Some of the dogs dragged Loki, who’s 8, down to the nearby river, while the others tackled 2-year-old Finn.
“I honestly thought that was the end. I thought they were going to end up killed,” said the 29-year-old veterinarian.
But she wasn’t going to let that happen without a fight. Armed with only a plastic tent stake — her pepper spray was somewhere in the tent and in the heat of the moment she forgot about the knife in her pocket — Anderson had to face the worst moment of the whole ordeal: deciding which dog to defend first.
She went for Loki, jumping onto the dog pack, doing whatever she could to get them off her longtime friend. Finally, she was able to get Loki away and safe inside the tent. Loki had a deep wound on her abdomen, one that Anderson was worried might prove fatal.
At that point, she turned to Finn, who was quite literally being ripped to shreds in front of her, but she couldn’t extricate him.
By the time the dogs’ owners got there, Anderson said, “I’d been screaming for help for almost an hour and I was starting to get worried that no one was going to show up.”
Even once they got there, relief wasn’t instantaneous. The first of the group to arrive didn’t have enough leashes to tie off a dozen dogs, and they had to wait for the rest of their party before they could break up the fight.
“They were pretty horrified,” Anderson said. “I think they were surprised it had happened, for one. One of the hunters said he had been hunting with dogs for 50 years and had never had this problem.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Wallace Messer, a Waynesville resident who’s been running bear dogs for more than 50 years and currently serves as treasurer of the N.C. Bear Hunters Association.
“I’ve been hunting about 54, 55 years and I’ve never had a dog that would jump on another dog when a bear dog gets doing what it loves to do — that’s run a bear,” Messer said.
Maybe this wasn’t an entirely unprovoked attack, Messer postulated, though acknowledging that he wasn’t there and hasn’t researched this particular incident.
“Maybe they growled at those dogs,” he suggested. “Just like a human being, you growl at someone, they’d be ready to do something.”
But Anderson vehemently denies that’s what happened.
“This was a predatory attack,” she said. “There’s no excuse for letting dogs get away with that.”
She accepted the hunters’ help in packing up the campsite — that would have been hard for Anderson to do on her own, given that her hands had been bitten badly in her efforts to save the dogs — and in getting back to her car.
But she didn’t think to ask their names, and they didn’t offer that either or help with medical and veterinary expenses, which would eventually total about $1,800.
The kicker, though, came when Anderson started calling up law enforcement to tell them what had happened.
“I reported it to the [Graham County] Sheriff Department and the [Nantahala National Forest] ranger department and pretty much everyone you’re supposed to contact and found out that there’s a law in North Carolina that basically protects the owners of hunting dogs from being cited in cases like this,” Anderson said.
The law in question is a 1990 statute spelling out the liabilities associated with owning a dangerous dog. According to the law, if a dog attacks a person and incurs medical bills of more than $100, the owner is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by as much as a $5,000 fine and two years in prison. Local ordinances can spell out even more penalties and precautions.
However, the law specifically exempts dogs being used in a hunt.
“I drove right past their [the hunters’] campsite,” Anderson said. “I told the sheriff exactly where they were, then come to find out they can’t charge them anyway. They should at the very least require a rabies quarantine and check their rabies vaccination.”
Neither of those things happened, so Anderson had to get post-exposure rabies shots, which cost $300 a pop.
Is change needed?
That outcome upset Anderson to the point that, within a week of returning home to Ohio, she launched an online campaign to raise money for her medical expenses and identify the hunters. The site later morphed into a movement to change the North Carolina law. An online petition to remove the hunting dog exemption now has more than 1,500 signatures.
“As soon as I get to my target number of signatures, I would like to go down and actually deliver it to the governor,” Anderson said.
Messer sympathizes with what happened to Anderson and her dogs, but he isn’t so sure that changing the law is the best thing to do.
“How many times has this happened with hunting dogs bothering someone’s pets? How often does that happen? One out of a thousand, one out of 10,000, one out of what?” he asked.
When incidents occur between hunting dogs and backcountry users out in the middle of the woods, whose story is the one that flies? Who’s to say who growled at who first, who instigated the fight?
“I don’t think we should be held responsible for another dog that maybe just jumped on mine and he’s just fighting back,” Messer said.
Besides, bear hunters are a responsible kind of folk. Bear hunting is more than just “turning your dogs loose in the woods and jumping on anything you come across,” he said. Hunters walk the woods and let the dogs loose when they come across a bear, then the dogs get to doing the thing that they love to do. When they’re done doing it, they’re ready to go home and take a nap.
That said, Messer made clear, “My dog bites you, you don’t have to worry about it anyway. I’ll put him to sleep.”
“Most hunters, I’d say 99.9 percent of all hunters, take care of their dogs and if anything happens they’ll be responsible for their own dog,” he added.
Given that, Messer favors the personal responsibility form of dog regulation. Hunters, by and large, will do the right thing, but they should also be allowed the freedom to practice their hobby during the scant days of the year when they’re allowed to do so. In the western part of the state, the 2014-15 bear season only lasts from Oct. 13, when the attack happened, until Nov. 22. The season opens up one more time from Dec. 15 to Jan. 1. Those few weeks of sport are a window of time that sportsmen pay dearly to participate in, Messer said, though acknowledging that hunters are able to take their dogs on training runs beginning August 15 and can legally continue through March 15.
“She’s got all that time to let her dogs run loose in the woods that she does for free, where I’ve got to pay for mine,” Messer said.
Big game stamps, hunting licenses, year-round food and training for the dogs … it all adds up to thousands of dollars.
“I’ve never kept track of it because I’m afraid to,” Messer said. “It’s a hobby that we got, and an expensive hobby, and we get dogs hurt too.”
Anderson, however, is still working to right what she sees as an injustice. With the legislative session starting up this month, she’s hoping for some tangible progress in the near future. And then, a return to North Carolina to replace her last memory of the mountains with something better.
“It’s a beautiful place, and also I feel like I need to go back and look at it from a different perspective,” she said, “but I can tell you I will have pepper spray and probably a firearm.”