Bluffton resident Nancy Green was new to the Lowcountry and looking for a place to walk her four dogs when a neighbor suggested the beach at Mitchelville Beach Park on Hilton Head Island.
Two weeks after moving from Atlanta, Green took the neighbor's advice and was soon enjoying the beach and watching her dogs run free. That joy, however, turned to panic when she realized that her beloved dog, Sara Jane, had wandered off.
Green searched past sunset for the old, feeble terrier, but she couldn't find the dog she had adopted from a Georgia animal shelter.
Two days later, on March 7, a Beaufort County sheriff's deputy called Green to say he saw Sara Jane near Barker Field, and she appeared to be injured. When Green arrived at the park early that morning, she found her dog bloody and dead.
Witnesses said a pack of dogs that routinely roams the streets near Baygall Road on the north end of Hilton Head attacked Sara Jane. In addition to killing Green's dog, the pack has injured at least three other dogs and intimidated residents -- some of whom now refuse to use the park and beach.
Beaufort County Animal Control says it has investigated the case, but so far the pack has eluded capture.
Last week, an animal control officer approached the man believed to be the owner of the dogs, but he denied they were his. Animal control also set up traps along Baygall Road on Thursday, but by Saturday the traps had been moved by someone. Baygall Road is between Mitchelville and Fish Haul roads.
Green's dog isn't the only one that has been attacked. Hilton Head resident Tom Armao usually walks his dogs on the beach and soccer fields on Mitchelville Road. About a year ago, Armao said, his dog was so badly injured after being attacked by the dogs that it ended up with a wound that later became infected.
"Those dogs are running wild ... they're out of control," he said. "Those dogs are not being taken care of decently."
Residents familiar with the dogs say there are eight to 10 of them in the core of the pack and several litters have been born. One of the dogs is pregnant, ready to deliver any day now, an animal control officer reported. None of the dogs has any collar or identification -- and probably no rabies shots or vaccinations, the officer said.
The dogs roam the streets, according to residents.
Armao said he's reported the dogs to Beaufort County Animal Control twice in the past year.
"They said they'd look into it," he said. "They still act like attack dogs."
Beaufort County animal control director Tony Litton said she didn't have records of past calls, so she couldn't say when animal control first received complaints about the dogs. She said she was familiar with the pack, which has about 10 dogs.
Litton said the animals have eluded officers who have tried to trap them. So far, none has been caught. Animal control is facing staff shortages, Litton said, with only two officers currently on duty for the entire county.
Capt. Allen Horton, in charge of animal control at the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, said an officer was out Thursday to lay traps at 79 and 81 Baygall Road. On Saturday, Horton said the officer on the case reported the traps had been moved across the street.
Beverly Bush, the animal control officer handling the case, told Horton that the man other residents think owns the dogs has denied they belong to him or anyone in his house. Residents, however, said the dogs do belong to him. Bush did not speak with neighbors, Horton said.
Horton said animal control and the Sheriff's Office are considering penalties for allowing an animal to run at-large, which carries a maximum fine of $1,087 per animal. If charged, the owner could also face counts of failing to give the dogs rabies shots. Pet owners are required to give their animals rabies shots and keep them on leashes in public or restrained on their own property.
Horton said animal control does not plan to set more traps or try other methods -- such as using tranquilized bait -- until later this week. By then, it is possible charges will have been filed, he said.
"We don't want to step into any kind of new project, then have it sabotaged like we did with the traps," he said.
Horton said there haven't been any reported cases of direct threats to human safety resulting from the dogs, but people who use the park and beach at Barker Field say they've felt threatened.
Hilton Head resident Betty Fenlon said she used to take her dogs to the field, but stopped after she heard about Armao's dog being attacked a year ago.
"When I saw the dogs loose down there, I turned and walked the other way," she said. "They intimidated me."
Don Shea, also of Hilton Head, said the pack routinely chases his car when he drives down Baygall Road.
"They chase the car like mad for 50 to 75 yards," he said. "But nasty as they are, I don't want to run them over."
The same thing happens to Nikki Rimko, who works as a groomer at the veterinarian's office close to the area where the pack roams.
"They lie in the dirt, they walk out in the road. They'll walk right in front of your car," she said. "They're all over."
Rimko, noting the proximity of a playground to the area where the dogs roam, worries about children in the area.
"It's just not safe," she said.
Green, of Bluffton, agrees.
"It's just a matter of time before a kid gets hurt," Green said.