Letter carriers show their scars Bites: Postal workers know that even "gentle" dogs will attack. They take it all in stride.


Al Phillips points to his calf and shows you where a 75-pound yellow Lab took a chunk out of his leg and wouldn't give it back.

The sunlight seems to illuminate the scar, which is still dark red and nasty-looking six months after a biting incident severe enough to land Phillips in an emergency care facility, woozy from painkillers with his leg still throbbing.

Phillips, 45, has been a letter carrier for more than 14 years. He works out of the Parkville branch of the U.S. Post Office. And this week was Al Phillips' moment in the spotlight.

It was National Dog Bite Prevention Week, a week in which he and his letter-carrying colleagues lined up, like a bad version of the Rockettes, to show off their legs and battle wounds in an effort to heighten public awareness of the problem.

A total of 2,708 letter carriers were bitten by dogs last year. And while the Postal Service takes pains to point out that this figure is dwarfed by the 2 million children who were bitten by dogs in the same period, dog bites remain a significant occupational hazard for letter carriers.

The Postal Service says it spends $25 million annually on medical expenses, workers' compensation costs, legal costs, delivery curtailment costs and carrier replacement costs related to dog bites.

Nationally, the number of carriers bitten by dogs has gone down steadily from a high of 7,000 in 1983. But while Postal Service officials say this is due to greater cooperation from dog owners, stricter leash laws and efforts to educate letter carriers about how to deal with dogs, they also say a lot more needs to be done.

Al Phillips would agree with that.

Walking his route under overcast skies last week, Phillips talked about his scary encounter with the big yellow Lab in the 3000 block of Taylor Avenue.

"I went to deliver mail to this one house where a man and woman were working on their porch and the dog was sitting on the sidewalk," he recalled. "I handed the guy his mail and the dog didn't move, didn't growl. Yellow Labs are pretty calm, usually.

"Then I took two steps and he was on me. He [bit] me from behind and he wouldn't let go."

Reeling from the pain inflicted by a big, angry dog, Phillips did not exactly receive an effusive apology and an outpouring of sympathy from the dog's owners.

"Good thing he's an old dog!" the woman called out. "His teeth are loose!"

Unfortunately, says Phillips, that kind of reaction is still all too common among many of the dog owners he sees on his route.

On another occasion, he was placing mail in a mailbox inside a chain-link fence when a big mixed-breed dog suddenly jumped up, his head even with the mailbox.

Phillips was startled.

"The dog's barking, going crazy, baring his teeth," Phillips remembers. "So I whacked him upside the head with the mail I had in my hand, just enough to knock him back.

"And with that this lady comes charging out of the house screaming: 'Did you hit my dog. Don't you ever hit my dog!' So she's been watching the whole scene inside!"

The incident with the yellow Lab marked only the second time Phillips had been bitten on the job; the other time was years ago, when a small dog with a head like a floor mop lunged from behind a screen door and caught his ankle.

But Phillips says a fellow letter carrier in Parkville has been bitten 11 times. This, naturally, has given the carrier something of a legendary status among his colleagues.

Still, says Phillips, when TV crews visited the Parkville post office for Dog Bite Prevention Week stories that would grace the 6 o'clock news, the much-bitten carrier refused to get in the Chorus Line of Pain and show off his legs.

Letter carriers are trained how to act around edgy dogs, and they carry a cayenne pepper spray called Halt to ward off dog attacks. But sometimes, neither training nor pepper spray is enough, as Gary Hughes, 46, a letter carrier at the Hampden station in Baltimore, found out.

As he walks his route on West 40th Street, the affable Hughes talks about a frightening incident that occurred just a week before.

He was getting mail from the back of his mail vehicle, parked on the corner of 40th and Falls Road, when he heard a noise and saw something out of the corner of his eye.

The blur turned out to be a pit bull, a sinewy, tan-colored, 50-pounder headed for him like a torpedo.

"He had his ears pinned back and he was coming," Hughes says, his eyes widening at the memory. "And he was on me too quick to grab the spray."

So Hughes grabbed his heavy mailbag and used it as a shield to fend off the snapping, snarling dog.

Suddenly, as quickly as it had appeared, the pit bull ran off. "I was real lucky," says Hughes. In the aftermath of such an attack, he says, "you're scared and angry. But mostly scared."

After 13 years on the job, Hughes says his "antenna is always up" when it comes to dogs on his route. And as he walks the sun-scorched 1100 block of West 40th Street, it's easy to see why.

At least three of the small rowhouses that line this tiny street have chain-link fences with signs warning: "Beware of dog" or "Guard dog on duty."

Hughes, in fact, can run down the whole list of dogs on his route. There are two Rottweilers, two German shepherd-mix dogs, two Yorkshire terriers, one pug, one poodle and one Pomeranian to contend with as he delivers the mail.

Nevertheless, he is stoic about the risks involved.

"There are a few here that you keep your eyes open for," Hughes says simply. "But most of the owners are cooperative and I know most of the dogs."

Still, as Hughes walks the block, a pedestrian walking on the other side of the street is startled when one of the huge shepherd-mix dogs suddenly lunges at him, banging hard into the chain-link fence.

"[That dog] came over the fence a month ago," Hughes says grimly. "There were two people walking by the house. He didn't )) get 'em, but you could hear the teeth [snapping]."

Both Phillips and Hughes say they and other letter carriers get a good laugh out of homeowners who insist their dogs "wouldn't hurt a fly."

"Most people say their dogs don't bite," Hughes says. "OK, their dogs don't bite them. I've been with dogs growling and showing their teeth and the owners keep saying, 'Oh, he doesn't bite' and 'He won't hurt you.' "

Ann Joley, executive director of the Humane Society of Baltimore County, says such homeowners also tend to exacerbate the aggressive behavior of their dogs.

"If your dog is snorting and growling at someone like a letter carrier, don't say 'Good dog, good dog,' " Joley says. "Because you're just reinforcing that behavior."

But no matter how cautious a letter-carrier is or how conscientious dog owners are about their pets, there are moments when the world seems to turn upside down for postal employees.

Hughes had such an experience when a docile-looking golden retriever, of all breeds, tried to bite him. To most people, this would be like having a Shetland pony suddenly turn on you.

"A golden retriever!" Hughes says, smiling. "You think of them as friendly, right?"

As he nears the end of his route this day and heads up Hickory Avenue, Hughes points up the hill.

"The biggest Rottweiler I've ever seen lives on Evans Chapel Road. And there's a Rottweiler and a boxer next door, and several Dobermans near them."

For a moment, he seems to shiver involuntarily. Then he adjusts the mailbag on his shoulder and moves on, trying not to think too much of what may lie ahead.

Pub Date: 6/06/98

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