On My Mind: Death by Dog

In journalism school we learned that it's not news when "dog bites man", but it is news when "man bites dog." That was a long time ago, when people owned gentle cocker spaniels, cute poodles, and friendly mutts.

I'm certain today's journalism students are learning that it can be major national news when a dog bites a man, because we now live in an age when certain kinds of dogs are being bred to fight and kill

I say this is in light of the horrible death two weeks ago of Diane Whipple of San Francisco. You'll recall the college instructor — with an armload of groceries — who was attacked in the hallway to her apartment by her neighbors' two Presa Canarios.

What are they? A new breed of dog, a mix of English mastiff and Canary Island cattle dog. After biting and chewing the woman, it was the 120-pound male who locked his jaws on Whipple's neck in a fatal grip.

His name was "Bane," which literally means "death." Officers who were called to the grisly scene are said to have needed trauma counseling.

"Bane" was euthanized after the attack. The female, "Hera," who reportedly only tugged at Whipple's clothing during the attack, is locked in a wire cage at an animal shelter awaiting her fate.

What is as disturbing to most people as the incident itself is the owners' behavior.

Owners Defended the Dogs

On ABC's Prime Time, I listened as Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller defended the dogs. Knoller, who claims she had full control of the massive animals, blamed Whipple, the victim, for somehow provoking the dogs and not getting back into her apartment.

But the local district attorney is considering charges against the owners. He wants to try for second-degree murder.

There is a broader issue than this case, however. Every year, about four to five million people are bitten by the nation's 59 million dogs. And ranking at the top of the list of dog biters are those animals bred for speed, hunting, aggression, and guarding: Rottweilers, pit bulls, Akitas, Dobermans, mastiffs, and German shepherds.

Since the San Francisco case, people all over the nation have become frightened of those breeds and worried about their family's safety.

They want specific breeds deemed dangerous to be outlawed. If you can't keep a tiger in your house, why are you allowed to keep a killer dog? But experts say it's difficult to enforce such ordinances, because if pit bulls are banned, owners will simply acquire Rottweilers or some other potential killer dogs.

Other people feel the dogs should not be allowed in public without leashes and muzzles. And most believe owners should be prosecuted for manslaughter or aggravated assault if their pets attack humans.

Here's the real kicker, however. While responsible citizens are weighing methods of protecting the public from vicious dog attacks, we hear from breeders that the demand for the Presa Canario breed has tripled or quadrupled since one of them killed Whipple.

Richard Kelly, who breeds the animals in New Jersey, says, "People are so impressed. They're fired up. They want to buy dogs." He said they ask questions, like, "Will this dog take care of a pit bull?" It's expected the Presa Canarios will become the next dog of choice among criminals as weapons and for dog fighting.

What happened to "man's best friend?" Among some breeds, I fear, he's becoming one of man's worst enemies.