The unfortunate incident occurred on Wednesday morning around 8:30 a.m., when Craig Sowby took his dog and 18-month-old son, Ellis, for a walk in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
While on the trail, Sowby says, the dog’s leash became entangled, wrapping around him and his son. As he attempted to unravel the leash, the child began to walk away into the woods, off the trail.
Sowby released the dog in order to collect the baby, and the dog ran off. Child in tow, Sowby followed the dog to re-leash him, and saw the animal approach a couple that was walking a dog of their own. The couple has been identified as Gene and Stephanie Wesloh.
“My dog’s running down there, you know, to check out the other dog. And as my dog approaches, the lady picks up her backpack, and grabs out her can of pepper spray and sprays my dog - before he had even done anything, that was like her first reaction,” Sowby recounted.
According to Chief Ranger Dirk Wiley, Mrs. Wesloh stated that the dog growled and “bowed up,” which prompted her to spray the animal.
The dog ran off into the woods, and Sowby confronted the couple.
“I was upset at that,” said Sowby, “and I ran down there and was like ‘why are you spraying my dog?’ The only reason the guy gave was, ‘well, he was off his leash.’”
Sowby said that the woman held the pepper spray, pointed in the direction of him and his son, during the entire conversation.
“I was like, ‘Put the pepper spray down, you’re not going to spray me and you’re not going to spray my baby,’” Sowby stated.
Sowby said that the couple told him to go back to his car and Chief Ranger Dirk Wiley confirmed that the couple did tell the man to retreat. Sowby says that he responded that he needed to find his dog, and that the man retorted “Well, why won’t your dog come when you call him?”
“I said, ‘Well because you just pepper sprayed him, he’s not going to come back down by you now. So let me go get my dog and we’ll go away’,” Sowby reportedly responded.
But Sowby says he was ambivalent about turning his back on the couple, wondering if they may have another weapon. At that point, Mr. Wesloh asked Sowby if he had identification. Sowby responded he had left it in his car, and Mr. Wesloh asked him to go and get it.
“And then I said, ‘Well, should I get my gun while I’m there too?’” Sowby recounted. “They had a weapon in my face, the only thing I had was to try and make them scared somehow.”
Sowby didn’t have a gun. This was confirmed when he allowed rangers to search his car. His threat, however, prompted the man to make a phone call that revealed a fact that Sowby had been unaware of during the ordeal.
On the phone, the man identified himself as an off-duty park ranger.
“I was thinking, ‘You’re a ranger and you’re letting this happen and you didn’t identify yourself?’” Sowby said.
Sowby said that he felt threatened, that the woman seemed “ready to attack” every time he moved or made a gesture. He says that he told the woman “I’m holding a baby, I can’t do anything. I’m holding a baby, put down your mace.”
At that point, Sowby attempted to take the pepper spray from the woman, who responded by releasing pepper spray onto Sowders and his young son.
Chief Ranger Wiley reported that Mrs. Wesloh felt threatened by the man.
“She felt threatened when he advanced on her and wouldn’t follow her orders to back off, and wouldn’t follow the ranger’s orders to stand down and go to the head of the trail. There’s no doubt she was afraid,” Wiley said.
Sowby immediately fled down the trail with his child. Mrs. Wesloh followed, according to Wiley, because she thought that he was going to get the gun that he claimed to have. She then ejected pepper spray a second time onto the man and child.
Wiley says that Mrs. Wesloh “made a point of trying to avoid spraying the baby when she sprayed the second time.”
Sowby took the child to the bathroom at the park’s Visitor’s Center and proceeded to flush his eyes with water. Sowby said that the baby was crying hysterically, and that, having been sprayed as well, he was also suffering.
As he reached the visitor’s center, his dog returned to him and an on-duty ranger arrived in the parking lot. Sowby then contacted his wife who arrived shortly after.
The baby did not receive medical treatment immediately, but the child’s parents did take the baby to the doctor later and reported that no permanent damage had been done.
Sowby was upset by the lack of attention given to the child, saying that the ranger told them that they could take the baby to the emergency room “if they really wanted to.”
Wiley says that he and the child’s mother, whom he says is currently enrolled in medical school, decided that an immediate trip to the hospital wasn’t necessary.
The next three hours, Sowby said, were spent recounting the episode for the rangers’ report.
Both parties filed reports with the park, but no charges have been filed. According to Chief Ranger Wiley, both parties agreed that it would be best not to press charges and added that both would be charged if the matter goes to court.
“At that time,” Sowby said of the meeting, “I felt pressured that if I try to press charges or do anything that I have no case. Which is exactly what the chief ranger said.”
Wiley told the Daily News that although all parties regret that the child was sprayed, he thinks that Mrs. Wesloh’s actions would be deemed “justifiable.”
Sowby says that he isn’t looking to “ruin people’s lives or get revenge,” but that he does believe the public has a right to know what can happen at the park if one’s dog becomes unleashed.
Currently, there are no plans to pursue criminal charges in the matter, though Wiley says that the option is still available.
The Weslohs could not be reached for comment.
Lorie Settles is a staff writer for the Middlesboro Daily News. She may be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com.