By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Lulu Hormilla didn't even have time to panic. One instant the postal worker was dropping letters into the mailbox at a Sweetwater duplex, the next she was on the ground, fending off a Doberman pinscher that had just left permanent fang imprints on her thigh. Later doctors would tell Hormilla, a frail 90-pounder with flaming orange hair and matchstick legs, that the fall had shredded ligaments in her back and shattered her fifth vertabrae.
"I'll never forget the first person to approach me when I finally got away," she says, still quivery twelve years after the ambush. "I was standing there sobbing, my leg bleeding all over, hollering so loud they probably heard me in China, and finally this lady came up to me. She said, `Where's my mail?'"
Such are the nightmares that beset Dade's more than 4000 mail carriers, who brave a workplace of barking menace that has, if anything, worsened since Hormilla's 1979 mauling. Once the mirthful target of suburban satirists, the mail carrier/canine rift has become a matter of grave import within the bustling safety departments of the United States Postal Service. Last fiscal year the Miami Division, which stretches from Cape Canaveral to Key West, recorded 361 dog-related injuries, 22 of which put carriers temporarily out of commission. The resulting medical and worker-compensation fees took a $170,000 bite out of the federal outfit's budget. Nationwide, dog-incurred costs topped one million dollars.
All this despite beefed-up safety measures that include a doggie defense training video, warning cards that alert new carriers to residences containing hazardous hounds, and distribution of a cayenne pepper-based pooch repellent appropriately dubbed "HALT." The postal service also has encouraged injured carriers to file medical claims against dog owners, begun mailing out warnings to residences that house threatening dogs, and withheld mail from entire neighborhoods where animals are not reined in. In 1991, for instance, mail carriers ceased delivery to a two-block area in North Miami for a full month, until a pack of roaming dogs could be taken off the streets.
"We're doing everything we possibly can about the dog problem," says Miami Safety Supervisor Beth Dean. "It's not something we can afford to take lightly. Unfortunately, once a carrier heads out on the route, they're on their own."
Or, as Alvaro Palomino puts it: "At the mercy of the people." Palomino, a cheery nine-year veteran of the postal ranks, turns a bit testy when addressing the dog issue. "First of all, all the owners say their dogs never bite. `My dog never bites.' That's all you hear. Until the dog bites somebody," he sneers. "And people think it's funny. Ho ho ho. Oh, look, the mailman is afraid of the little doggie. Look, I got bit on the back of the leg so bad I had to have two operations. They took skin from my butt and put it on my calf."
While some attribute dogs' scorn for postal workers to an inbred aversion to uniforms, Robert Marcus insists the psychology runs deeper. "Every day the mailman comes into the dog's territory and every day the dog barks and the mailman leaves," explains Marcus, president of Dogmaster obedience school in Kendall. "Day after day the dog sees this power dynamic, and after a week or two or three it starts to feel invincible, like King Kong. Now what do you think that dog's going to do, given a chance to attack?"
In Dade, this unfortunate Pavlovian pattern has been compounded by an upswing in the "dangerous" dog population that last year led county commissioners to adopt a "Dangerous Dog Ordinance." The law, previously restricted to pit bulls, requires registration of any dog that has attacked, or shown a potential to attack, people. Should a designated "dangerous dog" attack a second time, the law mandates confiscation and possible destruction of the animal, as well as a civil charge brought against its owner.
Dr. Michael Elpert, former president of the South Florida Veterinary Medical Association, says the groundswell of vicious canines is merely a reflection of human culture. As concern over home security grows, he sees more citizens buying fierce-looking guard dogs. "The problem is, people don't bother to get them trained right," he explains. "And it's not just big dogs that are dangerous. A mail carrier can be attacked by a very aggressive Chihuahua. What you see is dogs picking up on an owner's territoriality and antagonism toward strangers. The mailman is just your most vulnerable target."
No one has to tell that to Lulu Hormilla. Unable to walk her old route, she works the switchboard at Miami's General Mail Facility, a drawerful of prescribed painkillers close at hand. Her canine phobia is so serious that she cringes if her toy poodles so much as bare their teeth. And she steadfastly refuses to venture outside alone. Not even to get the mail.