A brutal pit bull attack that left a Waverly Hall woman disfigured and her Siberian Husky dead has drawn a rising tide of outrage.
Residents say they long have complained about the loose pit bulls, but Talbot County authorities failed to act.
The victim is 70-year-old Nellie Ralat, an artist whose works include pottery she fashions at Columbus’ Britt David Cultural Arts Studio. She’s now at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta undergoing reconstructive surgery. Her recovery will take months.
Her dog, Maggie, got emergency surgery neighbors paid for, and lingered two days before dying in vet care.
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Around 1 p.m. Nov. 23, Ralat was walking Maggie past a neighbor’s home when the pit bulls attacked Maggie, and when Ralat tried to stop them, one turned on her. She was down on the ground when a passing hunter ran the pit bulls off.
He put Maggie in his truck, and called 911. Neighbors say an ambulance came for Ralat, and was gone to Piedmont Columbus Regional before a sheriff’s deputy arrived.
Ralat’s injuries were shocking: “Her face basically looks like a jigsaw puzzle where they sewed her up,” said neighbor Jimmy Dykes. About half her scalp was torn loose, her left ear was gone, and so was most of her right.
“She’s never going to be able to wear earrings again,” said Lindsey Jones, whose mother, Lisa Jones, is among Ralat’s closest friends. Ralat loved wearing earrings, Jones said.
Ralat also has a broken wrist, but knows she’s lucky to be alive.
“She feels like the only reason she’s alive right now is she had on a thick coat with a hood tied tightly around her neck,” Jones said. Had dogs got to her neck, she could have bled to death.
Ralat was in intensive care at Piedmont Columbus Regional until Monday night. She was transferred to Grady the next day, Jones said. Besides emergency surgery, she also had to have rabies treatment.
Ralat told Jones two adult pit bulls attacked her and Maggie, but smaller dogs were with the pit bulls.
Her passing through the neighborhood was not unusual. “She religiously walks her dog every day,” Jones said.
The neighbor alleged to own the attacking dogs twice this year has been cited for their running loose, neighbors and authorities said.
Neighbor Derek Best said he and wife, Lillie, kept records of their complaints about the animals. Lillie Best has a phobia about dogs, the husband said Thursday.
“She even hates to come outside,” he said, of the attack on Ralat adding, “She thought that was going to happen to her…. It’s affecting her real bad.”
He said the neighbor was cited three months ago when one of the dogs came to his home, and would not leave.
He was outside helping his wife unload groceries, looked down and saw a waist-tall pit bull coming. His wife went inside, and he tried to run the dog off by firing a shotgun into the air. The dog looked at him, growled and lay down, he said.
The Talbot sheriff’s son, Chief Deputy Bobby Gates Jr., came by and tried to run the dog off with a leaf blower, Best said. Gates recognized the animal as one of the neighbor’s dogs, Best said.
The owner’s son came to collect the dog about the same time the animal control officer got there. Gates ordered the dog impounded, and the owner paid a fine and got it back, Best said.
Best has lived in the neighborhood since 2004. Jeff Colbert, Ralat’s next-door neighbor, said he moved there in 2013. He has raised big dogs and loves them, and usually they love him, too, he said. But not these: “They are very threatening to anyone, even when they’re not on their own property.” They always give him the sense “something’s not right” about them, he said.
Best said neighbors have been complaining about the dogs for a year, and Colbert agreed: “It’s been an issue for at least that long.”
Neighbors Jimmy Sykes and Jeff King took care of Ralat’s dog Maggie.
Sykes said a vet told him the Husky had 50 to 100 bite wounds, and its trachea was torn.
He and King paid the vet bills: $150 down, then $543, then $600, then $722. They took care of the burial, too. Maggie wasn’t cremated.
Ralat’s friends at the Britt David studio in Columbus want to reimburse them, but they have not asked for that.
They are among many friends Ralat has made over the years., particularly in the Waverly Hall neighborhood Best said she moved to in 2004, when folks started building there.
Said Sykes: “We call her like ‘the Social Director.’” Ralat hosted Halloween parties, a Christmas brunch and other get-togethers. Jones said the neighbors bought her a folding chair like movie directors have, with “Social Director” on it.
“She’s just welcomed everybody into her house,” Jones said. “They got together for every occasion.”
Ralat is from New York, and lived several years in Florida before moving to Georgia, Jones said. She works as a cardiac and vascular ultrasound sonographer, though she will not return to her profession anytime soon.
Art is her avocation.
Irene Pate is among the Britt David studio artists in Columbus who would like to collect donations to reimburse Sykes and King for Maggie’s vet bills. Some also are making pieces for Ralat.
Ralat starts to cry when she thinks of how friends here and far away have offered to help, Jones said. As a native New Yorker, Ralat’s usually not so emotional: “She tears up and can’t help it.”
Ralat had surgery on her scalp Thursday, and will be hospitalized at least another week, Jones said. She will have to return later for more surgery.
The attack happened in the Baker Road area of Waverly Hall, south of Ga. Highway 208.
Waverly Hall is in Harris County, but the Baker Road neighborhood is not. The residents count on Talbot County for animal control and law enforcement.
“’We don’t have anybody to send out there.’ That’s the response we get from the Talbot County Sheriff’s Office,” Sykes said. Best said the same in a separate interview.
Residents are gathering more evidence to back their claims the dogs that attacked Ralat long have been an issue.
Jones has created a “Project Nellie” Facebook page, not only to give friends a place to show their support for Ralat, but post reports on the dogs, if they’ve encountered them.
“We definitely encourage anyone who has had dealings with these dogs to come forward,” Jones said.
Because dogs can be misidentified after such attacks, the Ledger-Enquirer is not naming the family the neighbors say owns the dogs. Calls to the alleged owner’s phone went to a voice mail that was full.
Responding to neighbors’ complaints about the sheriff’s office, Capt. Curt Ousley said the sheriff is not responsible for animal control, in which deputies are not trained: They aren’t dog catchers.
That duty falls to Howard Marshall, the county’s animal control officer. “I have no comment,” Marshall said Friday.
Ousley said he’s investigating the attack, but so far does not have the evidence to pursue any charges, which at least would require proving the two pit bulls the county impounded were the ones in the attack, proving who owns them, and proving the owner knew they were dangerous.
The alleged owner was cited for letting dogs run loose in June and again in August, but no previous reports of dogs attacking people in the neighborhood have surfaced, Ousley said.
The hunter who got the dogs off Ralat gave a detailed statement, but asked that his name not be publicized, the investigator said.
Ousley has been in contact with prosecutors for the six-county Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit that includes Talbot and Muscogee, and they are advising him on the law.
He understands why residents are angry, he said: “My heart goes out to the neighbors,” and to Ralat, but authorities can’t act without evidence.
Ralat’s attack may bring into play Georgia’s “Responsible Dog Ownership Law,” sometimes called the “Dangerous Dog Act.” The General Assembly strengthened the law in 2012 in response to an increase in dog attacks.
The law lets local governments classify dogs as “dangerous” or “vicious” if they cause serious injury to humans or if they kill pets while off the owner’s property.
Based on an attack, a dog control officer can classify a dog dangerous or vicious and notify the owner by mail within 72 hours. The owner may request a hearing within 15 days, and the hearing must be held within 30 days of the request. Within 10 days of the hearing, the owner’s to be notified if the classification stands.
If it stands, then the dog can be put down, if it can’t be controlled. Otherwise the owner by law has to register the animal and comply with these regulations:
▪ Maintain an enclosure that confines the dog to the owner’s property.
▪ Post warning signs on all entrances.
▪ Have the dog microchipped at the shoulder blades where a scanner can detect the chip and identify the dog and owner.
▪ Get at least $50,000 in liability insurance to compensate for any injury or damage the dog causes.
▪ Leash, muzzle or cage the dog before taking it off the owner’s property.
▪ Own no other dog deemed dangerous or vicious, nor sell or give away any dog so designated.
If the dog is caught running loose, the owner can be charged with a misdemeanor. If the dog seriously injures someone after the owner previously violated the dangerous dog law, the owner can be convicted of a felony with penalties ranging one to 10 years in prison, a fine of $5,000 to $10,000, or both, the statute says.
On Friday, Ousley said the sheriff’s office will not decide whether the two pit bulls remain impounded or are returned to the owner.
That’s up to animal control, he said.