CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — An inmate at the Cape May County jail is being called heroic for helping to save a county employee from a vicious dog that attacked her at the animal shelter where he was working off his sentence.

For his selfless act, Justin Peggs, of Deptford Township, Gloucester County, will get three days off his 45-day sentence for assault in a fight last summer on the Wildwood Boardwalk.

Peggs, 22, grabbed a pit bull terrier off the leg of employee Kathleen James and held down the snapping, snarling animal for several minutes so staff could rescue James and get a noose pole for the dog.

James was bitten so badly that she needed stitches in three places, but she said it could have been far worse had Peggs not come to her rescue.

“I don’t know what he was thinking. Pit bulls can crush bones,” she said.

The attack happened Sept. 17, when James was bringing a surrendered dog into the Cape May County Animal Shelter and Adoption Center in Middle Township. The dog was mild enough when James led him on a leash into the building, she said. But it became ferocious when it caught sight of the other barking dogs at the kennel, snarling and lunging toward the dogs behind the fences.

“He was pretty strong. I yanked on the leash, and that’s when he turned on me,” James said.

The dog initially mauled her pants leg. After a second lunge, it sank its teeth through her denim jeans into the meat of her right thigh.

James said she tried not to resist, knowing that if she fought back, the dog’s powerful jaws would inflict more damage.

“They get that mode in their heads, and nothing matters,” she said. “I screamed for help.”

The shelter’s other employees were busy in other parts of the building. But James said Peggs, who was stocking shelves in an adjacent room, came running when he heard her cries.

“He jumped on the dog, and the dog let me go,” she said. “He just did it.”

Peggs, who stands 6 feet, 2 inches tall, pinned the dog to the ground while staff members tended to James and got a noose pole around the dog’s neck. Peggs was uninjured.

James needed seven stitches and a tetanus shot, but she said she was thankful her injuries were not worse.

She said the shelter later learned that the dog had been surrendered because it had attacked its owner under similar circumstances.

Shelter Manager Judy Davies said her staff would have taken precautions had they known the animal was aggressive toward other dogs.

“You have this moral obligation to be honest and forthright with people. An aggressive dog is like a loaded gun,” Davies said. “By the same token, we should use universal precautions with a strange dog.”

The dog was euthanized after a 10-day wait to ensure it was not rabid, Davies said. She characterized Peggs’ actions that day as brave.

Peggs is participating in the Sheriff Labor Assistance Program, which allows him to complete his jail time in increments by working nights or weekends for the county, Sheriff Gary Schaffer said. The program allows minor offenders to work off their sentences without putting their full-time jobs in jeopardy, he said.

The program saved the county about $1 million last year in labor and savings from the $84-per-day costs of incarcerating an inmate, Schaffer said.

Peggs was charged with assault in the Wildwood fight. Schaffer said jail Warden Donald Lombardo has discretion through an administrative law to cut three days from an inmate’s sentence.

James is back at work at the animal shelter. The stitches are out and her wounds are healing, she said. James thanked Peggs for stepping in that day.

The mauling marked the first time she has been seriously injured while working with animals, she said.

“I’ve been working with dogs for 20 years. I’m a little more cautious now,” she said. “If I get bitten every 20 years, I’m doing pretty good.”

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