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Bill Maxwell column

Tough law needed for tough dogs

Already during September, a reported three people have been "victims" of dog attacks in Pinellas County. Two were Largo girls, ages 9 and 12. The third was a 54-year-old grandmother in St. Petersburg.

I use the term victims to mean those who suffer by no fault of their own. In these cases, the girls and the grandmother did nothing unnatural or out of the ordinary to cause their injuries. They were going about their normal lives when they had potentially lethal encounters.

I am retelling what happened to these victims because their stories need to be told. Too often, such attacks are dismissed as the price society pays for dog ownership, including ownership of documented dangerous breeds.

The 9-year-old was walking her Chihuahua on Bennett Street near Palm Avenue SW, when a pit bull and a Labrador ran through an unfenced yard and attacked the smaller dog. When the girl picked up her pooch to protect it, the pit bull bit her. She was taken to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, suffering from severe puncture wounds and lacerations. She had been doing what millions of other kids naturally do every day: walking her dog.

A few miles away on Lake Palms Drive, the 12-year-old was playing in the street in front of a house. The man who lived there released his Rottweiller in the back yard. The dog bolted through an open gate, ran into the street and bit the child on her wrist, back and lower abdomen. She, too, was treated at All Children's Hospital. This child had been doing what millions of other children naturally do every day: playing on the street.

In St. Petersburg, Arkies V. Thomas, a 54-year-old grandmother, was visiting her niece, Edra K. Morgan, at a house on First Avenue N. A pit bull was tied with a heavy chain to a post in the backyard. Because Thomas was unfamiliar with the pit bull, Morgan accompanied her aunt past the gate to stay clear of the dog.

But the pit bull broke the chain, ran around the side of the house and mauled Thomas. She beat the pit bull in the head with a brick and stopped the attack. A bystander locked the dog in a nearby shed. Thomas was brought to Bayfront Medical Center with a massive face wound that requires reconstructive surgery. This woman had been doing what millions of others do every day: visiting a relative.

Such potentially deadly encounters are unnecessary. Citizens should never have to worry about being attacked by a dangerous dog.

Ideally, dangerous breeds should be banned from all Florida municipalities. I am referring to "fight dogs" that include the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier and the Rottweiller.

Miami-Dade is the only county in Florida with a ban on pit bulls. It was imposed in 1989, after an 8-year-old girl was mauled by a neighbor's pit bull. The rule was grandfathered in before Florida adopted the ban on breed regulations. The Miami-Dade rule is being challenged in court by a group calling itself Miami Coalition Against Breed Specific Legislation and other advocates.

The law also is being skirted by owners who certify, under federal rules, that their pit bulls are "service" animals for people with disabilities. Others hide their dogs by walking them early or late and by using veterinarians who will not snitch.

Over the years, a few Florida lawmakers tried to get a dangerous dog law passed but failed because of pressure from outraged pet owners. Finally, during the last session, a law was passed. But it is not tough enough, given the number of people annually attacked by pit bulls. Short of permitting counties to ban dangerous breeds, the law permits the passage of rules that would require, among other restrictions, dogs to be muzzled in public, owners to buy insurance or take dog ownership classes and owners to be liable for any damage their pets cause.

I am encouraged that Pinellas, where I live, has some of the toughest rules in the state, a few stricter than those in the Florida law. And animal services operations should be commended for trying to educate through home visits, warning letters and other efforts.

Unfortunately, dangerous dogs will be living among people for the foreseeable future. Owners must balance — or be forced to balance — their rights and the rights of innocent people such as the Largo girls and the grandmother who were attacked as they went about their normal lives.

Tough law needed for tough dogs 09/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 18, 2010 8:30pm]
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