendonca also contends that both Leedom and Gilstrap were intoxicated when they were bitten, which led to the incidents. Gilstrap could not be reached for comment.
Leedom, who works part-time at a Turlock pet store and for a city after-school program, said the attack was unprovoked and vicious. She said she was sitting on the edge of Mendonca's bed petting Bolt when he bit her. She would not say whether she had been drinking that night.
"If I was intoxicated or wasn't isn't relevant. It doesn't matter either way. If it was a 2-year-old who hugged or petted him the same way, it's the same situation," she said. "The fact is that dog bit two women in the face. I feel horrible that the dog has to be put down. I know Dan loves his dog, but there's a responsibility you have to take. My primary concern is that the dog would bite someone else and it could even be worse."
Fire Chief Lohman oversees Turlock's vicious and nuisance dog hearings and said the cases are relatively rare. In 2011, Animal Services conducted three vicious dog hearings, resulting in two euthanizations. This year, there have been three hearings, including Bolt's case, resulting in one euthanization.
At Bolt's hearing, Leedom and Mendonca spoke, as well as a handful of friends of Mendonca's. Gilstrap was not present. Afterward, Lohman said his job was to make a recommendation to the city manager, who then confirmed his decision to have the dog put to sleep.
"Quite honestly, one of the litmus tests for me is if a child were to walk up to a dog, do I feel like that child would be safe. And in this case, I felt there was a risk there and was concerned about that," Lohman said. "It's difficult. I understand that people love their pets, and it is hard on us to make those decisions. But we have to do what's best in the public interest."
Jackson, who also was at the hearing, said the severity of the bites is taken into consideration, as are the owner's actions to secure the animal and ensure it does not happen again.
"I realize it's hard to think reasonably when it's the family pet," said Leedom's mother, Turlock resident Rayanne Leedom. "This is a no-win situation. My daughter suffered greatly and continues to suffer. People say he's a great dog, a lovely dog. They are all wonderful and loving, until they are not. Then it's too late. A human trumps a dog any day."
Mendonca's family expects it will cost about $6,000 in legal fees to fight the ruling.
Mendonca and his family say Lohman should not have heard the case because he played football in high school with Leedom's father. Lohman said he does know of the Leedom family, but does not know McKenzie or Rayanne Leedom personally.
Mendonca's family also suggests McKenzie Leedom's past volunteering for the Stanislaus Animal Serv-ices Agency has given her an unfair advantage. But Jackson said Leedom has never worked or volunteered for Turlock Animal Services.
Leedom is unsure if her scars will require cosmetic surgery. Since being bitten, she said she has become wary of dogs and nervous around animals. She said she also has been subjected to angry feedback from people upset that she wants the dog to be put down.
"I just want people to know the truth. I hope people can realize the severity of the situation and put themselves in my shoes. What would they do if it happened to them, their child or someone they love?" she said.
Mendonca said the punishment does not fit the crime. "In all hopes, I want him to come home," he said. "But if they deem me too irresponsible, I'd love for him to go to a malamute rescue and be happy and free somewhere."