When Kathleen Kelly first saw them, they did not look at all menacing. But within a fraction of a second, the three canines began their attack snarling, snapping and biting Kelly and her own dog, who she'd been walking down Main Street toward Green Valley Park on sunny Sunday afternoon.
"I kept looking at these people driving by in their cars and screaming, 'Somebody help me, please!'" said the seven-month Payson resident, who works as a registered nurse at Payson Regional Medical Center. "But they all just kept driving on.
"Of course, if I had been them, I wouldn't have known what to do, either. What do you do when you see someone being attacked and bitten by three dogs?"
Luckily, Kelly said, Pat Willis, who did know what to do, finally came along.
Willis happened to be driving by the scene as the attack unfolded. He jumped from his truck and raced between the frenzied canines and Kelly who was desperately trying to protect herself and her dog. Willis eventually managed to drive the dogs off, but not before they repeatedly bit Kelly, leaving her cut, bruised and bleeding.
"I was terrified," said Kelly, who is 5-feet, 3-inches tall. "I knew that if I fell to the ground, it would be the end."
"There's only one reason I'm willing to talk about this incident," Willis said Monday, "and that is, if (Kelly) had been a kid, we would be dealing with a tragedy here. Somebody would have died."
Willis, a local banking executive, had just turned west off McLane Road onto Main when, he said, "I heard this faint scream. I looked in my rearview mirror and saw (Kelly) standing in the middle of Main Street with dogs jumping all around her. I did a U-turn, raced up the road, pulled right up to her and jumped out. I'll tell you, she was just terrified.
"I started kicking at the dogs, and all three of them ran off," he said, "but one turned around and came right back. It took a couple of kicks before he finally ran back behind some apartments."
Willis led Kelly to his truck as she continued to clutch her dog in her arms, and drove her down the street to the nearest open business.
"I asked her if she'd been bitten, but she was still so terrified she couldn't answer ... But then I saw blood on her sleeve, and ... we found that she'd been bitten several times on the right arm and leg ... they were puncture wounds, so they were deep bites.
"What's frightening to think is, imagine if that were a little kid walking his dog down Main Street," Willis said. "It would have been all over. Those dogs were really going after her.
Although Kelly teaches Irish step dancing and is in good physical condition, she said she doesn't think she would have survived the attack which came from two Australian shepherds and a Queensland heeler if Willis hadn't come along.
"If it hadn't been me, someone else would have helped her," Willis said quietly.
But Kelly, who refers to Willis as a "combat-angel ... a true hero and a courageous man," isn't so sure.
"The problem is, several people drove right by, and no one did help me," she said. "Nobody else would do anything. I'm being attacked by these dogs and screaming and looking at these people, but they're just driving by."
Insult to injury
A day after the attack, however, Kelly's fear turned to anger when she discovered the dogs that had attacked her hadn't been impounded, even though two of the dogs haven't been vaccinated for rabies.
"As an ER nurse, I can tell you that if someone's been bitten and the dog has not had rabies shots, the dog is supposed to be impounded and watched," Kelly said. "If they become ill and die, they do an autopsy and look at the brain to see if it had rabies.
"Well, they haven't impounded the dogs," she said Monday, the day after the attack. "They're still in their own backyard. I was shocked to see that."
The dogs were finally impounded Tuesday by the town's animal control officer, Payson Police Lieutenant Don Engler said. It took the town two days to impound the dogs, Engler said, because police officers were uncertain which dogs had bitten Kelly and had trouble finding the owner of one of the dogs.
The dogs now will be kept in quarantine for 10 days to determine if they have rabies. If the two unvaccinated dogs prove to be rabies-free, Engler said, all three canines will be returned to their owners, who can let them run loose in their yards even though they could escape and attack again.
Pending the outcome of the police department's investigation, Engler said, the dogs' owners may face charges for violating animal control ordinances.
The attacking animals "could be construed as 'dogs at large,' since they were out on the street. That's one area that would sure apply," he said. "As for what the animals did, it would have to be determined whether or not the dogs are vicious in nature but not every dog that bites someone is considered vicious.
"That determination usually comes through repetitive events, or by a judge taking into consideration the circumstances."
A vicious or dangerous dog, as defined by the animal control ordinance, is "any animal that has the propensity to attack, cause injury, or otherwise endanger the safety of human beings without provocation, and has been declared so after a hearing before a justice of the peace or city magistrate," Engler said.
In other words, unless a magistrate rules otherwise, the dogs will have to attack someone else to be declared vicious. Kelly also has the right to take the case to civil court, Engler said.
"The dog's owner would, by state law, be liable to Miss Kelly for any injuries or financial loss caused by the attack. People who own dogs are absolutely, totally, completely liable for any injuries that they cause to another person."
Beyond that, he said, all officers can do is follow the law.
"We can talk with the owners about what could be done to help prevent this from happening again," he said, "but we can't order them to repair their fences or gates, if that was the problem."
Kelly said she can't understand why the department didn't move faster to impound the dogs and make sure they don't pose a rabies threat to the community.
"From what information I'm getting," Engler said, "I'm under the impression that her injuries were very, very minor ... according to a doctor's report, she suffered a single puncture wound from the incisor of a dog."
After actually viewing Kelly's wounds, Engler said that all he saw were one puncture wound, several "claw-mark" scratches and "some bruising."
But here are the registered nurse's injuries as she details them herself: multiple abrasions, cuts, large bruises and dog-bite puncture wounds to her arms and legs, lumbar strain, plus sufficient pain and distress to miss a day of work.
"The way the Payson Police Department is handling this doesn't make any sense," Kelly said. "Rabies is not a little issue. This is very serious, and I was very upset with the fact that it wasn't taken more seriously.
"And it really frightens me that all they may do is return the dogs to the owner and forget about it. This will happen again. If it happens to a child, the child will die."