In a bucolic section of Northeast Baltimore, where tree-lined streets bear tree-inspired names, mail carrier Pete Tucci is ready for battle. Casually, he palms a canister of pepper spray in his left hand and sidles up to the door. His foot is out, ready to brace the door in case it flies open.
A woman appears. "Certified letter for Mary?" She's not there, so he slips the letter back into his bag, clips the spray to it and retreats down the sidewalk. Behind him, his enemy, a thwarted mutt, howls in frustration. Another mail carrier has escaped its clutches.
Mr. Tucci works in the dog bite capital of Baltimore, the 21206 ZIP code. Neither snow nor sleet may keep him from his appointed rounds, but dog bite incidents in the Raspeburg Station territory have felled four of his colleagues this year. Nationwide, dog attacks accounted for 2,800 carriers missing work last year.
Some carriers missed only a day, others were out for months, with each day estimated at a loss of $176 in wages and benefits. Add in medical and administrative costs and the figure rises to $1,232.
So the U.S. Postal Service, along with the Humane Society, has declared this week the first-ever National Dog Bite Prevention Week. It hopes to raise awareness about what its carriers consider public enemy No. 1 -- bad dogs. Bad, bad, bad dogs. (This would be a good time for all the dogs in the world to roll their eyes sorrowfully upward, that look that denotes: "What? What? What have I done now?")
"We're not anti-dog," says Mark Saunders, a spokesman for the Postal Service. "We're just pro-dog owner responsibility."
Right. Dogs don't bite people, people bite . . . well, never mind. You get the point. If all pet owners took a few common-sense precautions, mail carriers wouldn't have to worry about canines baring canines.
As part of the week's activities, local carriers will form a chorus line today to show their various scars and scratches. In a more serious news conference in Washington last week, carrier Deno Campbell of Beltsville talked about the attack that required 45 stitches on his face and left a prominent scar on his elbow.
Six years ago, Mr. Campbell, now 32, was walking an unfamiliar route. He had a bright orange card from the regular carrier, warning him of a dangerous dog at one address. But he was still several houses away when the attack came.
"I turned back to my left and there were teeth in my face," he recalls. "The dog was 130 pounds, a German shepherd and Great Dane mix, so it was relatively tall and relatively stout. I like to say it was hand-to-mouth combat."
Mr. Campbell staggered across the street and knocked on a door for assistance. In the reflection of the storm door was a bloody sight. "My face was hanging open. I thought: 'I have a hole in my face.' The woman answered and took one look at me and said: 'That damn dog.' The dog had been terrorizing the whole neighborhood."
An animal's fate
In this particular case, the dog was not destroyed, but sent to live in a rural area with a family. Whenever a dog attacks a carrier, or anyone else, local animal control ordinances determine the animal's fate.
Mr. Campbell missed only a week of work, although it was a year before he walked a route again. "People consider it a funny issue," Mr. Campbell says. "Ever since then, it hasn't been a funny issue to me. I've been through a lot, I'm a former college football player, I don't scare easily. To this day I'm still . . . I guess the word is 'tentative' around dogs."
At Raspeburg Station, where Mr. Tucci begins his day at 7, they still talk about the time two attack dogs plunged through a window and pursued a carrier across busy Belair Road. Luckily for the carrier, the determined dogs were struck and killed in traffic.
Raspeburg has accounted for one-fifth of the city's dog bite incidents since last September, the start of the post office's fiscal year. That's only four incidents, but 21206 is already a statistical lock for No. 1. "At this rate, no one's going to catch us," says Richard Garnett, Raspeburg's manager.
Granted, the numbers are small, so each case carries great weight -- Baltimore's 43 percent increase in dog bites over last year means a mere six additional incidents. And the numbers may not always represent teeth ripping skin: One case includes a carrier who, when menaced by a dog, stepped off the curb and fell over a boat trailer, fracturing his arm. His injury is still classified as dog-related. He's been out four months and counting.
Then there's Frank Czawlytko. A conscientious dog owner on his route decided to chain an ornery animal. Good move. He chained the dog to the mail box.
"It bled all day," Mr. Czawlytko says of the wound, almost proudly displaying a quarter-sized purplish mark on his right calf. "I had to get a tetanus shot and I missed a day of work." The heartsick owner had the dog put to sleep, fearful it might hurt a child the next time.
In most cases, carriers simply don't deliver mail if it means risking a dog bite. They take it back to the local office and wait for the resident to call.
Mr. Tucci, 34, has been working the Raspeburg routes for seven years. He remembers a shepherd mix that stalked him, jumping the fence in pursuit when he was still three houses away. He retreated to his truck and skipped the rest of the block that day. And guess who got the blame: The post office. "Why can't you do something about those dogs?" the letter-less neighbors wailed.
So why do dogs go for mail carriers? Even the sweetest, best- tempered mutt in the world seems to have a thing for the man or woman in blue.
"Dogs go after anyone with uniforms on," theorizes Mr. Garnett at Raspeburg. "Their parents must have told them stories about the old dogcatchers."
Even he can't resist a small joke on the subject. And he's a one-time victim; a Dalmatian, feeling protective toward a small child, once lunged for the back of his leg.
Carriers don't take this personally. They understand most dogs are just trying to protect people or property. And, of course, dogs are not exactly known for, um, cranial capacity.
(Before dog lovers call the Reader Representative, consider two things: One, this reporter is the proud owner of a greyhound and springer spaniel; and, two, aforesaid dogs cannot remember, over a span of eight hours, that said owner comes home and feeds them every night. They're always surprised. So you can see most dogs would have some trouble with the concept of mail carriers, especially given that they skip Sundays and holidays. Then again, the mail carrier always goes away, so maybe dogs just think of themselves as extremely effective.)
Mr. Tucci has been bitten only once in his 11 years delivering mail, and that was by a weak-jawed dog that staged a sneak attack on his ankle. The dog couldn't even break the skin, and its touch was so light, Mr. Tucci thought it was a twig stuck to his pants leg.
Mr. Tucci knows how to spot potential trouble. "See that chain over there?" he says, pointing to the side of a house. "You also look for yards with fences in front, with a path worn along a fence. That's a sign a dog is there."
Dog bowls are another good tip. Carriers also are cautioned to keep their fingers clear when pushing the mail through slots: Teeth might be waiting on the other side.
Mr. Tucci's route takes him across the paths of several dogs, many of whom he knows by name -- Ashby, Shana. On this rainy day, few are in evidence, but he still exercises precaution. He knocks loudly on a gate with a "Beware of Dog" sign. He knows two dogs live in this corner house and, if they're in the yard, he'll skip it. This time, it's safe to go up to the mailbox.
A few blocks over, three dogs rush the storm door, surprising Mr. Tucci when they knock it open. He reacts quickly, pushing the door shut, then checking it to make sure the lock holds.
Carriers rattle fences and jingle keys to flush out aggressive dogs. They also err on the side of caution. Mr. Tucci, pursued by a small dog like the only one that bit him, had to make a snap decision once as the owner screamed: "He won't bite you! He won't bite you!"
Mr. Tucci sized up the situation. The owner seemed sincere. So did the dog. Mr. Tucci sprayed.