Is Breed to Blame in Fatal Dog Attack?

After a sixth-grader was fatally mauled by at least one of his family's pit bulls, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said it is time for the city to re-evaluate its laws concerning dog ownership, but animal protection groups say any legislation should be focused on correcting owners' behavior, not trying to prevent future attacks by banning specific types of dogs.

Nicholas Faibish, 12, was killed in the attack Friday in his San Francisco home, and investigators have been working to determine whether just one or both of the family's dogs were responsible.

After the attack, Newsom said the city has to do something.

"We have to be realistic," Newsom said. "You've got dogs that literally can kill. We've seen it demonstrated. If we can't change people's behavior and make them think what's in their best interest, then that's when government comes along and becomes a bit paternalistic."

Newsom said he did not have any specific legislative proposals in mind, and a spokesman for the mayor said he was not talking about a ban on pit bull-type dogs, such as has been enacted in other places across the country, but the dogs were clearly on his mind.

"Having a pit bull … and three kids is not acceptable because we're not going to deal with the consequences of losing a life," Newsom said.

He appointed a task force led by Carl Friedman, the city's director of Animal Care and Control, and members of the mayor's office, the police department, fire department, health department and city attorney's office, and gave the group 10 days to produce a report.

Friedman said the task force will likely consider breed-specific permits and mandatory spaying and neutering of aggressive dogs.

Denver banned pit bulls in 1989, after a minister was bitten 70 times and had both his legs broken in a pit bull attack. Earlier this spring a state court upheld the law even though a state law -- passed after the ban was imposed -- prohibits breed-specific legislation.

The city sued the state in May 2004 after Gov. Bill Owens signed a state law making owners liable for injuries the first time a dog bites. The bill, which also prohibited cities and counties from outlawing specific breeds, followed the fatal mauling of an Elbert County woman by three pit bulls last year.

A judge in Denver's District Court upheld the law in May, ruling the state Attorney General's Office had not provided any new scientific evidence in the field of animal behavior or other new information that would make the ordinance unconstitutional.

The same judge had also ruled in December that "home rule" gives Denver the right to ban specific breeds of dogs, despite the state law.

"The urban environment of Denver is a heck of a lot different than the outback of Australia," Assistant City Attorney Kory Nelson said after the court ruled in the city's favor last month. "These dogs pose such a risk should they attack. We think as a community we shouldn't have them."

A Dangerous Breed?

Other places in the country that have breed-specific legislation -- either outright bans of certain breeds or specific requirements for owners of certain breeds -- include Iowa and Ohio; the cities of Boston; Providence, R.I.; and Muskegon, Mich.; as well as Miami-Dade County, Fla.; Prince Georges County, Md.; and more than a dozen cities in Washington state.

Washington, D.C., also has been considering a ban on pit bulls.

"This is a dangerous breed," city Councilman Jim Graham, who has introduced a ban three times since 1999, told The Washington Post. "On this issue, I get thousands of e-mails from people across the United States who tell me this is not a dangerous breed. There is not a week that goes by without a report of violence regarding pit bulls. What we're waiting for is some young child or someone else to be violently attacked, and then there will be outcry."

In Canada, the province of Ontario has also enacted a ban on pit bulls, due to take effect in August.

"Breed bans boil down to the public and the government needing someone to blame and they don't know how to handle it, so they put the blame on pit bulls," said Jason Mann, the creator of PitBullLovers.com, a Lexington, Ky.-based Web site for pit bull owners.

Pit bulls, which are a popular dog with dog fighters and have developed a reputation for being vicious, were once known as "the nanny dog," because they were used to watch out for children. The dogs are considered extremely intelligent and trainable, but need a great deal of exercise to keep them happy, Mann said.

While the dogs, often those raised to fight or to act as guard dogs by drug dealers or gang members, have been guilty of many attacks, other pit bulls have been cited as heroes, such as the two in Nebraska earlier this year who saved a woman who was under attack by a chow.

Who Is Responsible?

"Legislation should be more focused on the owner and the owner's responsibility for the dog's behavior," Mann said. "In the end, it's the owner's fault."

That is a view that is shared by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the American Kennel Club, as well as several dog owners' groups.

There is little evidence that breed-specific laws make communities safer, either for people or for dogs, and the bans are expensive and difficult to enforce, these groups say.

A study carried out by a task force in Prince Georges County in 2003 found that public safety had not improved, and that "there is no transgression committed by owner or animal that is not covered by another non-breed-specific portion of the animal control code."

"Almost all the cities and counties where all of a sudden lawmakers want to pass these bans, there has been almost no enforcement of the laws they have," said Patti Strand, of the National Animal Interest Alliance, a Portland, Ore.-based association of pet owners, dog and cat clubs, obedience clubs, and rescue groups as well as breeders, trainers, veterinarians, and other animal professionals.

In Denver, city officials estimated that there were 4,500 pit bulls, despite the 16-year-old ban.

Recognition Problems

Another problem with breed-specific bans is the difficulty in identifying some dogs, and the questions that arise regarding mixed breed dogs. When it comes to banning "pit bulls," the problems are further compounded because the term does not refer to a single breed, but to several breeds, and is often used as a catch-all term for dogs that have a certain look.

Denver's law, for example defines a pit bull as any dog that is an American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, or any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one or more of these breeds.

But the bans are attractive because of the data that is available on fatal dog attacks. According to research by Karen Delise, the author of "Fatal Dog Attacks: The Stories Behind the Statistics," 21 percent of the 431 fatal dog attacks between 1965 and 2001 were carried out by "pit bull and pit bull-type dogs."

But there is a more telling statistic in the research available on dog attacks, said Ledy VanKavage, an attorney with the ASPCA.

Some 95 percent of the attacks on humans come from dogs that have not been spayed or neutered, and 70 percent of the attacks were committed by unneutered males, she said.

"Legislators should look at the statistics and enact legislation to protect people from vicious dogs of any breed, whether it be Pomeranian or Rottweiler," VanKavage said.

That means making it easier for people to get their pets spayed or neutered, and creating and enforcing legislation requiring people to be responsible dog owners, no matter what breed they have, she said.

Strand said that is the kind of legislation the NAIA supports, as well.

"Responsible dog ownership and reasonable, enforceable laws, not Draconian prohibitions, are the keys to preventing tragedies like the one that recently occurred in San Francisco," Strand said. "Breed-specific laws fail because they do not take into consideration the reality that any dog, regardless of its physical characteristics, must be raised, trained and socialized properly to become a good pet and canine good citizen."