Rash of Attacks : Pit Bulls--Taking Rap for Owners?

Times Staff Writers

In San Jose, a woman was confronted by a group of tenants in her apartment building who demanded that she get rid of her 7-year-old American pit bull terrier, which had spent its entire life with the woman and her three young children. She complied. An animal shelter destroyed the dog.

In Highland Park, a police detective serving a warrant was charged by a pit bull that had broken its chain. When the officer shot the dog, which neighbors said had a reputation for chasing children, the residents watching cheered.

In Huntington Beach, a pit bull that had not bitten anyone was formally declared a vicious animal and its owner was required to restrain it with a chain in the rear yard and padlock all entrances to his house. Orange County animal control authorities acted after neighbors complained that the dog was forcing them to take refuge in their homes.


Concern Over Attacks

Stories like these have popped up throughout California during the last two weeks as concern over attacks by pit bulls reached unprecedented levels.

There is no hard evidence that the pit bull--an extremely muscular, aggressive dog that was originally bred in England to fight other animals--attacks more frequently than other dogs. There are no reliable national statistics on dog bites by breed. However, because of the power of its jaw, which can exert more than twice the pressure of a German shepherd or Doberman pinscher, and the fact that it hates to let go once it bites, the pit bull is capable of doing far more damage when it strikes.

Since mid-1983, pit bulls have been responsible for 20 of the 28 dog-bite-related deaths in the nation, including all five that have occurred this year, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Fourteen of the 20 pit bull victims were age 6 or younger.

Publicity about these attacks and attempts by some cities to ban the dog or bar its sale have angered established pit bull breeders and owners.

Pit bull lovers note that their breed has long dotted the landscape of Americana--from Pete, the dog in “Our Gang” comedies, to Tige, the pet of cartoon character Buster Brown. They contend that the dogs are safe and loving in the right hands.

“Do you think I would stick my face in their faces like I have to do, and check their teeth and feel them all over if they were vicious dogs?” asked Patti Goodman, a judge with the United Kennel Club. “I’ve been bitten in the ring by other breeds, but never, never a pit bull.”


An outsider mulling the disparity between Goodman’s loyalty and the large number of fatal pit bull attacks might wonder if two different breeds of dogs were being discussed.

In effect, they are.

Animal control experts and breeders believe that many of the pit bull attacks are due to a skyrocketing number of poorly bred and badly trained dogs raised by backyard breeders who are trying to cash in on the pit bull’s growing reputation as a cheap but deadly effective guard dog, particularly in urban areas.

According to varying estimates, pit bulls with unknown or uncertain bloodlines--and thus less predictable behavior--now account for as many as two-thirds of the 700,000 to 1 million pit bulls in the United States.

In Los Angeles County, there are about 50,000 pit bulls or pit bull mixes, according to rough estimates by shelter workers. However, some breeders contend that the local figure is far higher.

“The majority of people who are getting the pit bull are teaching him to become a personal protection dog, and most of these people don’t know exactly what they’re doing,” said Cliff Glinn, a Los Angeles senior animal control officer.

The latest wave of pit bull panic began June 13 in Morgan Hill, 20 miles south of San Jose, where a chained pit bull guarding a marijuana crop fatally mauled a 2 1/2-year-old boy who wandered within the animal’s reach.

The child, who weighed 32 pounds, lost 18 pounds of body fluids and blood before he entered a hospital trauma unit. The dog’s owner was charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Earlier this week, a pit bull raced out of a duplex in northeast Los Angeles and lunged at a city animal control officer who had gone to investigate a complaint that the dog had bitten a young girl and her father the night before.

The attack--filmed by a television crew that was preparing a report on pit bulls and broadcast nationally--left the officer with a crushed bone in one of her hands and puncture wounds to her chest, requiring surgery.

On Thursday, a dog described as part pit bull and part German shepherd attacked a San Francisco woman and her child, leaving the mother in serious condition and the girl in fair condition, officials said.

The Morgan Hill and Los Angeles attacks stirred emotions that shocked animal activists.

By Thursday, at least 40 pit bull owners in the Los Angeles area and two dozen in Northern California had given up their dogs to animal shelters, either because their neighbors demanded it or because the owners feared that their pit bull might attack.

‘It’s Hysteria’

“We had a man bring in a dog that he has owned for six years because someone moved in next door with children and he didn’t want to take any chances,” said Paul Ash of the San Francisco chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

“It’s hysteria. It’s very sad,” said a staff member at the Santa Clara County Humane Society’s shelter, which destroyed 19 of the dogs.

More than 30 cities have passed ordinances aimed at restricting pit bulls.

Santa Monica requires muzzles. Lynn, Mass., bans the sale of the dogs. Douglas County, Kan., requires owners of pit bulls and other so-called “vicious dogs” to maintain insurance of $50,000.

The toughest law on the books was passed by the village of Tijeras, N.M., just outside Albuquerque, which banned all pit bulls and empowered animal control officers to seize the dogs and put them to death without compensating the owners. Dog owners sued to overturn the law but lost at trial. They are appealing.

The debate over these laws has been predictably florid. On one side are proponents of the laws, who refer to the pit bull as a dog of inbred viciousness and “a time bomb waiting to explode.” On the other are pit bull owners and most animal control officials, who condemn the restrictions as “canine racism” and call for tougher laws against all dogs that exhibit vicious tendencies.

“I’m not aware of any other breed of animal that has ever been singled out this way,” said Franklin Loew, dean of the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in Boston. “This is man biting dog.”

In Dekalb County, Ga., this spring, in the stiffest penalty ever imposed on a pet owner found criminally responsible for his animal, 25-year-old Hayward Turnipseed was sentenced to five years in prison for the death of a 4-year-old boy who, according to the prosecutor, was “eaten alive” by Turnipseed’s four pit bulls.

Dekalb Dist. Atty. Bob Wilson characterized Turnipseed as the kind of dog owner who sought out “macho” animals for the sake of appearance.

“You’ve heard people say that they are what they drive? Well that’s the way many pit bull owners are,” Wilson said. “I think Turnipseed was trying to be his dogs.”

To many animal control officials, that is the root of the pit bull problem.

They believe that a new breed of owner--a person who simply wants the “baddest” dog on the block--has sharply increased the demand for pit bulls.

It is much the same syndrome that occurred during and after the Korean War, when Dobermans “were adopted by what I consider the evil element of our community and made aggressive,” said Richard Avanzino, president of the San Francisco chapter of the SPCA.

Critics say the careless pit bull owner reinforces his tough-guy image by either reveling in the undisciplined violence of his dog--a phenomenon currently sweeping Philadelphia, where juvenile owners of pit bulls have made the city the dogfight capital of the East Coast--or simply paying insufficient attention to the need to socialize the dog and keep it fenced or chained.

Turned Against Humans

“They’ve taken an excellent watchdog, a wonderful companion dog and reconditioned it to go against human beings, which it was never intended to do,” said Glinn, the animal control officer.

The director of higher education programs for the Humane Society of the United States, Randall Lockwood, said he is troubled by “the dramatic increase in the number of owners who don’t know what they’re getting.”

Formal dog-owning organizations, like the American Kennel Club, the United Kennel Club and the American Dog Breeders Assn., take pride in elaborately charting the ancestry of each dog. This is important to pit bull owners, who seek dogs from bloodlines with reputations for strength, courage or, in some cases, good records in illegal dogfights.

An owner who does not know the level of aggressiveness of his pit bull’s ancestors will have problems in anticipating and controlling the dog’s behavior, experts say.

To guard against such problems, many animal shelters carefully screen people who want to adopt pit bulls. The San Francisco SPCA shelter has approved only 25 pit bull adoptions since 1981, turning down hundreds of requests and requiring a careful background check--extending to the applicant’s current and former employers and landlords--and a 12-week training course.

“In no case has any of these dogs bitten anybody,” said the SPCA’s Avanzino, who said his group’s experience disproves the genetic “time bomb” theory.

The idea that a pit bull might suddenly attack is the furthest thing from the mind of confident owners like Marji Triplett, a 22-year-old Pasadena secretary.

Triplett sometimes dresses up her two pit bulls, Spikie and Holliebear, in costumes and takes them to retirement homes to entertain residents.

The key to success with the animals, Triplett said, is “to treat them like a regular dog and don’t take advantage of their strength. I mean, I don’t go around the neighborhood saying ‘I’m gonna lock my dog on you,’ which I’ve seen some idiots do when I’ve been out walking the dogs. I’ve even had them come up and and say, ‘You wanna fight your dog?’ So I spent $60 on spiked collars for them in case someone sics their dogs on them sometime. At least their necks will be protected.”

Cheap Prices for Dogs

For about the price of those collars--as little as $50--some breeders will sell a pit bull, minus genealogical papers, far below the usual asking price of about $300 for a carefully bred dog.

The huge supply of pit bulls on the market has made it “the poor man’s guard dog,” said Tom Deangelis, an Arcadia breeder who is careful to note that he does not participate in the low-cost dog market. “It’s cheaper than a gun.”

“What it means,” said a Boyle Heights owner, “is that if I have to go out and leave my 11-year-old stepdaughter home I don’t worry about somebody breaking in. The dogs will stop him.”

Two hundred years ago, when English breeders created the pit bull--the byproduct of the bulldog and the common English rat terrier--they imbued it not only with uncommon strength but an astonishing degree of courage.

This made the pit bull the king of fighting dogs, but it also created a legacy that continues to plague the animal and some of its supporters.

A segment of the pit bull-breeding population contends that there is only one sure way to find the best stud for breeding guard dogs: Make sure he is “tested” for the highest level of “gameness” in supervised fights that end only when one of the two pit bulls is too bloodied or exhausted to continue.

The fact that the fighting of dogs is illegal in all states, and a felony in 36 of them, including California, has created a certain ambivalence.

Writer on Dogs

Take Richard Stratton, a well-known San Diego-area breeder who has written several books on pit bulls.

On one hand, Stratton admits to his readers that “I’m not against dog fighting. I like game dogs.” On the other, he warns them that while they can work to change the laws, they shouldn’t break them. And yet he gives them detailed descriptions of famous dogfights, how to condition a dog by using jogging, treadmills and spring-poles to toughen their grip and how to doctor the dog after the match, since veterinarians might call the authorities.

The relentlessness of pit bulls is a key quality to the owners who fight them. Some boast of dogs that, although unable to walk, would crawl across the “pit”--often a ring set up underground or in a basement--to attack their opponents.

Several well-publicized raids in Los Angeles County in the late 1970s and early 1980s were thought by law enforcement to have limited dog fighting. But officials admit that the practice is impossible to completely stop.

Dog fighters are “more clandestine than drug traffickers,” said Lt. Dan Burt, a sheriff’s vice officer.

Breeder Deangelis, who said he bought one of his 26 pit bulls from Stratton because the dog’s 6-0 record in fights made it a good stud, said that 70% of the inquiries he now receives come from people who want to buy dogs for fighting.

“It’s getting way out of hand, man,” he said. “Compton, Inglewood, Bakersfield, Hesperia . . . there are at least three to four matches every week, 6- to 10-fight cards. Some places they have 100 to 300 people.”

Deangelis said he does not sell to fighters.

In response to this week’s pit bull attack on an animal control officer, the Los Angeles City Council next week will review the city’s “vicious-dog” law.

Tightening of Law

Animal control officials have suggested that the law be changed so that dogs can be impounded as community safety risks even if they are not currently roaming loose. Under existing law, animal control officers cannot pick up dogs unless they are roaming.

Under the proposed change, once a dog was picked up and impounded, a hearing officer would take testimony from the owner and others to determine whether the dog was a threat. The city could also insist that the owner pen or muzzle the dog. It could also insist on obedience training. Fines of up to $250 could be assessed.

Officials believe that such action would prevent the many cases of repetitive biting that take place in the city.

A bill in the state Legislature, drafted in response to complaints by San Diego County officials, would tighten state law by making it a felony if a dog trained to provide protection inflicted substantial injury. Currently, it is a felony only if the animal kills a person.