BARKING MAD

06.22.12

Spate of Pit Bull Attacks Has Nation on Alert

Critics say they’re cold-blooded killers, but the breed’s supporters say they’re just misunderstood.

The pit bull wars are raging again.

Last week, an 8-month-old boy in San Diego was killed by a pit bull in an apartment he shared with his mother and her roommate. In Milwaukee, a 55-year-old man who was walking his dog suffered serious injuries after a pit bull leaped from a second-story balcony and attacked the dog and the man. And on Wednesday, two dog walkers in Galveston, Texas, were attacked, along with their dogs, by a pack of pit bulls.

These attacks have reignited debate over whether pit bulls are a vicious breed by nature and should be outlawed, or are safe, loving pets who get a bad rap.

Colleen Lynn is in the former camp. The founder of Dogsbite.org, which collects data on dog attacks, said these latest pit bull attacks are "tragic, but they aren’t shocking to me. People who have pit bulls are in denial about this breed.”

Lynn, herself a survivor of a pit bull attack, says 128 people in the U.S. were killed by pit bulls between 2005 and 2011, according to information her site has gathered from media reports. Pit bull advocates say such figures are inflated because people often assume the attacker is a pit bull, even when it’s not.

“It's common for people even at shelters and in law enforcement to report that dogs involved in attacks are pit bulls when they look like pit bulls,” says Christie Keith, a contributing editor at Pet Connection and advocate for homeless dogs and cats and animal-shelter reform. “But they can be, and often are, mixes of other breeds.”

That may or may not be the case in West Virginia, where a two-year-old boy was killed last week after he wandered into a neighbor's yard and was attacked by two dogs that were initially reported to be pit bull mixed breeds. But a spokeswoman for the Pleasants County Sheriff’s Department there says “we don’t know for certain whether they were pit bulls or not.” She says “one of the dogs appeared to be a labrador mix and the other appeared to be a boxer mix, but one of them looked more like a pit bull than the other.”

A court in Maryland ruled that the breed is “inherently dangerous,” potentially making it easier to hold pit bull owners liable when their dogs attack.

The mother of the 8-month-old San Diego boy had moved in two years ago with a girlfriend who had three male pit bulls. She told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the dogs had already killed two cats since living there, and called the death of her only child a “tragic accident.”

When asked what she might have done differently, she replied, “I guess not have dogs around the baby. But I really had no reason to think to treat the dog and baby differently.”

The subject of controversy and endless debate, pit bulls, which can include the American Pit Bull Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and the American Staffordshire Terrier, originated in the 1800s in the United Kingdom, where bull and terrier types were bred for fighting. Critics of the breed say that while pit bulls don’t bite as often as other dogs, their jaw strength and behaviors when they do attack make them the most dangerous of all breeds. A study last year by the Department of Surgery, University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio, found that attacks by pit bulls are associated with higher morbidity rates, higher hospital charges, and a higher risk of death than are attacks by other breeds of dogs.

Stringent pit bull laws have been adopted by more than 375 U.S. cities, according to Dogsbite.org. Of those, roughly 200 cities, including Miami, Kansas City, and Denver have banned the breed entirely, as have U.S. military bases. In April, a court in Maryland ruled that the breed is “inherently dangerous,” potentially making it easier to hold pit bull owners liable when their dogs attack.

The Humane Society of the United States opposed the Maryland ruling, calling it “misguided and overreaching.” Indeed, pit bull advocates say the dogs are loving, smart, and loyal, and one of the most misunderstood breeds around. Organizations like Pitbullovers.com and the Pit Bulletin Legal News have sprung up to defend the breed.

In some places, pit bulls are getting an unexpected break. Lawmakers in Ohio last month dismantled a 25-year-old animal control law that defined pit bulls as "vicious." Now, dogs can only be classified as vicious if they hurt or kill, regardless of their breed. Since the law went into effect, cities and towns around the state have been repealing breed restrictions and ending breed bans, and shelters are offering pit bulls to the public for adoption for the first time. Cincinnati is the most recent large city in the state to drop its breed ban.

Donna Reynolds, founder of BADRAP (Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls) a pro-pit bull organization, says the Ohio law gives the state the tools to do a better job with problem dogs because “the focus is no longer centered on breed, or on a dog's head shape or the length of his fur.”

Some pit bull lovers are loyal until the end. Last year, Darla Napora, 32, a pit bull advocate and supporter of BADRAP, was mauled to death by one of her two pet pit bulls inside her home in Pacifica, Calif. Her husband, Greg Napora, told the San Jose Mercury News at the time that he didn’t blame the dog and that he planned to bury Darla, who was six months pregnant when she was killed, with their pet's cremated remains in her casket.