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Fears unleash bill targeting the pit bull

The woman in Fort Lauderdale who started it all is a 57-year-old maintenance worker who likes to take walks. For the past three years, Edna Elijah has carried a baseball bat when she walks because her neighbors have been attacked by dogs. Once, she had a run-in with a dog "that looked like a pit bull."

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She wasn't injured, but her words resonated with the right people. So recently, legislators in Tallahassee have been considering a bill to regulate dogs by breed. Owners of gentle pit bulls are racing to Tallahassee in protest, and videos of children with torn faces are finding their way to lawmakers' in-boxes.

Amid all the weighty matters this year, the long-shot dog bill has caused quite a stir. Close to home, the debate flared last month when a dog reported to be a pit bull attacked its owner, Erika Sullivan, and her landlord, causing serious injuries. At more than 100 pounds, the dog was not an American Pit Bull Terrier, but a mixed breed pit bull, according to Hernando County animal control. It had not been neutered or licensed, and one of its owners told police it had been aggressive lately.

"I wish I could have been in his head," Sullivan said, "to figure out what happened."

There's no way to know if breed regulations would have prevented the attack on Sullivan. But bills like the one under consideration in Florida indicate that the fear of dog attacks, and of certain types of dogs, is on the rise.

The bill proposed by Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, passed a senate committee last month. It would not outright ban any breed, but it would give communities the ability to require muzzling, neutering or additional insurance for certain dogs, measures that critics say would have the same effect as a ban.

Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, the Senate sponsor, acknowledged that the bill is directed toward one dog. "We're talking about pit bulls," he said at a committee hearing last month.

The St. Petersburg Times took a look at the most serious dog attacks in the state — those that killed people — to determine whether pit bulls are the common link. A search of news reports turned up 10 fatal attacks in Florida in the past five years.

The cases do share certain factors, but breed isn't one of them. Pit bulls sometimes attack people, but so do other dogs.

In one case, pit bulls with an apparently responsible owner attacked for no known reason. In every other case, regardless of breed, human error or irresponsible ownership was a contributing factor: The dogs were allowed to run loose or were left unsupervised with small children. They had unknown histories, had not been neutered or licensed, or were kept chained in back yards. Owners had ignored warning signs.

And, as in the case last month, some of the dogs described as pit bulls turned out to be something else. The number of pit bulls involved in attacks, fatal or not, is vastly overreported, experts say, because many dogs assumed to be pit bulls simply are not.

Even Elijah, the woman who asked Thurston to pass the law, admits that she has no idea whether a dog that approached her baring its teeth three years ago was really a pit bull. "Well, you know," she said, "a lot of my neighbors told me it was."

To regulate the kind of dogs that have killed people in Florida, lawmakers would have to crack down on not just pit bulls but boxers, presa canarios, American bulldogs, golden retrievers, Labradors, Australian shepherds, Weimaraners, Rottweilers and maybe even those chubby, comical Welsh corgis.

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Kissimmee, July 2006

John Brannaman was bringing in his garbage cans when two dogs described as pit bulls attacked. Brannaman, who was 81, died not from the attack itself but of a heart attack three days later. Police couldn't confirm who owned the dogs or who allowed them to run loose in the neighborhood. The St. Petersburg Times was unable to verify the breed or determine whether the dogs were licensed or neutered.

A neighbor said he'd sold the dogs to two teenagers, but he had no proof of the sale. The Osceola County Sheriff's Office recommended charging him with culpable negligence, but the State Attorney's Office did not prosecute. He has since disappeared, according to animal control.

Four years later, here's Osceola County animal control director Lee Radebaugh, who handled that case: "This is not an animal issue; this is a people issue. I don't think you can legislate moral behavior or responsibility or accountability."

And here's Brannaman's wife of 50 years, Phyllis:

"I would feel much better if there was legislation that prohibited pit bulls. I just don't think they have a place in society."

Miami-Dade County August 2006

Pablo Rudolfo Fleites, 56, had been drinking all day when he climbed into a dog pen with a 5-year-old male boxer. He never climbed out. The dog was euthanized.

Coral Springs, August 2006

Shawna Willey, 30, was bathing her presa canario in the back yard. The 120-pound dog, named Xeno, lunged and tore the jugular vein in her neck.

Willey had paid thousands of dollars to import Xeno and another presa canario named Clara from the Canary Islands a few months before. She'd bought them for protection.

She'd owned other dogs when she lived in Tampa and had been charged multiple times with having dogs at large and having vicious dogs without rabies vaccinations or a county license.

Dianne Greenhalgh, Willey's best friend, said Willey loved all of her dogs. She cooked meat and rice for them. They had their own bedroom with crates and toy boxes.

But the presa canarios had grown so quickly in the few months she had them that they weighed as much as she did. They growled at her fiance. Willey ignored the warnings.

"I told her she needed to send them back," Greenhalgh said. "He's so big and he's still a puppy. What if …? And her exact words to me were: "Booby's just a harmless puppy."

Golden Gate Estates, May 2007

Collier County sheriff's deputies found Carshena Benjamin, 71, dead in a drainage ditch with dog bites all over her body.

Across the street lived three dogs. The owner said two were pit bull and boxer mixes named PiePie and Sierra, and the other was a Welsh corgi named Corky. An elderly woman who lived in the house acknowledged that the dogs got out the day Benjamin died. All three returned covered in blood. She thought they'd perhaps killed a chicken. She said that another member of the household washed the blood off the dogs and dropped them off somewhere, according to the Collier County Sheriff's Office.

The Sheriff's Office closed the case with no charges, saying there wasn't enough evidence to prove the dogs killed Benjamin.

Deltona, June 2007

Mary Bernal was visiting her sister when she walked into the back yard and Taz, an unneutered male "pit bull," took her down.

"He literally scalped her," said Dave DeKruif, the Deltona Animal Control officer who responded to the incident.

Bernal, 63, died of her injuries. She had walked into the fenced back yard to pick up a smaller dog when Taz attacked. There were eight dogs at the house, including Taz and a pregnant female.

"I don't know if he thought she was a threat or was threatening the smaller dog … It was just a shock to everyone," DeKruif said. "The whole thing seemed unprovoked."

In news stories, Taz was called a "pit bull so docile it shared a bed with its owners." But DeKruif said at 115 pounds, he was far too big to be a pit bull and was likely a mixed breed. Pit bulls weigh about 35 to 55 pounds.

"It's almost impossible to differentiate pit bulls from other, similar breeds," he said. "I don't support a breed ban at all. It's the individual owners, not the animals, in almost every case I've seen."

Middleburg, October 2007

Tina Marie Canterbury's pit bulls, Rebel and Thor, killed her in the back yard of her home. The 2-year-old dogs had no history of violence. Both had been neutered and lived indoors. Canterbury, 42, had raised the dogs from puppies. Her son told police they slept in bed with her. No one saw the attack. The dogs were shot by deputies. Canterbury's son declined to comment for this story.

June 2008, Titusville

Lorraine May's son found her dead on the floor of her kitchen with dog bites all over her body.

Police linked two of her dogs to her death, a 6-year-old male Australian shepherd mix named Seth and an 11-year-old female golden retriever-Labrador mix named Samantha. Family members speculated she'd been trying to break up one of their many fights when one or both attacked her. Family and neighbors said the golden retriever-Lab was aggressive.

"That dog went after other animals," said daughter-in-law Catherine May. "It wasn't the first time the dog was called upon as being dangerous. It chewed up my dog. I should have probably reported that one. The dog should have been reported numerous times."

New Port Richey December 2009

A tiny boy. A big dog. A birthday party.

The boy, 20-month-old Dallas Walters, dropped a cookie. The dog, a Rottweiler named Willie, lunged and bit his head.

The dog belonged to Dallas' great-aunt. She told animal control officers she got him from an ad in the newspaper.

She kept him chained out back. She said she didn't want him to hurt anyone.

Denise Hilton, manager of Pasco County Animal Services, said the case was a classic example. Dogs, she said, are social animals that require exercise, companionship and leadership. Dogs that are not neutered, are socially isolated or are kept chained are far more likely to bite, studies show.

"And those were the circumstances in this case," Hilton said.

Cape Coral, December 2009

The dog was a family pet, an 8-year-old Weimaraner named Lloyd. He'd never bitten anyone.

But as Liam Perk, 2, ran up behind him in his bedroom, perhaps startling the dog, Lloyd bit the boy in the neck. Liam's father wrote an account of what happened that day for the Fort Myers News-Press.

Joseph Perk acknowledged that with the holidays and caring for his children, he and his wife had not given their high-energy dogs enough attention or exercise. He didn't blame the dog, and neither did the folks at animal control.

"It was just an unfortunate accident," said Donna Ward, director of Lee County Domestic Animal Services. "We don't think it was aggression because the dog had never showed aggression in the past. It was a freak accident."

Lloyd was euthanized. The family established a foundation to build a playground near a dog park and educate parents and dog owners about responsible dog ownership.

Ocala, February 2010

News stories called the dog a pit bull. But the dog that killed 3-year-old Violet Haaker was actually a purebred American bulldog stud named Uno.

Violet's family bred American bulldogs and sold them for protection, farm work or hog hunting. On their Web site, they posted photos of Violet hugging Uno. On that same site, Violet's mom, Lori, wrote: "They do have intense prey drive and they are bred for it."

On the day in question, Violet was playing in the yard. Her mom had been in the enclosure with Uno and three other dogs but went inside to use the restroom. She accidentally left the gate open. She returned to find Uno tossing Violet in the air.

The odds that a bite victim will be a child are more than 3 to 1. Experts warn that small children should never be left alone with dogs of any breed.

Jill Lancon, Marion County's Animal Services director, could only speculate as to why Uno attacked. "You have a dominant male dog who had breeding females in the same pen with him and he wasn't able to get to any of those," Lancon said. "I'd say he was being protective over his territory and his territory was that pen."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy and Times correspondent David Gardner contributed to this report, which used information from Times wires. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8640.

What is a pit bull?

The term "pit bull" does not always refer to the American Pit Bull Terrier, which is a breed of dog recognized by the United Kennel Club and the American Dog Breeders Association. More commonly, it is used informally to describe a type of dog that encompasses several similar breeds, including the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Those dogs share some physical characteristics, but they're not the same.

There is a lot of confusion, even among dog experts, about what a pit bull is exactly. In general, pit bull-type dogs are medium-sized, around 35 to 55 pounds, with short coats and wedge-shaped heads. They are considered affectionate, loyal and strong. Taken as a group they are by some estimates the most common and popular dog in the history of the United States. American Pit Bull Terriers are slim,
athletic dogs, and according to the breed standard should never be muscle-bound, overly large or aggressive to people. Picture Petey from The Little Rascals.

And yet stories of pit bull maulings abound in the media. In many of those cases, the dogs turn out to be boxers, mastiffs, American bulldogs, or some other strong, big-headed breed. Often, they are mixed breeds of indeterminate lineage.

Studies using DNA analysis have shown that adoption agencies guessed a dog's breed wrong 75 percent of the time. Owners, neighbors, bystanders, police and newspaper reporters likely fare no better.

Fears unleash bill targeting the pit bull 04/09/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 12, 2010 6:50pm]
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