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Death puts focus on dog regulation
Because there were no reports, county didn't pick up 2 pit bulls that mauled 4-year-old

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

The two pit bulls that fatally mauled 4-year-old Pedro Rios Jr. as he played near his home Tuesday were seen before by residents of his northeast Harris County neighborhood, but no one ever reported the dogs to county authorities.

So far, no one has claimed ownership of the dogs. If an owner is found, that person could face criminally negligent homicide charges, said Harris County Sheriff's Lt. John Martin. County can't ban pit bulls

Hodges said that Harris County's 14 animal-control officers tend to focus on pursuing the 20 to 25 stray dog complaints they receive each day. Three animal-control- officer positions remain unfilled, although there are more field officers now than the department has ever had, Hodges said.

Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack said the state Legislature should give the county power to pass regulations on issues such as the types of pets residents can keep. He said he would entertain a limited or full ban on owning pit bulls if the state gave the county the power to pass such a regulation.

At present, under state law, the county doesn't have the authority to ban pit bulls or other breeds deemed dangerous. Harris County Judge Robert Eckels was out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

In Texas, cities do have the power to pass regulations, and last month the issue of dangerous dogs prompted Houston City Council to update its animal ordinance for the first time in two decades.

The measure, pushed by Councilwoman Toni Lawrence, allows both neighborhood protection and animal-control officers to investigate complaints about dangerous dogs.

Those declared dangerous after a hearing must be registered, restrained and implanted with a microchip. Owners of the animals also must get $100,000 in liability insurance.

"We hope it acts as a spur to more responsible dog ownership and a deterrent to people who keep dangerous animals," said Frank Michel, a spokesman for Mayor Bill White.

More than half of the 1,301 animal bite cases reported were caused by unconfined animals.

Although area residents have said the pit bulls in Tuesday's attack were strays, statistics show that 73 percent of the Harris County biting animals reported last year had identifiable owners.

The increase in animal bites parallels a steep rise in the number of dogs impounded or abandoned in Harris County animal shelters, Hodges said.

Of those, a growing share have been pit bulls. The breed accounted for about 5 percent of all impounded dogs in 2000 but more than 16 percent in 2005.

"They've just infiltrated the dog population," Hodges said. "People are raising them with little to no knowledge of the breed. ... You're talking about a dog who can eat his way through a wooden fence in 20 minutes. You can't just leave them outside while you go to work."

In Tuesday's deadly attack, Pedro was playing with his 2-year-old brother, who managed to escape, as the dogs approached.

Upon hearing screams from her child, the boy's mother ran outside and tried to fight the dogs off her son, but the dogs refused to let go.

The dogs released him only after they were distracted by the lights and sirens of the patrol cars that arrived minutes later. Deputies shot the dogs, killing one and injuring the other, which was later taken into custody by Harris County Animal Control. The boy was flown to Memorial Hermann Hospital and died a short time later. The boy's toddler brother was with him before the attack but was able to run to safety.
Leash laws hard to enforce
It's tough to say what could have prevented the child from being mauled by the dog, said Amy Bures Danna, vice chairwoman of the State Bar of Texas' Animal Law Section.

Although leash laws are in place in Harris County, they are difficult to enforce, she said.

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