Neighbors remember family's dachshund

'He was everybody's dog,' says dad. Kids from the neighborhood made a tombstone for Leo.

By ELENA LESLEY, Times Staff Writer
Published August 10, 2007

TARPON SPRINGS - As space shuttle Endeavour launched Wednesday night, the Mailles family ran outside their home to look for the stream of light in the sky.

And as usual, their miniature dachshund Leo, an unlikely guard dog, trotted after them.

But while his owners and many neighbors on their quiet, dead-end street strained to see the launch, Leo's attention was elsewhere.

Zeus, the pit bullterrier from next door, had wandered into the yard.

Leo and Max, the Mailles' other dachshund, charged, trying to chase out the intruder.

Then Zeus snapped.

He attacked Leo, clamping down on the 23-pound dog. Blows from Zeus' owners, pokes from a sharp metal prod and even a neighbor wielding a wooden plank couldn't get him to relinquish the little dog.

"Leo just kept looking over at me," said Christi Mailles, 17, who received the dachshund eight years ago as a birthday present. "It was so sad."

Leo was killed, and two neighbors were injured in the incident.

Now Pinellas County Animal Control Services will decide if the 80-pound pit bull lives or dies. Though owner Sonya Berry originally consented to having the dog euthanized, she changed her mind midday Thursday.

"He's been such a good dog," she said of Zeus, who has lived with Berry and her two children for the past six months. "I believe in my heart he was just trying to protect my son."

Zeus was in quarantine Thursday and animal services launched a "dangerous dog" investigation. After gathering statements from witnesses, officials will determine whether the dog should be destroyed. Owners have a right to appeal if the county wants to euthanize a dog.

Generally, a dog has to severely injure or kill more than one domestic animal before officials decide to euthanize it, said Linda Britland, a field enforcement officer with animal services. And the attacks must have occurred off the dog's property.

But she said officials also take into account the nature of the attack and whether any humans were injured.

"This was a horrific incident," she said.

And it was made even more gruesome by the presence of so many children, said Michael Mailles, Christi's father. The Mailles' three young foster children and a number of kids from the neighborhood were there to witness one of their favorite pets being mauled to death.

"He was everybody's dog," Michael Mailles said of 8-year-old Leo, a feisty dachshund who acted like he ran the neighborhood.

Most people on the street left their doors open for Leo, whose belly nearly touched the ground, and gave him treats.

Michael Mailles' father, Mike Mailles, was particularly doting.

The dog went across the street to his house for regular servings of ice water and home-cooked meals. Mike Mailles' wife, Oneida, bought special portions of chicken, roast beef and sometimes even steak for Leo and chopped them up into manageable pieces.

"See, she had made all these for him," Michael Mailles said Thursday, taking several Ziploc bags of chopped chicken from the freezer.

Mike Mailles is "taking Leo's death especially hard," said Annette Mailles, Michael's wife.

The 75-year-old tried to pull Zeus off Leo, but the pit bull bit down on his right arm. The wounds, which required stitches to close, were wrapped in gauze Thursday.

"I had trouble trying to sleep," Mike Mailles said. "It broke me up seeing him mutilate that little dog."

He wasn't the only one mourning Leo on Thursday.

Kids from the neighborhood made the dog a tombstone that read "RIP Leo," and bought flowers to put near his grave.

"This has been really traumatic for the kids," Annette Mailles said. Leo "was so protective of them."

The dog slept in the hallway, guarding her children's bedroom doors at night, and ran after them when they rode their bikes outside.

"He was this little bitty dachshund and he'd chase the kids and be exhausted," she said. "But he never let the kids out of his sight."

Michael Mailles said Leo's death may have protected the children he was so loyal to.

"It could have been a kid out there," he said. "Leo may have saved someone's life."

No one in the neighborhood, Zeus' owners included, had ever seen Zeus act that way before. The 6-year-old pit bull was trained to work with the disabled and is a very obedient dog, Sonya Berry said.

"He's a very sweet dog," said Sonya's daughter, Felicia Berry, 15, who punctured her finger on one of Zeus' teeth while trying to pry his mouth open. "I was freaking out. It was so disturbing."

While Sonya Berry is upset about what happened, she said she isn't sure Zeus should be euthanized. She said she thinks he probably wouldn't have attacked the other dog if he hadn't been provoked and may have been trying to protect her 13-year-old son, who was also in the yard.

"I don't want to make any rash decisions right now," Sonya Berry said.

But even if animal services decides the dog isn't dangerous, Zeus will have to find a new home. Sonya Berry said that she doesn't think her neighbors would be comfortable with him next door.

She's right.

"I want to put him down myself," Michael Mailles said. "Those dogs are made to kill."

Elena Lesley can be reached at elesley@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.