Two 'dangerous' pit bulls to die
A dog owner loses a long legal battle with the county over its animal control rules.
By RITA FARLOW
Published March 18, 2007
LARGO - One dog bit a person, and one didn't, but both must die, officials say.
To Ken O'Keefe, 51, of Largo, that's unfair and cruel, but there's nothing he can do about it. After thousands of dollars and more than two years, he lost his final legal challenge last week. A judge rejected his challenge to Pinellas County's animal-control ordinances.
Circuit Judge Doug Baird said the issues raised in the petition had already been considered and ruled on throughout O'Keefe's appeals.
On Monday, animal services is scheduled euthanize O'Keefe's two pit bullterriers, Rusty and Bonita, who have been classified as dangerous dogs.
Neither side disputes the facts of the case.
On Oct. 12, 2004, Rusty and Rusty's daughter, Bonita, escaped through the front door. O'Keefe has said he doesn't know how the door became ajar.
Several neighbors said the dogs approached them aggressively that day. One, William Roe, was bitten by Rusty. Another neighbor's small dog was killed, though no one saw the attack.
Since then, O'Keefe, a consultant for Greater Bay Roofing, said he has spent or still owes $60,000 to $80,000 in legal fees, veterinarian bills and fees to board Rusty and Bonita - now 11 and 7, respectively - at Animal Services, where they have been held while he fought the county in court.
O'Keefe's lawsuit involved the interpretation of two county ordinances.
Until 1988, when commissioners passed Ordinance 14-66, dog owners often got a warning before a dog was declared dangerous. The ordinance gave Animal Services the authority to destroy dogs that caused severe injury or death, even if they had not been classified as dangerous.
To tighten the county's dangerous-dog laws, commissioners passed Ordinance 14-65 in 1999. It requires any animal classified as dangerous to be surrendered to Animal Services for destruction.
Animals are classified as dangerous after an investigation by Animal Services officers that requires sworn statements from witnesses.
Dogs can be deemed a threat to public safety if they bite people, injure or kill pets more than once, or have been used for dogfighting. But they can also receive the classification for chasing or approaching people "in a menacing fashion or apparent attitude of attack."
"All they have to do is just snarl," said O'Keefe's attorney, Robert G. Walker Jr. "They don't actually have to bite, they don't have to attack; all they have to do is threaten somebody."
O'Keefe and Walker Jr. argue the portion of the 1988 ordinance that applies to Rusty and Bonita states that dogs that have never been declared dangerous will be destroyed for attacks that result in severe injury or death of a person.
The injury Rusty inflicted that day was not considered severe and Bonita was not believed to have bitten anyone, so O'Keefe believes it protects his dogs.
But Dr. Welch Agnew, assistant director of Pinellas County Animal Services, said that part of the code didn't apply to Rusty and Bonita. O'Keefe's dogs are to be euthanized under the stricter penalties of the 1999 ordinance, which states that all animals classified as dangerous must be surrendered for destruction.
Pit bull reputation
Because of their reputation for aggressive behavior, pit bulls have been banned in some cities, including Denver, Miami and Cincinnati.
Several attacks by pit bulls in the Tampa Bay area have garnered media attention in recent months, including two involving children. In January, 9-year-old Dontae Vincent was attacked by four pit bulls in Tampa that mauled his abdomen, legs and back. In late February, a 2-year-old boy was bitten in the face and neck by a pit bull at his home south of Plant City. Ian Keo suffered facial fractures, an eye injury and trauma to his head and neck.
The problems, Agnew said, can begin when owners do not take due care with their dogs.
"I like pit bulls by themselves, but when you get two of them together, running around unsupervised, you've got trouble," he said.
Killed for snarling?
O'Keefe said that a few years before the attack, he had a 6-foot-high fence installed to keep his dogs on his property.
"I know that they're big dogs," O'Keefe said. "I don't want people to be scared. I just want them to have a happy life."
O'Keefe said people should be aware that their dogs can be deemed a threat even if they've never attacked anyone.
"There's no way any commissioner intended the law to kill dogs for growling and snarling," he said.
Another issue has been the dogs' health. Bonita, has a skin disease that requires treatment, and Rusty has an
aggressive bladder tumor, according to O'Keefe's veterinarian.
"He has a disease he is going to die from, but it's very unproven when that would be and he still has a great quality of life," said Dr. John Kirsch of Tampa Bay Veterinary Surgery.
"Take Rusty if you want your pound of flesh," O'Keefe said. "Take Rusty, he has cancer. But the girl dog, she did nothing wrong."
Rita Farlow can be reached at [email protected]
com or 727 445-4167. Information from Times files was used in this report.
What the law says
To read the complete text of Florida's dan-gerous-dog law, go to www.leg.state
. fl.us/Statutes, and click on statute Title XLV, then select Chapter 767.
Pit bull attacks
To read about recent attacks in the Tampa Bay area, go to tampabay.com, click on St. Petersburg Times, and search for "pit bullterriers" in the archives.