A dog, a pit bull terrier, allegedly killed his female master on September 3, 1992, in Cleveland. There were 180 bite marks on the dead woman's body, according to the Cuyahoga County coroner. I read that news story and revisited the horror my family experienced on Christmas Eve, 1989.
We had a pit bull. He was all white. I named him Chester, after Chester Avenue in Cleveland, where I found him in the middle of the busy street, trapped amid traffic. I could not just drive by. I stopped to shoo him off the roadway. Instead of running off, he got to the tree lawn and rolled over by a belly-rub. He had me by the heartstrings. I took him to a veterinarian for a checkup and neutering that very day.
Chester was not yet one year old, but he was big and well-muscled. He was friendly even with strangers. He spent most of his time in a fenced area with another dog I had taken in, and things went smoothly throughout that fall. When the temperatures turned cold, I brought the two dogs into the heated, finished basement of our country home.
On many occasions I let Chester sleep with my youngest daughter. (She was only three.) Chester was also allowed to mingle with my assorted formerly stray cats, and a rabbit who ran loose in the house. He never paid any attention to the other animals, but he loved the attention he got from my three daughters.
My husband always had reservations about Chester because of his breed. I, on the other hand, got used to the idea of having a pit bull, and I trusted that nothing bad would happen. After all, we were not encouraging aggressiveness. We never roughhoused with Chester. We didn't want a guard dog, and we kept a close eye on him when he was with the children.
I, an animal health technician, former zookeeper, and animal activist, believed that Chester would not be one of those vicious dogs you read about in newspaper headlines. I was wrong.
On Christmas Eve, after a family gift-opening get-together, we returned to our home. My husband was the first to enter the house. I was sleeping in the car when he shook me into reality. "Donna," he said, "it's awful. I wish I could hide this from you. I can't. Come in."
What awaited me in the house was a scene from a horror movie. Chester, greeting me in the kitchen, had long red scratches all over his face. There were streaks of blood here and there on the carpeting throughout the house. The French doors between the basement steps and the living room had been forced open. and there were dead bodies everywhere.
My rabbit was dead on my bed. One cat lay dead in the basement, another under my dresser. Two cats, locked safely in a bedroom, were unscathed. One cat survived atop the refrigerator, but a claw had been ripped from his paw. The fourth survivor was huddled on the top bunk in my daughter's bedroom, wild-eyed and quivering. It took him weeks to return to normal behavior.
My husband reluctantly shot Chester. We then went about placing presents under the tree and stuffing stockings. It was a grim Christmas morning as I watched the sun rise through tears, and I hugged my daughters a little harder that day.
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 1993
[Donna Robb, now a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, is a vet tech who was formerly an elephant keeper at the Cleveland MetroPark Zoo.]