Gabriel Frazee was riding his bike near a homeless encampment on the American River Parkway last month when he was attacked by two pit bulls.
One dog, Wally, bit Frazee on the ankle and twice on the leg, hitting bone with the last two bites, Frazee said. The other dog, Felony, bit his forearm. Frazee received sutures for the bites in the emergency room, records show.
Getting attacked by an aggressive dog is a persistent fear among runners, bikers and other regular users of the American River Parkway. Just as illegal camping has increased garbage and fires along the parkway, it also accounts for another problem – unleashed dogs that serve as companions and security guards for homeless people clustered on the riverbanks.
Larry Glover-Meade, president of the Woodlake Neighborhood Association, and Jim Brown, executive director of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, say they have received a number of complaints about dogs on the parkway. They believe the concerns deter people from using the parkway, particularly west of Sacramento State where camps are concentrated.
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“Unfortunately what happened to Gabe (Frazee) is what a lot of people have feared or experienced on the parkway,” Brown said.
Lily Toppenberg said she was chased by a pit bull when she was riding her bike on the parkway to her home in the adjacent Woodlake neighborhood. She was not bit but remains fearful.
“I now carry bear spray on my handlebars when riding,” she said.
According to animal control officials for the city and county of Sacramento, most of the dogs owned by the homeless are pit bulls or pit-bull mixes. “The homeless seem to need these dogs for protection and sometimes these dogs don’t know when protection is really needed and attack for the wrong reasons,” said Dave Dickinson, director of the county’s Department of Animal Care and Regulation.
In the last three years, 17 dog bites have been reported to city animal control for incidents on the city portion of the parkway, said Sacramento Chief Animal Control Officer Jace Huggins. Dog bites are inevitably the result of a unleashed dog, he said. Under the state law, dogs cannot be tethered to objects, meaning that dogs on the parkway should always be held by the owner on a leash.
Sacramento County rangers cite about a half-dozen people every month for not having dogs on leashes in county parks, including the American River Parkway. More often than not, rangers let offenders off with a warning. Rangers issued 107 citations and 492 warnings for leash violations in 2014 and 2015, the last years complete statistics are available.
Frazee was bit by an unleashed dog and then by the other dog after its owner let go of the leash trying to assist Frazee.
County spokeswoman Kim Nava said rangers try to educate dog owners, citing them only after warnings fail to produce compliance.
Frazee blames county rangers for his attack. He said it would not have happened if the county enforced the camping ordinance and prevented homeless people and their dogs from living on the parkway. He pointed to a December story in The Sacramento Bee showing that rangers were on pace to cite half as many people for illegal camping on the parkway last year.
Frazee posted pictures of his bitten leg on the Facebook page of Sacramento County Regional Parks, which is responsible for the parkway. “Since your chief won’t do his job and enforce the no camping laws, I was just attacked by a pack of pit bulls belonging to a long standing homeless camp,” he wrote.
Chief Ranger Michael Doane was out of the office last week and unavailable to comment, Nava said. Doane said last year that the violators’ failure to pay fines was one reason he had reduced enforcement of the camping ordinance.
Nava said rangers “continue to enforce illegal camping ordinances as part of the vast duties entailed in patrolling county parks as well as the 23-mile American River Parkway.”
Joan Burke of Sacramento Loaves & Fishes said dogs fill important needs for homeless people, including companionship and protection. To help homeless people care for their animals, Loaves & Fishes set up a free veterinary service with UC Davis.
Burke said homeless people should be required to follow the leash law but she sees little benefit in citing them when they lack money to pay fines.
Sacramento County animal control officers captured both of the dogs that attacked Frazee and turned them over to the city because it has jurisdiction, Dickinson said. Felony had bitten and scratched a homeless man just before attacking Frazee, according to a city report.
Because the dogs are considered dangerous and their owners don’t have a fenced property, the dogs will likely be killed, Huggins said.
Frazee said he’s not worried about contracting rabies because the dog who bit him three times, Wally, was vaccinated. The chances of contracting rabies from Felony, which bit him once, is highly unlikely, Frazee said he was told by two other medical professionals.
He said only 7 percent of all reported rabies cases come from domestic animals, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says only one to three humans a year contract the disease.
Frazee said he was emotionally shaken by the attack, which left him “bleeding like a stuck pig.” He’s forced to confront those fears everyday, because he commutes by bike on the parkway from his midtown home to his job at REI on Expo Parkway.
Some Woodlake residents are frustrated with dogs off leash. In 2014, they worked with city animal control officials to force a homeless man to use leashes for his two dogs that roamed freely around the parkway and at a park in Woodlake.
Animal control officers repeatedly told the man to keep his dogs on a leash, but he would release them as soon as the officers left, said Woodlake resident Andy Hernandez. Later that year, one of the dogs attacked a 91-year-old man who was walking on a sidewalk to the Costco near to the parkway, requiring hospital treatment for “serious bite wounds” on his forearm, according to a city report.
The city impounded and then killed the dog because it was dangerous, according to an email from the city to Hernandez. The homeless man still has the other dog, which is always on a leash when Hernandez sees him now.