Debate swirls around pit bull ownership

pramati@macon.comJune 30, 2013 

Two highly publicized pit bull attacks in Bibb County since March have stirred new debate about the dogs, which some communities across the country have restricted or banned altogether.

Are pit bulls inherently dangerous? Or are they unfairly targeted because of a few high-profile attacks?

Bibb County Animal Welfare Director Sarah Tenon said because of the high number of pit bulls in Macon and the county, a dog attack here is more likely to be committed by a pit bull.

“They are the predominant breed in Macon,” she said. “You see a lot of pit bulls and pit bull mixes (involved in biting cases), but we also get bites from dachshunds and schnauzers. ... I’ve seen some really nice pit bulls and some really bad Chihuahuas. We go case by case. That’s how you have to look at it.”

Tenon and pit bull advocates say their bites or attacks tend to get more media attention than other dogs in similar situations, which distorts people’s views.

“Because of what people hear, that makes them afraid,” she said.

But pit bull critics say they’re dangerous based on their genetic makeup and should be regulated under the law. And still others dispute that philosophy, saying no breeds are more dangerous than others. They contend how the dogs are raised contributes to any antisocial behavior.

Colleen Lynn, founder of the website dogsbite.org, which tracks pit bull attacks in the U.S., said pit bulls are potentially dangerous because of their genetic makeup.

“We’ve seen children die,” she said. “Children are at the highest risk for attack.”

A number of high-profile incidents in Macon -- some recent, some decades old -- has kept the debate in the forefront.

In March, a pit bull attack in north Macon left a 5-year-old Warner Robins boy with most of his scalp torn off.

Two months later, a Bibb County deputy shot and killed two pit bulls that were attacking a 69-year-old Macon woman, who suffered bite wounds on her face and neck.

While there have been dozens of incidents involving pit bulls during the past few years, some have been more brutal than others.

In December 2009, a 9-year-old Macon girl and a man were both attacked before a deputy shot the stray dog.

In August of that year, officials said a pack of pit bulls likely was responsible for the death of Tracey Brazzell Payne, 46, whose body was found outside a Glendale Avenue residence with severe lacerations and bite marks.

And in what is arguably one of the most gruesome pit bull attacks ever in Middle Georgia, 11-year-old Van Coleman was mauled to death by two pit bulls while walking through a neighbor’s yard on the way to visit a friend in November 1980. Investigators found about 400 bites on his body, and he was dragged more than 100 feet. Because the incident happened on the property of the dog’s owner, the District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute.

Nature vs. nurture

While existing data indicates pit bulls are involved in more vicious attacks than other types of dogs, some say media coverage of such attacks distorts the numbers.

The Macon-Bibb County Health Department reported 124 dog bites in Bibb County this year through June 10, and 26 of those were attributed to pit bulls and pit bull mixes. That follows 2012 data, when pit bulls accounted for 64 of the reported 277 dog bites in the county. After pit bulls, dogs with the most bites were classified as “mixed unknown.”

But health department officials acknowledged the data may not be entirely accurate, because the information is provided by the victims through medical providers, and the department can’t know with any certainty which breeds constitute the pit bull “mixes” involved.

Lynn thinks there is enough evidence in the data collected from national studies to show that pit bulls are more likely to be involved in a vicious attack than other dogs.

Now an Austin, Texas, resident, Lynn was attacked in 2007 by a leashed pit bull while jogging in her neighborhood in Seattle. That incident, plus hundreds of others across the country, inspired Lynn to launch her nonprofit website.

While pro-pit bull advocates argue that attacks occur because the dogs were raised poorly by their owners, Lynn disputes that idea. How a dog is raised affects its temperament, but at the same time, many dogs display traits associated with their genetics.

“We know that’s true,” she said. “That’s why pointers point. Pit bulls were selectively bred to fight in pits.”

Lynn maintains that a dog’s behavior comes from both nature and nurture.

“Of course, there are both environmental factors and genetic factors,” she said. “Every pit bull is inherently dangerous. That’s different from vicious. There’s a refusal (by them) to stop an attack once they start.”

According to her website, pit bulls from 2005 to 2012 killed 151 people in the U.S. and accounted for 60 percent of the 251 recorded human deaths involving dogs. In 2012 alone, pit bull attacks accounted for 23 of the 38 fatal dog attacks in the U.S.

Lynn said she tracks the information from media reports on dog attack-related deaths, and she acknowledged there may be gaps in the data.

Patricia Olson, a Denver-based veterinarian who works with the national American Humane Association, said any dog can show aggression, but certain breeds are likely to cause more severe injuries based on their body size and strength of their jaws. She advocates a common-sense approach when adopting a dog, noting the data on dogsbite.org.

“I wouldn’t be putting a pit bull next to a child,” said Olson, who lives in a city that bans pit bulls altogether. “If you look at the data and breeds associated with fatalities, it’s pits and several others. ... Two breeds (pit bulls and Rottweilers) account for 70 percent of fatal dog bites.”

Olson noted a 2012 article in Forbes magazine that lists the 11 riskiest types of dogs for insurance companies. Pit bulls topped the list. The article said some insurance companies will deny coverage to homeowners and renters who have pit bulls and certain other breeds.

During her 40 years as a vet, Olson has seen concern about other breeds such as chows, Rottweilers and German shepherds. She said a dog’s genetics can play an important part in its character. However, she thinks any breed’s temperament is a mix of nature and nurture.

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, there’s confusion about what constitutes a pit bull. Though not an actual breed itself, pit bulls comprise such breeds as the American Staffordshire terrier and the American pit bull terrier, though some parts of the world include the bull terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier and the American bulldog with the pit bull designation, plus mixes of those breeds.

“Because of the vagueness of the ‘pit bull’ label, many people may have trouble recognizing a pit bull when they see one,” according to the ASPCA’s website. “Multiple breeds are commonly mistaken for pit bulls.”

Olson said pit bulls often are difficult to categorize, which makes having an ordinance against them difficult to enforce.

“In Denver, we have a pit bull ban, but what’s troubling is, what is a pit bull?’ she said. “Do you genetically test every shelter dog?”

Pit bulls and the law

Five Georgia communities -- College Park, Floyd County, LaGrange, Lawrenceville and Dawson/Terrell County -- have ordinances on the books that deal with pit bulls.

Those communities have “breed-specific laws” that either target pits directly or include them among other breeds considered dangerous.

Lynn said she favors the strictest laws possible, including spaying and neutering all pit bulls in shelters and banning new breeding by those privately owned. Some U.S. cities, including Denver, Miami and Cincinnati, have enacted breed-specific bans, though dogs owned by people before the bans went into effect are exempt.

The American Humane Association, however, does not favor breed-specific laws, contending there’s no proven data that shows the bans help reduce the number of bites or attacks.

“Any breed of dog can bite, and research suggests (a breed-specific law) does little to protect the community from dog-bite incidents,” according to the association’s website. “In fact, (that law) can often have unintended consequences -- such as black-market interest and indiscriminate breeding practices -- resulting in subsequent breed overpopulation that leads to increases in the number of homeless, stray and euthanized dogs.”

The association supports strong local laws intended to curb dangerous dog behavior, as long as the laws don’t single out particular breeds.

That approach seems to resonate among Bibb County residents, some of whom indicated they don’t want to target pit bulls. But they favor strong laws that punish any dog guilty of biting someone.

Ellen Banas, who organizes the Yappy Hour social event at the Macon Dog Park, said she and her husband never had problems with the pit bull they owned, but her husband was bitten by the couple’s American bulldog.

“(Pit bull attacks) are the ones that get televised,” she said. “Other breeds -- they’re not stories, I guess.”

Pit bulls used to be good family dogs and also were known for herding cows. She said people need to know what their dog is capable of, no matter its breed.

Van VanDeWalker, a former interim director at the animal shelter in Macon, owns five pit bull mixes, including animal advocacy mascot AC Pup. He said he’s a big fan of the dogs, though they aren’t for everyone.

“They’re a terrific, terrific dog. They do need a lot of love and attention. The worst thing you can do with one is chain it up in the backyard. They need daily interaction with humans. ... The most important thing is that people need to do their homework before they get one.”

VanDeWalker said he opposes breed-specific laws, noting that he thinks there’s a lot of misidentification when pits are blamed for attacks.

Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said although there are no new local animal ordinances on the horizon, he favors one that considers the history of any dog that has bitten someone.

“I don’t think we need to make it that specialized, but it’d be smart to do a vicious dog category,” he said. “Do it by behavior. If you want to keep a dog, there’s licensing, liability coverage.”

Reichert said any dog ordinance should contain additional penalties for anyone who owns a dog that has exhibited antisocial behavior.

All the existing ordinances in Georgia cities place heavy responsibility on owners of pit bulls and certain breeds deemed dangerous. Those extra steps may include putting identification chips in the dog, building secure pens and having the dog wear a muzzle while in public. All five of the cities require additional insurance liability of owners should the pit bull attack someone.

Tom Hall, city manager in LaGrange, said the pit bull ordinance there went into effect after an elderly man was seriously mauled by one in 2006. He said there wasn’t a lot of protest from pit bull supporters, except about the definition of a pit bull.

“It doesn’t prohibit ownership of a pit bull,” he said. “It regulates it. It makes sure the owner has insurance (and) has the dog (fixed). We’ve made periodic cases over violations of the ordinance over the years, but I can’t recall in the last five years a serious attack.”

Various bills over the years in the state Legislature to regulate pit bulls have failed. Some cities also have decided against pit bull ordinances. In 2010, the Douglasville City Council narrowly rejected a pit bull ban in that city. And last month, Albany city officials discussed introducing a pit bull ordinance. Currently, a citizens committee is studying the issue.

Eddie Deeb, the Macon man who rescued 5-year-old Anthony Ivey in March from a pit bull, has mixed feelings about what should be done about pit bulls. While he places a lot of blame on the owners of the dogs, he also thinks pits need extra regulation in the form of requiring owners to have liability insurance for their dogs.

“There’s something about pits that makes them inherently different than other dogs,” said Deeb, whose sister, Patti Jones, is chairwoman of the nonprofit animal advocacy group Central Georgia CARES. “I think a lot of the problems with pits come from the owners. ... People around here collect them. I don’t know what it is, but they’re not introduced to society. If you spend time with an animal, you can teach it anything. ... If you can’t afford the insurance, you don’t need to have the animal.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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