Commentary -- We need to do more to control pit bulls and other potentially dangerous dog breeds, but a well-intentioned movement against so-called "breed discrimination" is putting the public at risk. As a result, too many owners of dangerous dogs get away with what amounts to pit bull murder.
The issue re-entered the spotlight Thursday when the owner of four pit bulls was charged with murder and negligence after the dog pack killed a 63-year-old jogger. DNA tests confirmed that the blood on 29-year-old Alex Johnson's dogs belonged to the woman they killed in the May 9 attack.
Pamela Devitt, who took an exercise walk or jog in her rural Los Angeles County neighborhood each day, died a horrifying death when all four dogs brought her to the ground and savaged her. A KCAL-9 report said that Devitt had already been scalped and lost both arms before she died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
On Friday, a handcuffed Jackson was brought in front of a judge in Littlerock, CA where he heard the charges read against him. His bail is set at $1,050,000.
But most owners of killer pit bulls or other deadly dogs aren't held accountable. According to an Associated Press report, there are around 30 to 35 fatal dog attacks in the United States every year. Yet Donald Cleary, a spokesman for National Canine Research Council, told the AP that he only knew of three other cases where dog owners were prosecuted for allowing their dogs to kill.
Not three cases a year of prosecutions. Three cases in this century.
And one of those cases was the horrific 2001 attack on 33-year-old Diane Whipple in San Francisco. Whipple was an athletic lacrosse coach, but she was no match for the powerful Presa Canario dogs who terrorized and ultimately killed her. Prosecutor James Hammer successfully argued that the owners knew that the two dogs were dangerous because they had attacked people on 30 previous occasions.
Marjorie Knoller, convicted of second-degree murder, was sentenced to 15 years to life. Her husband Robert Noel was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and has already served a shorter sentence.
However, considering the large number of dog attacks that have left people dead or maimed, then it doesn't seem as if law enforcement has been particularly aggressive. It looks like prosecutors tend to go after unpopular dog owners with slam-dunk cases. For instance, Knoller and Noel had links to the Aryan Brotherhood. Alex Johnson is also facing charges for growing marijuana, which suggests that it's possible he had the dangerous dogs as part of an illegal business operation.
Shouldn't more dangerous dog owners be prosecuted when their dogs harm or kill others?
Ben Devitt, 65, is still in shock from losing his wife of 43 years to Alex Johnson's roaming dog pack. He told The Los Angeles Times that he will leave it to the prosecutors to decide what charges are appropriate:
"[T]he fact that there's animals out there roaming around with that kind of killer instinct, it's just kind of something I can't shake...[The murder charge] doesn't change anything."
What could have changed something was if Animal Control had acted earlier on the complaints they'd received about Johnson's roaming dogs.
A day after the deadly attack on Devitt, a Los Angeles County Supervisor spokesman, Tony Bell, asked people to pressure the "state legislature to allow local government to pass their own ordinances, breed specific if you will. We're not talking about bans necessarily. We're talking enhanced enforcement on pit bulls..."
In other words, the county passed the buck.
However, it has now emerged that at least some of Johnson's dogs didn't have the proper licenses. So why wasn't he investigated and those animals seized after the earlier complaints? According to local radio station KPPC, authorities had received three reports of attacks by Johnson's pit bulls just since January. Devitt's pit bull murder didn't have to happen.
So the answer to the problem isn't to ask the public to demand more laws. It's for Animal Control officers to step up and enforce the laws we already have.
In any event, the public can't wait for breed specific ordinances because those ordinances may never come. In fact, pit bull owners are already mobilized against breed specific laws.
Nevada recently became the 14th state to ban so-called breed legislation -- that is, special ordinances that demand special licensing requirements for owners of pit bulls and other potentially dangerous breeds.
Their argument is that any dog can bite, even a chihuahua, so why single out pit bulls?
Oh, I don't know, Nevada, but maybe it's because no chihuahua has ever removed a human scalp and arms?
And in case you think that's a rare one-time event, in March a woman in Westwego, Louisiana lost her arms, an ear, and an eye in a gruesome pit bull attack. She and her husband thought their dogs were loving pets, and they apparently didn't fully understand how pit bull or dog psychology can change in a pack when one of the dogs has puppies. They now support stronger pit bull legislation which could include special licensing and education of potential owners.
Yet there is still enough widespread opposition to the proposed ordinance that action by the Westwego City Council has been delayed until at least July. The new ordinance may never come at all, and there is nothing to stop other uneducated, untrained owners from buying and owning multiple pit bulls in Westwego or many other American towns.
Over and over again, people say, "It isn't the breed, it's the owner."
Fine. But once a dog has been found wandering free, can we at least agree that the owner is proven to be irresponsible? In that circumstance, how is it unreasonable to ask that owners should not be allowed to reclaim large or powerful breeds without paying a substantial fine and undergoing dog training?
I support the prosecutors in charging owners of killer dogs with murder. However, I would rather avoid having people killed and maimed by dogs in the first place.
I don't think it's unreasonable to demand special licenses and training from would-be owners of powerful dogs including pit bulls. But if we're not allowed to practice so-called breed discrimination, then the alternative can't be to look the other way and hope somebody else is the next victim. The alternative must be stronger licenses and education for all dog owners.
I also believe that Animal Control officers need to return to the practice of euthanizing dogs that have bitten a human. Devitt and Whipple would both be alive today if that old-fashioned rule was still followed.
There are many sincere people with a different opinion, so feel free to fire away in the comments. If you oppose breed discrimination, why? To a lot of us, it looks like irresponsible pit bull and dangerous dog owners almost always get away with murder.
[pit bull photo by Ildar Sagdejev (Specious) via Wikimedia Commons]