A few seconds of animal fury have cast uncertainty over a woman's future and a pet's fate.
South Bend’s Animal Care & Control Commission, possibly as soon as next week, will hear conflicting stories about how a pit bull-black Labrador mix repeatedly bit 41-year-old Casey Sills on May 23. The case presents an early test for the city's new system of handling pit bulls since it reformed its dangerous dog ordinance last year to remove breed-specific language.
Sills says her attack could have been much worse if the dog’s owner, high school friend Robert Norris, hadn’t been there to pull him off of her. She said it all happened so quickly.
One minute she was sitting at a picnic table in Norris' yard in the 900 block of East Calvert Street, petting Zeus for the first time. The next second, Zeus had lunged up and was biting her face, threatening her life, she said.
“I don’t know if it was the sound of my voice, I kind of made kissy noises, like, ‘who’s a good boy?’ ” Sills said.
The moment before it happened, Norris stood up to get some charcoal for the grill, she said.
“The minute that he stood up and had his back turned, and I moved to get up, which, maybe I moved and something spooked the dog, or the dog just decided to attack,” she said. “That dog was latched on to me and my face, ripped my bottom lip off.”
Sills said she held the lip in her hand while emergency responders rushed her to Memorial Hospital, where she underwent emergency reconstructive surgery and was discharged the next day. The lip couldn’t be reattached, but the surgeon was able to create a new lip with skin from inside her cheek, she said.
She has damage to her eye that has limited her vision. She also received 25 stitches in her arm, which she had raised to protect her neck.
“I’m like, this is my jugular," she said. "If this dog gets hold of my jugular, he’s going to rip my throat out. He’s going to kill me.”
He said, she said
Sills and Norris attended Riley High School together and had maintained contact on Facebook but hadn't seen each other for years when Sills called him that day out of the blue. She had seen on Facebook that he was having some friends over and since she happened to be nearby, she asked if she could stop and hang out for a while.
Some women who were there liked Sills' hair, she said, and when she told them she is a beautician, one guest asked if she would cut her hair. Sills said she agreed, and cut her hair on Norris' sidewalk.
Norris estimates there were at least 10 people there, and said Zeus hadn't bothered anyone else.
He said he feels terrible about what happened to Sills, and he’s been calling her often to see how she’s doing. He and a friend are raffling off a pair of Notre Dame-Texas football game tickets to help raise money for her medical expenses.
But Norris tells a different story about what happened that day, and he doesn’t feel Zeus poses a threat to others unless they are trespassing or threatening him, his daughter or girlfriend.
Norris says he already had been standing at the grill, loading it with charcoal, with his back to the picnic table, and Zeus had been sitting up in front of Sills as she was petting him. When he heard her making high-pitched “mew, mew, mew” noises, Norris said he turned around to see Sills reaching for Zeus’ head with both hands as she bent down toward the dog with her lips puckered. The dog suddenly jumped up and bit into Sills’ lower lip and struck her eye with his paw, he said, and was trying to bite more of her.
Norris grabbed the 40-pound dog and threw it about 10 feet into the air, and then reached for a metal auto part that had been lying in the yard, he said.
“I was going to kill the dog right here … because I’ve never seen that happen to a person in my life, and I feel like an animal’s life is not more important than a person’s,” he said. “She stopped me and said ‘Don’t do it’ because it was her fault.”
Sills said she can’t recall making such a statement.
“I was kind of in shock, asking for towels, and help, while he was on the phone calling 911,” she said. "I could hardly see because of all the blood."
Norris said Sills should not have put her face so close to a dog she had never met while making odd sounds and reaching for its head with both hands.
“When you grab for a dog’s head that you don’t know, he’s thinking you’re going to do something to him,” Norris said. “I talked to animal control about it, I talked to the vet about it, and they said that’s a double negative.”
Sills said earlier, when Norris had escorted her inside the house to use the bathroom, he had Zeus in a cage with a blanket over it because he said he did not want it to know strangers. She had jokingly asked him if he was hiding King Kong in there, she said. He later decided to let the dog out to run loose in the yard.
“I didn’t try to kiss that dog,” she said. “That's the craziest thing ever. But I was very close to it and he’s trying to save his dog, which I understand. But he should have never let that dog out, period.”
Norris said he obtained the dog when it was four months old and trained it to protect his daughter and girlfriend while he was at work on second shift. He no longer works because of an injury, he said. The dog stays in the cage inside the home when strangers are in the house, he said.
Norris said the dog has always played with his next-door neighbor’s five young children and never bitten anyone.
Day of reckoning
Matt Harmon, shelter manager at South Bend Animal Care & Control, confirmed his staff is investigating the case.
“She was bit in the face, it was a pretty bad bite,” Harmon said.
What’s unclear is what will happen to Zeus.
Following standard protocol in dog bite cases, Zeus was ordered quarantined in Norris’ home for 10 days after the bites, until it was determined he did not have rabies, Harmon said. No further action against the dog, such as euthanization, was taken because it did not have a documented history of biting people, but that's still a possibility, Harmon said.
Because of the severity of the attack, Harmon said he plans to request a hearing, hopefully by Wednesday, before the city’s Animal Care & Control Commission. The five-member citizen panel, appointed by the mayor and common council, will then have 10 days to conduct a hearing.
“There are mixed stories from like four different people as to what happened that day,” Harmon said of witness accounts.
He said the dog might have been provoked to attack, but he declined to provide details before the hearing. He added that Norris has been advised that letting the dog run loose around large groups of guests could be "setting it up for failure."
Harmon said the shelter receives one or two dog bite reports every couple of days. But the commission, which formed in October under a new ordinance enacted in August, has held only three hearings so far this year, said commission secretary Emily Sexton.
At the hearing, animal control officers will present evidence from their investigation, and the owner, victim and witnesses will be allowed to speak, Harmon said. The commission can then take no action or declare the dog either "vicious" or "potentially dangerous."
The commission can order a vicious dog to be euthanized, and the owner can appeal that finding to the St. Joseph Circuit Court.
If the dog is deemed potentially dangerous, the owner can keep it under a set of restrictions:
• When the dog is outdoors, it must be contained in a five-sided enclosure that is anchored to the ground.
• The dog may be taken off the owner's property only if it's muzzled and restrained by a leash controlled by an adult.
• The owner must display warning signs on the property and the enclosure.
• The dog must be spayed or neutered.
Sills said as an "animal lover," she's conflicted about what she wants to happen to Zeus, and she'll leave that up to the commission.
Facing the future
Sills said the past few weeks have been an emotional roller coaster. Some people have “cyber-bullied” her on Facebook, claiming that she is making up the case in order to draw sympathy and money. When she posted a photo of her injuries, some people accused her of altering it with Photoshop.
But she said that negativity has been overshadowed by an outpouring of love and support from both friends and strangers who have seen her story on social media. A high school friend has found a plastic surgeon in Los Angeles who is willing to repair her face at no cost, and has launched a GoFundMe account to raise money to fly her there and back, she said.
She mentioned several other friends who have offered to help raise money in various ways.
The damage to her face has been especially hard to take for a woman who makes her living as a beautician.
“I’m not looking for sympathy,” she said. “I’m very blessed I’m still alive. I just want my smile back and the ability to help others.”