The wounds from a dog bite Krysten Kelly suffered over the summer are scarred over, serving as a painful reminder.
On a late August evening, a woman and a man with two kids and two dogs, on-leash, were walking past her at Sunnyside Avenue and Clark Street in Uptown. Kelly had her dog, a Chihuahua, in a bag slung over her shoulder.
The woman walked by and the dog jumped up. Kelly thought it was friendly until it bit her left breast. The dog jumped up again toward her face, which she blocked with her left arm, getting bitten again.
Then, Kelly said, the owners turned and walked away, leaving her in “complete shock” and bleeding on the sidewalk.
“I honestly thought the dog was going to be a friendly, put its arms on your shoulder type of a dog because there was no growl … There was nothing, no warning at all.”
Citywide, there were a total 5,952 dog bite complaints fielded by the city since 2019, according to a WBEZ analysis of 311 data. Complaints had dropped during the pandemic but have recently gone back up; there have been 1,054 complaints in 2023 through mid-October.
In Uptown, where Kelly was bitten, 127 complaints have been filed in the past four years, a higher number than all but a dozen of the city’s 77 community areas.
Still, while dog bites over the past few years have taken place all across the city, including in communities such as Uptown where there are several dog parks, the communities with the highest number of complaints are largely on the South and West sides, which offer fewer such resources for dogs and their owners.
Through mid-October, the Lower West Side, which includes most of Pilsen, saw the highest number of complaints with 260. Austin, on the West Side, was second highest with 252 complaints. Those two communities don’t have any public spaces where dogs can run free and unleashed.
Austin “has been historically underserved by the city of Chicago,” said Armando Tejeda, a spokesperson with the city’s Animal Care and Control.
“When you compare it to places like Lake View, there’s almost a pet store on every other corner, there’s vets all over the area, but everyone that lives in Austin, they’re secluded from all these pet resources that other neighborhoods do have,” he said.
Addressing inequity in Austin
To provide more resources for pet owners in Austin, Roseland and West Lawn, ACC partnered with Rescue Chicago to launch the Leash and Collar Campaign recently.
Lashawna Britton, 23, who brought her 6-month-old dog, Prince, to a recent Leash and Collar event to get him treats, said she wished there was a dog park or communal dog walking group in the area.
“These dogs don’t know each other,” she said.
Often when she’s walking her dog, there’s no opportunity for the dogs to stop and greet each other. Sometimes, she said, dogs will growl and bark at her dog on a walk. She said a communal dog space would help dogs in the neighborhood familiarize themselves with each other.
Jonathan Polich, a dog trainer at K9 University Chicago, said dog bites often stem from fear of stimuli or the environment the dog is in, but training and socialization can help prevent bad behavior.
Another issue is stray dogs.
“If there’s an area you’re getting the majority of strays from and then bites are happening, I mean, something definitely needs to be addressed on our part,” Tejeda said.
The number of strays in the 37th Ward, where Austin is located, increased by the hundreds in 2023, according to Ald. Emma Mitts’ office. As of October, Austin had 454 stray animal complaints.
Other communities that saw a higher number of strays included Roseland, which had 396, and Chicago Lawn, which had 368 in 2023, according to data from ACC. In terms of dog bites, Roseland and Chicago Lawn had 144 and 142 reported complaints, respectively, according to WBEZ’s analysis.
Mitts’ team said several residents have complained about the number of strays, a problem exacerbated by flooding this summer, the alderperson said.
“The tragic, once-in-a-lifetime, disastrous flooding which occurred in late June and early July this summer also impacted the number of dogs which became suddenly unhoused due to flooded basements and houses,” Mitts said in a statement.
ACC is hoping that offering free leashes and collars, as well as other pet resources, in areas that lack quick access to pet stores will help bring the number of strays down.
ACC started with outreach in Austin, with staff going door-to-door and asking pet owners what resources they would like to see in the area. Staff also went to CTA bus and train stops to talk to community members, Tejeda said.
Austin residents mentioned that the most helpful things would be access to collars and leashes, vaccine and microchip clinics, pet stores and communal spaces where dog owners could meet each other.
ACC is working with Mitts to coordinate the opening of Austin’s first dog park — one request ACC staff has heard over and over again from community members.
Opening a dog park would not only give the community a space to get to know each other, but would also help dogs in the neighborhood familiarize themselves with each other, said A.L. Smith, Mitts’ spokesperson.
“We want to be able to provide to the 37th Ward residents some of the civic advantages that can help make their lives more peaceful and more enjoyable,” Smith said.
In the Southwest Side communities of Wentworth Park and West Lawn, organizers successfully advocated for dog parks in their communities.
Ald. Marty Quinn (13th), who helped coordinate the opening of two dog parks, at 4233 W. 65th St. and 5625 S. Mobile Ave., in his ward this year, said he started the process when constituents mentioned wanting more dog-friendly spaces on the South Side.
Quinn formed committees for the two parks — Woof Lawn and Wentwoof — and started knocking door-to-door to get public input. It was important for him to “work collaboratively” with the communities, he said. Both petitions garnered more than 1,000 signatures.
Quinn said he believes there are many more opportunities to make pet resources more equitable on the South Side.
“I believe we’re just touching the surface on the opportunities for collaboration with local veterinarians and with businesses … like pet shops that sell dog food or dog toys,” he said.
Contributing: Alden Loury and Amy Qin, WBEZ