By CATHERINE SOLYOM, The Gazette January 21, 2012
Lily, a happy-go-lucky Labrador-Schnauzer, was walking down a misty street in Outremont Tuesday night when she started yelping, dropped to the ground in convulsions, and died.
Her owner, Kelly Downs, began to scream herself. “Lily! What’s wrong? What is happening? Somebody help!”
It wasn’t until Jeffrey Baker came out of his house to console her that she began to understand what had happened. Baker had been walking his dog past the same lamppost 20 minutes earlier and his dog had had a seizure.
Lily had been electrocuted.
Neither Downs, nor Baker, nor the city of Outremont had ever seen anything like it. But upon inspection it turned out that a defective wire inside the lamppost had created an electrified zone just outside it, possibly unnoticeable to humans, but deadly to dogs.
In fact, stray or contact voltage, as the phenomenon is known, is not uncommon at all, especially in cities plagued by aging infrastructure.
The most well-known fatality from stray voltage occurred in 2004, when New York resident Jodie Lane and her two dogs were shocked by voltage from a decaying service box under the street.
The two dogs survived, with burns to their paws, but Lane, a Columbia graduate, did not. Since then, however, there have been hundreds of cases reported across the United States, says Blair Sorrel, who has been tracking the incidents since 2002.
“Electrocutions are fairly rare, fortunately, but shocks are not,” said Sorrel, who runs the website Streetzaps. com.
“They tend to be underdocumented but fairly common – usually interpreted as ‘something happened to the dog.’ ”
Street electrocutions happen when stray voltage from improperly insulated or ungrounded wires or electrical equipment is conducted, typically through metal grates, street signs, fire hydrants or bus shelters. Dogs are especially susceptible because their four paws are bare. The salt and snow on Montreal’s sidewalks also work as conductors of electrical current.
But Sorrel, who suggests “indoor restrooms” for dogs and de-icing products to mitigate the danger, says while the risk is higher in the winter, there are incidents all year round. “Equipment deteriorates all year round,” she says, adding a national 30-year survey found the most incidents recorded in Florida, peaking in June.
There have been cases in Canada too, notably in Toronto. Two dogs were electrocuted on the same street corner near High Park in 2009, when they stepped on an electrified grate. The source was found to be a faulty cable underground. That prompted Toronto Hydro to launch a $14.4-million project to find locations where electricity was escaping and posing a danger to the public.
Here in Montreal, one other incident was reported to the press, in February 2009. A woman’s 3-year-old beagle was electrocuted while walking along an icy sidewalk. Hydro-Québec spokesperson Jean-Philippe Rousseau at the time dismissed the possibility of electrocution as a cause, telling the Globe and Mail the utility had too many fail-safe layers of concrete, insulation and ground lines.
Contacted Friday about this latest incident, Rousseau again suggested an autopsy should have been done on the dog.
“In Montreal, this is the first time I’m hearing about this … did he eat something on the ground? A dog sniffs everywhere.”
At any rate, lampposts are the city’s responsibility, he said, not Hydro-Québec’s.
As Lily lay motionless on the sidewalk along Côte. Ste. Catherine Rd., dog owner Jeffrey Baker called 911 and firefighters were dispatched to the scene. According to Sylvain Leclerc, head of communications for the borough of Outremont, an electrician with the public works department then cut the power to all the lampposts in the area and proceeded to inspect them all. That’s when he found the stripped wire.
“The closer you got to the lamppost, the more dangerous it was – especially for dogs,” Leclerc said, adding the problem was fixed overnight.
As a temporary solution, a 15-foot high wire now extends from one lamppost to another to ground them both.
“But even if it’s not dangerous for a person, it was taken very seriously and when we saw there was a problem, even an isolated problem, we decided to inspect all the lampposts to make sure it never happened again.
Marie Potvin, the city councillor for Robert Bourassa – and a dog owner herself – said she also would raise the issue with other councillors and the mayor’s office because they should be inspecting their equipment too.
“When I heard about it, my jaw dropped. It’s serious because when we have old infrastructure and wires we have the responsibility to make sure it’s safe, and to prevent this sort of thing from happening elsewhere.”
Kelly Downs hopes what happened to Lily doesn’t happen again anywhere.
“There could be 100 lampposts like this in Montreal. I don’t know if it’s safe.”
Baker says had it not happened to both of their dogs, the public would still be in the dark about stray voltage.
“It was just the coincidence that the two dogs had the same reaction in the same spot that allowed us to piece together the pieces of the puzzle,” Baker said.
“But what if it had been a child walking there that night?”