Pit bulls are notorious for being strong, aggressive dogs.
Bobbie St. George knows first-hand exactly how dangerous they can be. His 89-year-old grandmother was mauled by a pit bull last May.
"She broke her wrist trying to get a 90-pound dog off of her. Her breast was completely chewed and had to be reconstructed and most of the skin on her shoulder," St. George said, shuffling through photos taken for the family's insurance claim.
St. George's grandmother was hospitalized for weeks. Several surgeries, hours of physical rehabilitation and more than 200 stitches later, she's still recovering.
"It looked like she was run over by a car," St. George added. "It was awful."
Faibish Case: A Fatal Mauling
Attacks like that on St. George's grandmother form a growing list of recent pit bull maulings that have spurred new legislation across the country.
California state Sen. Jackie Speier said she was asked by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to amend state law after the death of 12-year-old Nicholas Faibish, who was mauled by his family's pit bulls last June.
Faibish's mother, Maureen Faibish, is accused of felony child endangerment leading to the death of her son. Closing arguments in the trial against Faibish concluded today, and if convicted, she faces up to 10 years in prison.
While Maureen Faibish's future rests in the hands of the jury, the fate of San Francisco's pit bulls has already been decided.
San Francisco Legislation's Choke Hold on Pit Bulls
California's Senate Bill 861 was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Oct. 7, 2005, paving the way for local governments to enact spay or neuter restrictions specific to a particular dog breed, such as pit bulls.
"This bill will make our streets and homes safer from aggressive dogs produced by irresponsible breeders and provide help to cities and counties with animal shelters overpopulated with dog breeds that people are afraid to adopt," Speier said.
On Jan. 19, 2006, San Francisco's new pit bull ordinance became law, just days after SB 861 took effect state-wide. The city legislation requires all pit bull terriers and pit bull mixes to be neutered or spayed. It also cracks down on pit bull breeding, making it illegal to breed pit bulls or pit bull mixes without first acquiring a permit from the city. Violators could be fined up to $1000 and face up to three years in jail.
"This [law] is completely reasonable. We don't want to be draconian, all we're asking is that you just make sure to spay or neuter your pit bull," said Carl Friedman, director of San Francisco's Animal Care and Control.
According to Friedman, intact or unaltered pit bulls, dogs that have not been either spayed or neutered, pose the greatest danger to public safety.
Higher levels of testosterone cause unaltered dogs to exhibit more aggressive behavior than their spayed or neutered counterparts, Friedman explained. Intact male dogs are also more likely to become possessive and jealous around females in heat, which is believed to be another factor in the Faibish mauling case. Both the prosecution and defense agree that Rex, a male pit bull, was agitated and acting more aggressive because the family's female pit bull, Ella, was in heat.
According to Friedman, nearly 26 percent of the 495 reported dog bites in 2005, were caused by intact male pit bulls.
"Putting an end to backyard breeding means less aggression and less dog bites and ultimately puts a handle on our city's broader problem of shelter over-population and public protection," Friedman said.
That is a goal that animal welfare proponents, like San Francisco's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, agree on. But the organization's president, Daniel Crain, wishes the ordinance hadn't stopped at pit bulls alone.
"The mandatory spaying and neutering of all dogs (with exceptions for reputable, licensed breeders) would have a salutary effect, not only on dog behavior but on the numbers of unwanted, homeless dogs," Crain said.
Friedman disagrees. He says he and other members of the Canine Response Working Group convened by Newsom considers proposing a breed-neutral, rather than breed-specific, spay/neuter law, but decided other dogs weren't the ones causing any problems, only pit bulls.
"I don't have a problem with that poodle if that poodle has puppies," Friedman said. "I can probably find homes for them within three hours of them being released to me. But that's just not the case with unwanted pit bulls."
Overpopulation Leads to Euthanization
Pit bulls and pit bull mixes have long been responsible for overpopulating animal shelters, not just in San Francisco, but all over the country, according to numerous shelter owners. Pit bulls and mixed pit bull breeds often make up the largest percentage of abandoned dogs and the smallest percentage of wanted or adoptable dogs that are placed in new homes.
Last year, of the 875 dogs euthanized in San Francisco's Animal Care and Control center, 47 were pit bulls or pit bull mixes. Euthanization rates are even higher in cities that have banned pit bull ownership altogether.
No Pit Bulls Wanted: 'A Lot Like a Witch Hunt'
Denver and Miami are among the approximately 200 cities that have elected to prohibit pit bulls entirely.
Denver's pit bull law forbids any person from "owning, possessing, keeping, exercising control over, maintaining, harboring, or selling" a pit bull in the City and County of Denver.
Pit bulls are defined as any dog that is an American Pit Bull Terrier, an American Staffordshire Terrier, or a Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Furthermore, any dog displaying a majority of the physical traits of any one or more of these breeds will be considered a pit bull.
Such a broad description is needed because there is no such breed as a "pit bull." Any dog with a large head, strong cheek muscles, powerful jaws, neck and shoulders, of medium height with a short, smooth coat tends to get lumped in the category of pit bull.
Last weekend, Denver's pit bull ordinance made national headlines when 36 pit bulls were confiscated from a home and euthanized. Approximately 1,100 pit bulls have been euthanized by Denver Animal Control in the past year, according to statistics provided by the Animal Farm Foundation, a pit bull rescue organization.
Pit bull advocates and animal welfare-organizations have been in an uproar.
"[All-out] breed bans are totally ineffective and too costly to enforce," argued Ledy VanKavage, an attorney with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, based in New York City.
VanKavage, who has personally rescued three pit bulls and considers them each to be wonderful dogs that wouldn't "harm a soul," describes the current state of pit bull-phobia as "a lot like a witch hunt."
"These bans are inhumane and do nothing to promote public safety," VanKavage added, noting that communities should be protected against all dangerous dogs, regardless of their breed.
Fears that San Francisco might take that next step and ban pit bull ownership as well have been eased for the time being.
In this light, both Animal Care and Control and the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SF/SPCA), see eye-to-eye.
"We are concerned that these bans could affect good dogs that exhibit some of the broad physical characteristics of this breed," Crain said.
"Furthermore, attempts to ban a particular breed are ineffective and can often have unintended consequences, such as an increased demand for the breed or conversely, a rapid shift of focus to another breed, which then becomes the next 'problem' dog," Crain added.
"We don't believe pit bulls are vicious or dangerous by nature. I've seen some wonderful pits that are part of loving families," agreed Friedman, adding that irresponsible backyard breeders are to blame for pit bull over-population and aggressive behavior.
Backyard Breeders: Are the Dogs Really to Blame?
Pit bulls were historically bred as hunters and fighters, trained to display dominance and aggression toward other dogs. In recent years, negligent breeders have capitalized on these traits, training or cross-breeding pit bulls to produce hostile, poorly-treated dogs, explained Lori Weise, founder of Downtown Dog Rescue, a shelter for abused, abandoned or injured dogs.
Pit bulls are also popular with careless owners who see the breed as a symbol of status or strength, she said. According to Weise, while these kinds of people make up a majority of pit bull owners, they're also the least likely to ensure that their dogs are trained, socialized and properly spayed or neutered, creating a living environment most likely to cause dogs to be aggressive.
Pit bull advocates adamantly maintain that attacks are almost always attributable to either these reckless breeders or owners, and are not the result of a dog's inherent nature.
The Alabama Supreme Court agrees, ruling in 2002 that no genetic evidence exists that one individual dog is more dangerous than another, simply because of its breed.
Last December, the American Temperament Test Society put 25,000 dogs through a standardized drill designed to assess a dog's stability, shyness, aggressiveness, and friendliness while in the company of people. The result for pit bulls?
An 83.5 percent passing rate for American Pit Bull Terriers and American Staffordshire Terriers and an 84.7 percent passing rate for the Staffordshire Bull Terrier -- this in comparison to the 81.2 percent average passing rate for all dog breeds.
A Pit Bull's Fate
Jury deliberations are now under way in the case of Maureen Faibish. Eight women and four men must decide whether a reasonable person should have known that leaving a 12-year-old boy alone with two pit bulls would probably lead to his death or serious injury.
The jury may still be out on Faibish, but in the case of People v. Pit Bulls, it appears the law has come down hard in favor of restricting or banning a breed that was once heralded as a protector for its unwavering loyalty and ferociousness.