EVERETT — Owls, eagles and baby raccoons have shared a home with Tammy Gurwell, when she worked at a wildlife rehab center years ago in Oregon.
“I’ve been around a lot of animals,” said Gurwell, 59. “I’m not afraid of them.”
Today, five Yorkshire Terriers live in her trailer, where each day she looks in the mirror and sees scars from a horrific dog attack south of Everett.
She was never angry at the pit bull that mauled her this summer near his home off Highway 99. But she hopes her story will convince others to be wary around strangers’ dogs.
“You’ve got to be very, very, very, very careful,” Gurwell said. “I just thank God it wasn’t a kid.”
On that sunny Friday afternoon, Aug. 31, she had finished walking her dogs Gem, Jumper, Oliver, Bunny and Bug. She put her pets back inside. She still had leftover treats in her pocket. So she strolled a few doors down to chat with her friend, Kathy Miller, who happens to own a pit bull.
Miller asked Gurwell if she wanted a 40-pound bag of kibble, because her dog wouldn’t eat it. But the food was made for large-breed dogs, not Yorkies. Gurwell couldn’t use it, either.
Just then, a stranger in a tailored shirt and a tie passed in front of them with a golden brown pit bull on a leash. He’d just come back from a job interview, and he was letting out his dog, who had been cooped up all afternoon, Gurwell said.
The women flagged down the young man, who looked to be in his 20s, and asked if he wanted a free bag of kibble. Gurwell let his dog sniff the back of her hand. She fed him about five pieces of kibble from her palm. The dog snatched them up. His tail wagged.
Suddenly, he stiffened. Gurwell does not know why the dog lunged. She believes the pit bull was aiming for her throat.
“If I hadn’t kept my head down, the dog probably would’ve killed me,” she said. “All I saw were teeth and tonsils. He grabbed the left side of my face and just held on.”
The owner tried to pull off the dog. All that did was rip her face more, Gurwell said. She lost consciousness. She awoke to someone rolling her over, onto her back. She felt blood flowing from her head. She didn’t know how badly she was hurt. People thought she’d fallen and cracked her skull open.
Photos show teeth marks in Gurwell’s skin. Blood-soaked gauze covers her chin and throat. Surgeons at Swedish Edmonds hospital stitched her face back together. She suffered nerve damage, she said, and scars on her forehead, cheeks and lips.
She expects private insurance to all but cover the emergency room trip. Cosmetic surgery bills are up to her.
“I don’t want to look like Frankenstein for the rest of my life,” she said.
Months later, the left side of Gurwell’s face is still swollen. She has undergone two plastic surgeries. Doctors want to see how the worst damage heals on her scalp, in six months or a year, before deciding how to move forward. She’s supposed to stay out of sunlight, she said, because light is bad for healing skin.
Years before the attack, Gurwell was injured in a fall at work. She receives disability payments from the state Department of Labor & Industries, she said. Friends set up an online fundraiser to help pay for surgeries.
Gurwell has no plans to sue the young man. She was told the dog was euthanized, and that the owner was kicked out of the trailer park within a day.
In Gurwell’s view, if there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s not that pit bulls are a dangerous breed. It’s that any animal can be unpredictable.
“I’m not mad at the owner, I’m not mad at the dog, and I’m certainly not mad at the breed,” she said. “Any dog that has teeth can bite.”
And if a dog is adopted or rescued, it’s impossible to know how they were treated before, Gurwell said.
Gurwell was reluctant at first to talk about what happened to her. She does not want the park owners to ban pets. She knows how hard it can be to find a home that allows pit bulls and large-breed dogs.
Snohomish County Animal Services has been in touch with Gurwell, agency manager Debby Zins said.
The county hasn’t been able to confirm if the dog was, in fact, put down.
Gurwell has been helping with the investigation. But she believes the dog owner has been punished enough if he had to say goodbye to his best friend.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.