Vicious dog attacks persist in Detroit, even after deadly maulings, maiming
Morris Hollfield stopped to help a distressed woman in 2017, then found out his daughter, Monet Shaw, had been attacked by a pit bull. Robin Buckson, The Detroit News
Monet Shaw had a decision to make: keep her mangled arm or have it amputated.
At the age of 11, she had been mauled by a pit bull in Detroit. After skin grafts, months of rehab and antibiotics, the pain became too unbearable to take.
"I remember one night crying so much. I was in so much pain," Monet, now 13, told The Detroit News in an interview alongside her father, Morris Hollfield, and mother, Patrice Shaw, at her father's home in Harper Woods.
"I was crying all night. I couldn't calm myself down."
Her long road to recovery initially began with a six-hour surgery after the June 17, 2017, dog attack, and eight weeks of recovery in the hospital, where she had to learn to walk again.
Monet spent months on antibiotics and endured about five months of rehabilitation before she had another surgery on her arm.
It was later determined that a piece of her bone was dissolving, and she was faced with the choice of having an amputation or taking other measures to stabilize her arm through additional surgery and a permanent brace. Even then, there was still a risk the arm couldn’t be saved.
Her eventual choice to have her left arm amputated brought Monet's surgeon to tears, the family said.
"We literally sat her down and said, 'What do you want to do? This is something you've got to live with for the rest of your life. This is your decision,'" said Hollfield, leading up to the August 2018 surgery.
Today, Monet is focused on her ambitions. She still loves to dance and dreams of becoming an actor. And she can recite the horrific encounter calmly, without tears.
"Sometimes, I can still feel my arm," she said. "I can still feel it like it's moving and everything. I like when that happens."
Monet's family shared her story of survival in the wake of a deadly attack in southwest Detroit last month that claimed the life of 9-year-old Emma Hernandez. The violent encounter has prompted fresh outrage and calls for action against vicious dogs as the city's 100,000 school children prepare to head back to class on Tuesday.
Detroit's interim health director Jean Ingersoll said the department is "absolutely devastated" over Emma's death and working with Mayor Mike Duggan's administration and the Detroit City Council to strengthen laws to "ensure this does not happen again."
Ingersoll said the city's animal control office boosts patrols each year to keep watch on the Detroit children walking to school. This year will be no exception.
"It is just something that our officers know to do, and they do," she said. "School start time and end time, it is their priority to patrol."
Emma was riding around the block on her bike Aug. 19 and turned down an alley on Central off Smart, where three pit bulls leaped over a fence and attacked her. Neighbors rushed to help, tossing bricks to stop the dogs.
Her father attempted to give her CPR and rushed her to the hospital, but less than an hour later, she died.
Pierre Cleveland, the owner of the three dogs, was charged with second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter and having dangerous animals causing death.
Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, where Emma attended school, said the attack was tragic but preventable.
“We plan to communicate with parents and students that if there are any dogs or other barriers to walking to and from school then please tell your principal who will coordinate resources through (DPSCD police) Chief (Ralph) Godbee," Vitti said. "He will then engage city police."
The tragedy “hurt even more” knowing Emma was a part of the DPSCD family, Vitti said, and a mural will be dedicated to Emma.
"Our collective response and ownership of the conditions that allow this to happen must be challenged and stopped," Vitti said.
'What's going on?'
In retelling her story, Monet said she went to a cousin's house on Detroit's east side that June day two years ago to get her hair done for a ceremony celebrating her fifth grade graduation. Afterward, she headed down Beaconsfield with her aunt to visit a friend on the block.
A pit bull appeared in a doorway, pushed through a screen and around her aunt, taking aim at Monet. It locked on, ripping away at muscle and arteries in her arm before moving on to each of her feet.
"The dog grabbed my arm and started dragging me. I don't know if I was crying or not," she said.
"That's when I see my dad coming, yelling out my name, grabbed me into his car. I remember I looked over and saw my arm was hanging, and I was like 'what's going on?'"
The owner of the dog that attacked Monet, Kim Matthews, said she'd raised him from a pup and "never let him out." Despite a bite reported to authorities the year prior, she contends it was "a good dog to me," and she didn't anticipate what would unfold that day.
"I'm still suffering behind this because that's somebody's kid," Matthews told The News last week. "I'm sorry for whatever damage was done for the baby. I pray every night for her."
Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones spearheaded an overhaul of the city's animal control law after a similar fatal mauling involving 4-year-old Xavier Strickland in 2015.
A tougher set of regulations for dog owners were enacted in spring 2017. The changes restricted tethers outdoors to three hours and required that dogs must be monitored and have food and water available.
Ingersoll said the health department has been working with the council through its summer recess to strengthen the ordinance.
Amendments, Ingersoll said, would likely cover potentially dangerous and nuisance dogs, fence height rules and enclosure inspections. Officials might also seek to further limit the number of dogs per household, which currently is capped at four, and tougher penalties for violators.
Jones has been among the council members to publicly call for more funding for the city's animal control operation and another look at regulations for dog owners in the wake of Emma's death.
In a statement after the attack, Jones said the city needs to have an "honest discussions on the impact of pit bulls in our community."
But Martin Jones, a spokesman for the Detroit 300, said he doesn't think stronger laws will fix the problem.
"I don't see where we can legislate ourselves out of this circumstance," said Jones, a longtime member of the volunteer group that patrols in neighborhoods near schools.
"Circumstances like these largely have to do with appealing to the public to make sure they are securing their dogs. Silence has to stop. We have to be vigilant about reporting dogs that are vicious."
The attack that killed Emma was like deja vu for Martin Jones, who 20 years earlier had hurled himself into a vicious mauling to spare the life of a 9-year-old boy.
Jones and the boy, who suffered bites to his hands, head, feet and knees, were hospitalized for their injuries, but they ultimately recovered.
"It was like they were playing with a rag doll," said Jones, 56, of the pit bulls. "I still have trouble sometimes even talking about that."
Parent Bianca Neely, whose children attend Pasteur Elementary School near Seven Mile and Livernois, said she saw loose dogs around the school earlier this year.
Calls to the city's animal control went answered to capture the animals, she said.
"You can't always blame the school or police. It's parents," Neely said. "Parents need to get out here and watch their children."
Ingersoll said the city has doubled its animal control workforce in the last year and has 10 officers currently in the field. Nine others will be certified and in the streets in October.
"We're working through what works for Detroit and trying to understand the population and the space," she said. "We definitely are increasing the staffing and the budget. I know we're committed to that."
Dog bites in the city were down in 2018 over the prior year, dropping to 460 total bites from 474 in 2017, according to figures released by Detroit's Health Department. This year, there were at least 260 dog bites reported through July.
And the number of citations issued by Detroit Animal Care and Control more than doubled in 2018 from the previous year, rising from 89 tickets to 184. The department already logged 161 tickets through June.
Theresa Sumpter, director and founder of Detroit Pit Crew Dog Rescue, said the city's animal control operation is a "hot mess." The office, she said, has to make sure vicious dogs are confiscated, and it needs to be more responsive to calls for help.
"We've had nonexistent leadership at Detroit Animal Care and Control for some time," she said.
The city's most recent animal control director, Charles Brown, left the city in May after starting in 2018, and he'd been the third new leader for the office in three years. The city is in the midst of a national search for his replacement.
"We are actively recruiting. We posted nationwide," Ingersoll said. "It's not just a Detroit issue, it's an issue around the country ... finding an animal care and control director. We're committed to getting the right person in."
In the interim, she said, the health department has created positions for a shelter operations and field manager — two new positions the office hasn't had before.
Sumpter contends it's "not a breed problem, it's a people problem," and irresponsible owners must be held accountable.
Pit Crew found under a public record request that the animal control office hadn't issued any tickets from September through June for violations of the tethering rules put in place under the city's last ordinance modification.
"We know thousands of dogs are out there on chains right now, and there's no consequence for owners," Sumpter said.
Last week, Ingersoll could not cite how many tickets had been issued for tethering violations, explaining she was working to pull the enforcement data. But the regulation, she noted, can be difficult to monitor and enforce.
Sumpter also noted residents are frustrated they can't get through to animal control for help
"If I’m a taxpayer in Detroit and calling because I'm not safe in my own city and they can’t answer the phone, respond to me or help me, that’s a problem," Sumpter said.
The office fields about 485 citizen complaints for animals each week, or about 25,000 per year, Ingersoll said.
As for response, Ingersoll said animal control operates four phone lines and is continuously answering and prioritizing the calls that come in. Emergencies are routed to 911.
"If we're getting 25,000 complaints a year, you have to prioritize that," she said. "We are definitely looking at different ways to report and different ways to dispatch."
Preventing more attacks
For Monet's family, hearing Emma's story amplifies their frustration that more isn't being done to get a handle on the attacks.
"I don't know how they (the dogs) got the little girl," Hollfield said. "Just imagine though, that's three. You see what damage one can do."
Like the dogs in Emma's case, the pit bull that attacked Monet had been reported as a problem prior, according to animal control. It was euthanized after the attack but Matthews was not ticketed.
Detroit's animal control has no record of any tickets issued to the dog owner, but the bite that injured Monet was recorded, as was a bite involving another resident the year prior, the department confirmed.
The dog owner never apologized to the family, Patrice Shaw said, and despite testimony provided to police, did not face any criminal charges.
Detroit police took statements, notified animal control and the incident was referred to the Michigan Humane Society for an investigation.
There's no evidence the matter was presented to the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, spokeswoman Maria Miller said.
"It had to take for my daughter to lose her arm for this dog to go to sleep," Hollfield said. "She's got to live with this for the rest of her life. The people who owned that dog, they sleep peacefully."
While Matthews acknowledged she did not face fines or charges in the attack, she said her sleep is anything but peaceful.
"All I can say is I'm deeply, deeply sorry. I pray that every night, that she's OK," she said during a Thursday interview with The News outside her home on Beaconsfield. "I just want to let them know that they have my deep sympathy for whatever she's going through."
On Tuesday, Monet will start eighth grade at Wyandot Middle School in Clinton Township.
Hollfield said his daughter remains on alert everywhere she walks. But she's finding her new normal.
"The dog really slowed her up. But then she got back into it," said Hollfield, noting she is busy writing scripts and making YouTube videos. "She didn't stay down long."