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Do pit bulls pose a danger to the public?

By Nate Monroe
Staff Writer

Published: Sunday, February 6, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 6, 2011 at 12:22 a.m.

THIBODAUX - Christian Silver was mauled by a neighbor's pit bull three weeks ago on Westwood Drive in Houma.

Silver's injuries required 34 stitches on his face and head and an additional 30 interior stitches.

"He's recovering. I'm grateful he's still with me," said Leah Silver, the boy's mother. "It's going to be a process that takes some time."

In Thibodaux, Faye Adams, president of nonprofit rescue group HOPE for Animals, adopted a pit bull named Blue in 2008.

Blue was neglected for the first two years of his life. He was 30 pounds underweight and infested with worms when he was rescued.

Today, Blue is healthy and is Faye Adams' "dog boyfriend" with "a heart as big as his head."

"He's easy going, loving and he just can't get enough attention from people," Adams said. "He's a rock star."

The two stories epitomize the passions involved in a heated national debate that might soon come to Terrebonne Parish.

After Silver was mauled, Terrebonne Councilman Billy Hebert, said he began considering new ordinances to better protect residents from pit-bull attacks, which could bring the debate over breed-specific legislation to the parish. Proponents of breed-specific legislation say such laws are common-sense ways to approach an obvious problem: Pit bulls are widely-owned, powerful and potentially aggressive dogs that pose public-health and safety concerns in communities across the country.

Local governments across the country, including a nearby parish, have enacted forms of breed-specific legislation addressing pit bulls. Some of those laws ban pit bulls entirely while others require registration and other special measures for people who want to own pit bulls.

But some animal-rights advocates and dog owners say pit-bull breeds are tragically misunderstood, abused and unfairly subjected to disproportionate public vitriol. Many blame the media for blowing pit-bull attacks out of proportion and for ignoring or minimizing instances when other breeds act aggressively toward people, perpetuating the idea that pit bulls pose a greater danger to the public than other dogs.

"Pit bull" has been used to describe a number of different terrier breeds, including the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, the bull terrier and the American pit bull terrier.

While those breeds share similar physical attributes, it is the American pit bull terrier that is frequently the source of national debate.

The American pit bull terrier is a custom-bred, bulldog-terrier fusion brought into the country by European immigrants, according to the United Kennel Club, an American dog registry.

The breed was formed by people "looking for a dog that combined the gameness of the terrier with the strength and athleticism of the bulldog," according to the UKC.

They are characterized by their bulky heads, sturdy frames and powerful jaws.

"Pit bulls are some of the most affectionate animals you will ever meet. It's very seldom you will see one that is aggressive toward humans," said Melvin Elliott, a veterinarian who owns Thibodaux Animal Hospital and provides services for Lafourche Parish government.

"Their tendency is to be like any terrier: they are a bit active, they are a bit domineering and maybe just a bit territorial."

Pit-bull breeds' athleticism and power have made them popular for dog fighting, once legal but now a felony in all 50 states, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Owners who fight their dogs train them for aggressive behavior, and the illegal sport can leave dogs seriously injured or dead.

Elliot said while pit bulls do not have jaws with a "locking" mechanism, a commonly held myth, their bite is undoubtedly powerful.

"They just have an extremely tight bite," he said. "You take a pit bull whose facial muscles have been developed and he latches onto a child, there is nothing you can do to pull him off."

There is some local data available on pit-bull attacks.

In 2010, the Terrebonne Parish Animal Shelter handled 54 dog-bite cases. Sixteen of the dogs, or 30 percent, involved in those cases were pit bulls or pit-bull mixes. The shelter housed 112 dogs for cruelty cases. Forty of those dogs, or 36 percent, were pit bulls or pit-bull mixes.

The Lafourche Animal Shelter handled 41 bite cases in 2010. Fifteen of those dogs, or 36 percent, were pit bulls or pit-bull mixes. The shelter housed 21 dogs for cruelty cases.

Eleven of those dogs, or 52 percent, were pit bulls or pit-bull mixes.

The Lafourche Sheriff's Office, which has three animal control officers, responded to 2,889 calls involving dogs from September 2009 through Jan. 31, 2011. Of that total, 161 were "incidents where the caller either reported a dog or dogs running loose, that the dog had attempted to attack a person or another animal, there was fear of someone getting bitten or a case where someone actually had been bitten by a dog," the Sheriff's Office said.

Dogs that deputies identified as pit bulls were involved in 104, or 64 percent, of those cases, but 90 of those cases did not involve any actual bite.

Of the 14 bite cases, seven were cases involving children or teenagers being bitten.

The Terrebonne Sheriff's Office's records do not distinguish incidents by breed.

Law-enforcement officials do not always properly recognize dog breeds, a complication when compiling data for dog-bite figures even from agencies that can search cases by breeds.

"I have seen a sheriff's deputy bring a dog in from a bite case that was classified as a pit mix and it was more of a lab mix," said Kelli Toups, the Lafourche shelter manager.

The Center for Disease Control conducted a study on fatal dog bites in 2000.

The study found that, during a 20-year period from 1979-1998, at least 25 different dog breeds were involved in 238 fatal bites toward humans. Fatal dog bites are rare occurrences, the study said.

Pit bulls, pit-bull mixes and Rottweilers were involved in more than half the deaths. But the study also found that Labrador retrievers, dachshunds, golden retrievers and other commonly-owned dog breeds had administered fatal bites during that 20-year period.

There is no national tracker for non-fatal dog bites.

Elliott said many breeds are capable of seriously hurting people, particularly children.

"I have seen Labrador retrievers, which are my favorite, that were some of the meanest, most human-aggressive dogs I've ever met," he said. "The concept of breed-specific legislation is something you have to approach with a little bit of caution. Where do you draw the line?"

The CDC report says laws targeting specific breeds fail to address Elliott's concern.

"Breed-specific legislation does not address the fact that a dog of any breed can become dangerous when bred or trained to be aggressive," the report reads.

Hebert said he is still researching the issue. While he said he considers pit bulls a public danger, he said he is open to authoring proposals that go beyond targeting pit bulls.

"Even when people have them on a leash they're dangerous animals," he said. "I don't know about you, but I get nervous when I'm around a pit bull."

Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes have laws establish requirements for owners of dangerous or vicious animals, though the laws do not single out any specific dog breeds as inherently vicious or dangerous.

The St. Mary Parish Council passed an ordinance addressing pit bulls nearly a year ago.

The law requires that owners apply for a special pit-bull license with the parish. The law also requires owners be at least 21, post clear warning about the dog on their property and that the dog remain confined either in the owner's house or in an enclosed pen.

Since its adoption in March, the parish has issued eight licenses to pit bull owners and has six pending. Seventy-nine pit bulls have been surrendered to the parish animal shelter, and 61 of those dogs were killed, said Henry LaGrange, the parish's chief administrative officer. The other 15 pit bulls were moved outside the parish.

St. Mary Councilman Glen Hidalgo said he had initially proposed banning pit bulls from the parish entirely after he had received numerous complaints about the breed from the Sheriff's Office and Animal Control.

"Instead of banning pit bulls, we put restrictions on the ownership of them," he said. "My main point for this was that (pit bulls) were the breed causing the most problems in the parish."

Hidalgo said he is waiting to receive figures from the parish's Animal Control officers to see if the number of dog-bite cases decreased during 2010.

Adams maintains pit bulls are, like all dogs, at the mercy of their owners and that breed-specific legislation places unfair burdens on pit bulls and their owners.

"Some people that buy them own them for all the wrong reasons," she said. "It makes me sick, heart sick, that they have such a bad reputation."

But that line of argument is difficult for Leah to accept.

"These dogs are known for that aggressive nature. They are very powerful," she said. "You don't see people fighting Chihuahuas."

Hebert said he anticipates there will be a lively debate in the weeks ahead as he moves forward determining new proposals.

"I want to have good, honest debates on it where we can satisfy the owner and public safety," he said. "I'm hoping the public participates in it."

Staff Writer Nate Monroe can be reached at 448-7639 or at [email protected].

Do pit bulls pose a danger to the public? | HoumaToday.com
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