WINNIPEG — The normally boisterous halls of St. Andrews School were quiet Monday afternoon.
The sounds of laughing children and parents confirming play dates were noticeably absent as news of the mauling death of seven-year-old Gracie Herntier-Clark continued to spread and sink in.
Instead, there were hushed conversations, quiet tears and sniffles during the daily after-school pick-up.
“I’m sad because of my friend,” said eight-year-old Haylee Ducharme. “I’m in Grade 3 and she’s in Grade 2. We’d be partners in gym pretty much all the time for warm-up.
“She was nice, sweet and very fun.”
Gracie died Sunday after she was mauled by two Alaskan malamute dogs near Oakbank while visiting family friends.
A Grade 2 student at St. Andrews School in the RM of St. Andrews, Gracie was playing outside when the dogs attacked her. There were no known witnesses to the mauling, RCMP said.
Gracie was rushed to hospital but did not survive.
The school’s principal and vice-principal went classroom to classroom first thing in the morning to talk about the tragedy with the students, following an email sent out to parents. The school brought in grief counsellors to help children and staff cope with the loss.
Gracie lived with her grandparents and regularly visited the childless Oakbank couple who own the dogs, said a neighbour of the owners.
Neighbour Kristin Nicholson said she is still in shock. The two malamutes, named Bear and Shadow, were frequently around her own daughters, Jenna, 4, and Kaeli, 7. There are no fences between their yards, and the dogs would run around loose, as does Nicholson’s dog, a setter. She pointed to a trail through the snow the malamutes made between their two yards.
“We’d be outside and they’d be here running around all the time,” she said. “To have them turn like that? They seemed like giant teddy bears.”
The only thing that gave Nicholson pause was the size of the dogs. “The dogs are huge,” she said. She or her husband were always outside with their girls when the dogs were around, she said.
The dogs are being held by Dan Fryer, an animal control and animal protection officer for the RM of Springfield. “Their future depends on the RCMP investigation,” he said.
Gracie had been a student since kindergarten at St. Andrews School, Lord Selkirk School Division Supt. Scott Kwasnitza said Monday.
“They’re understandably devastated by this, particularly the teachers who taught her in kindergarten, in Grade 1, and (this year) in Grade 2,” Kwasnitza said.
Grief counsellors were in the school at 8:30 a.m. Monday and will likely be there for several more days. Kwasnitza said that teachers are not telling the children how Gracie died.
“You don’t want to frighten children — some of those details are better discussed at homes with families,” he said. “We didn’t want to add to the stress by scaring children.”
News of the child’s death came as a shock to Brandon Humane Society shelter manager Tracy Munn, who said she felt “sick to her stomach” when she heard what happened to the seven-year-old.
“My heart aches for all of them,” Munn said.
Alaskan malamutes are a large breed, and Munn says they can be “wonderful.” But, they do have a prey drive.
“A malamute is a really big dog,” she said. “I don’t want to condemn that breed by any means because of something horrible that happened but … any dog can do damage.”
Munn says something must have set off the dogs, as “dogs just don’t attack and kill somebody for no reason.”
“Usually when a child is mauled … it’s because something’s heightened, something’s gone off in the dogs,” she said.
Sudden movements or sounds might trigger a dog’s instincts.
“When a dog is having a seizure they start to move and make sounds, a dog close to them will attack them.”
Alyssa Fletcher, owner of Grassroots Grooming in Brandon, said the news came as a shock to her as well.
“I would say (Alaskan malamutes) have a stronger prey drive, but not usually towards people,” she said. “Clearly this is out of character … Those dogs aren’t bred to be aggressive, they’re bred to survive in harsh climates and territories.”
Having grown up around dogs, Haylee’s mother, Sandra Ducharme, has told her children what to do when meeting a strange canine.
“You ask the owner if you can pet it,” Haylee said. “And never put your face in the dog’s face.”
Ducharme said every child should be taught that dogs need to be treated with a healthy dose of respect and the knowledge that they can be extremely unpredictable.
“Some of them have the best lives but sometimes, something triggers them (to be violent). Not all dogs are like that, but all dogs can be like that,” she said.
RCMP spokeswoman Tara Seel said it’s not clear what prompted the attack, and the exact cause of death is not being released.
The girl was being supervised by an adult, but it doesn’t appear anyone witnessed the mauling, Seel said.
“This is just a tragedy all around and you never like to hear about this type of thing. You feel for everyone involved.”
Charges are not being ruled out.
“We’re still in the thick of the investigation,” Seel said.
» Winnipeg Free Press, with files from Jillian Austin
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 18, 2014