Carolyn Handy was hopeful as the new year approached. She was putting the breakup of her marriage in the past and about to start a job as a cashier at the new Wal-Mart on 34th Street S.
But just as 2004 was about to become history, the year delivered another body blow. Three pit bullterriers severely bit her legs, buttocks and her right hand, which she used to fend off the attack. The dogs are nowhere to be found, so she is facing a series of rabies shots unless they are caught right away.
"Luckily, I had a leather coat on," said Ms. Handy, adding that the jacket probably saved her arm from serious injury.
The black pants she wore that Dec. 30 night were practically shredded, she said. They had to be cut off by paramedics who showed up to treat her.
Tears coursed down her cheeks Thursday morning as she spoke of the attack. The mother of four said she is so terrified that she has not returned to her Bartlett Park home.
Rabies, a virus that attacks the brain and nervous system, usually is fatal if untreated. It is essential that treatment begin within 10 days of contact with a rabid or potentially rabid animal, said Dr. Julia Gill, epidemiology program manager at the Pinellas County Health Department.
She said treatment includes a series of vaccines and rabies immune globulin over 28 days. Patients used to receive painful shots in the abdomen but now are given vaccines in the arm and immune globulin in the buttocks and wound, she said.
Ms. Handy told her story as she sat in her mother's subsidized apartment downtown, where she has been staying since the attack.
She said she had been walking about three doors from her home on Eighth Street S to the house of a girlfriend when it occurred.
Seeing a puppy in front of a house at Eighth Street and 19th Avenue S and two adult dogs on the porch, she decided to take the precaution of arming herself with a stick.
As the former owner of Rottweilers, Ms. Handy said she is familiar with dogs and wanted to be prepared. She also crossed the street. But the animals, one of which had a chain around its neck, saw her.
"When the puppy started barking at me, that's when the other two came charging," she said.
"They surrounded me, and after the stick broke down, all I could do is fight for my life."
The attack "seemed like an hour, but maybe it was five minutes. I was in so much pain. I was scared to death and nobody was on the street. So I just screamed and screamed and screamed."
Her cries brought out neighbors. Larry Watts, in whose yard she fell, rushed to help.
His arrival was a miracle, Ms. Handy said. "I just said, "Lord Jesus,' and the man came out of his house."
Watts' wife, Marsha, said her husband armed himself with a stick and a concrete block.
"My wife heard some hollering on the side of the house and I came out, and when I went out the front door and I looked, I saw a lady down on the ground and one dog biting her left leg. When I got around the fence area, I think it was the white and brown pit bull, biting on her arm," said Watts, who works for the city Recreation Department.
"Once I threw the rock, they ran across the street. My concern was her. She was going into shock and I was concerned about her. I kept telling her to calm down and take deep breaths."
Farther up the road, Shikiena Akins and her sister, Rieka, also heard Ms. Handy's calls for help.
"I was in the house asleep when I heard a lady screaming," said Shikiena Akins, adding that the dogs were terrifying.
"They're big," she said, holding her hand at waist level. "Real big."
Mrs. Watts said Dec. 30 marked the second time in less than a week that the dogs had attacked someone in the neighborhood.
"They were rushing the children in the mornings, too. I'm scared to even go out to the trash can," said Mrs. Watts, who lives across the street from the partly occupied house where neighbors say the dogs have taken up residence.
Gerry Threat, who lives in a section of the house, said the animals recently started living on the front porch, and sleep on a black couch. He said he doesn't know who owns the dogs or if anyone feeds them.
"They scavenge," he said.
Ms. Handy wants them found. She said Pinellas County Animal Services has been unsympathetic and unresponsive to the attack.
"Animal control is giving me the runaround," she said. "Not one time since I called has animal control called me back. I'm the victim here. I'm looking for your help and you're asking me to help catch these dogs? The man asked me, "Have you been looking for the dogs?' "
Linda Britland, senior animal control officer, defends the agency and disputes Ms. Handy's account.
"At no time was she given the runaround. At no time was she lied to. She was given the facts and she did not like that. . . . We do have a trap set, so if we do get any dog, the first person that will be called will be her to identify that animal," Ms. Britland said.
"We have been out there many times. We cannot produce the dog. She is the one and only person that can identify the animal. I could send 100 officers to that area and we might see 100 brown dogs."
She said Ms. Handy's story has changed over time.
"She first told us it was five dogs. Then three, then it was down to two," she said.
Like Ms. Handy and her Bartlett Park neighbors, Ms. Britland would like to find the dogs.
"It's a public safety issue. We don't want any more people bitten by those animals," she said.
Dr. Gill said a human case of rabies in the United States is "extremely rare" because prevention is given high priority.
Ms. Handy, meanwhile, says Wal-Mart wants her to remain at home until her stitches have been removed and she gets medical clearance to return to work.
RABIES VACCINES AND CONTROL
Pinellas County Animal Services, 582-2600
Pinellas County Health Department, 824-6932