‘Half Dead’ and Other Dogs From Hell


Phyllis Daugherty was telling me the story of Half Dead, a pit bull in South-Central Los Angeles. She came across Half Dead several years ago and believes his sad tale explains something about the rise in savage dog maulings across the city.

“Half Dead was owned by a guy involved in dog-fighting,” she said. “Many dogfights are held in backyards in South-Central and this owner entered Half Dead constantly.

“The thing was, Half Dead was not a good fighter. He lost, almost always. The owner put him in fights because he could get $50 just to throw him into the ring and let the other dog chew him up. The fight organizers could rev up the crowd by holding a preliminary match where Half Dead served as the patsy. After the fight, the owner would pick him up by the skin and throw him in the trunk of his car.


“And that’s the way Half Dead lived his life. Finally, after one gruesome fight, a young black man offered to pay the owner to take him to the vet. I guess the owner figured that Half Dead was pretty much at the end of his string anyway so he said OK. The young man paid him $50, took the dog to the vet and had him altered. And Half Dead lived whatever life he had left with that man.”

Daugherty came across Half Dead’s saga as result of her own animal rescue efforts in South-Central. She believes the story is important because it reveals the economic imperatives behind the breeding and selling of pit bulls. Which is to say, even a bad fighting dog can earn money for its owner. Thus, backyard breeders have strong incentives to produce fighters.

Such operations now produce the vast majority of pit bull puppies in Los Angeles. The American Kennel Club, which controls the purebred dog business in the United States, refuses to even recognize pit bulls as an official breed. So, by default, pit bull production has fallen largely to backyard operations where the goal is to breed the meanest, most aggressive dogs possible.

When the litter arrives in such an operation, a couple of the biggest dogs will be selected as fighters. The others get released onto the street or sold to families seeking a pet.

“But the dogs sold as pets have the same genetics as the dogs selected for fighting,” she says. “And if a dog has been bred for attack qualities, I don’t care how much you train it. Or how much you socialize it. Or if you raise it on your pillow. Eventually that dog will attack someone.

“This is something we’ve got to admit. It is not just a question of the owner being responsible. We have to address the fact that these dogs are being bred to attack.”


Of course, our city leaders have refused to confront this reality. Last week, when 14-month-old Fily Araujo was mauled to death by the family’s pit bull, Department of Animal Services head Don Knapp held a news conference and said: “Behind every animal is a human--let us take responsibility.”

Knapp emphasized spaying and neutering pets, obedience courses, and watchfulness. He released a set of recommendations for dog owners describing how to play with and socialize a new puppy.

All of which is good advice, no doubt. But such recommendations simply do not address the problem at hand, which is dogs that have been engineered to attack. Just one week before young Araujo was killed, for example, Garry Guerrero was changing a tire on his car in Granada Hills. Out of nowhere two pit bulls rushed Guerrero and began lacerating his legs.

The same day, Veronica Arce also was attacked in Granada Hills as she walked down a sidewalk. She was bitten on both arms and her left leg.

The stories go on and on. Last year Erick Navarro, 6 years old, walked home from elementary school in Pacoima with his baby-sitter. A pit bull escaped from a fenced yard and attacked them. The dog first set upon Erick, slashing his head and neck and fracturing his skull. When the dog backed off, the baby-sitter frantically picked up Erick and set him on the top of a car.

The dog attacked the baby-sitter, biting her repeatedly in the legs. Both Erick and the baby-sitter ended up in the hospital.


Lest you think these attacks only happen in the poorest neighborhoods, others have taken place in Woodland Hills, Ventura and Thousand Oaks. In one attack in Thousand Oaks, 62-year-old Dian Seifert was walking her dog--a Doberman, no less--on a trail near Glastonbury Road when two pit bulls sprang on them. The Doberman was mauled and killed. Seifert’s hands and arms were mangled.

This kind of attack cannot be explained under the normal rules of dog behavior, says Erick Sakach, West Coast director of the Humane Society of the United States. “This dog is different from other breeds,” he says. “It is unpredictable and operates according to its own rules.”

Actually, Sakach says, the most recent generations of pit bulls are probably more violent than in the past because the new breeders do not take the care of their predecessors.

“In the old days, back in the 1970s, we used to see a few breeders producing dogs for fighting. It was surreptitious, a very contained activity. Few dogs were sold to the general public. And these breeders specifically eliminated dogs that attacked humans because that behavior cannot be tolerated in a pit fighting situation.

“Now we see the amateurs and opportunists breeding dogs for general aggressive qualities on a huge scale. It is a big business and many thousands of these dogs are being sold. The specific qualities of such dogs, like whether or not they attack humans, does not matter. Generalized aggression is what matters.”

Thus have we populated our cities with dogs from hell. To some degree, a similar problem is occurring with Rottweilers and other aggressive breeds. But the pit bull problem, in its sheer numbers and savagery, dwarfs all others.


As the number of pit bulls grows larger with each year, solutions become more elusive. In Europe, Daugherty says, various controls were enacted when pit bulls first began attacking humans there. Several countries, such as Germany, she says, require muzzles for aggressive breeds whenever they are taken out in public. France and Italy have banned the sale of pit bulls because of attacks on children.

Here, the population of pits has grown too large for a ban. They are everywhere. Last week animal services officials said about half of all dogs held in city pounds are pit bulls or pit bull mixes. The department also estimated that 44,000 stray dogs wander the city, along with a like number of other dogs temporarily released from their yards. A high percentage of these dogs are pit bulls.

“We can’t turn the clock back. The breed is here,” Sakach says. He recommends a public recognition of the problem, special requirements for pit bull owners and aggressive prosecution of the dog fighting that has inspired the proliferation of the breed.

Daugherty would also impose high fees for ownership of any aggressive breed and require inspections of their homes and confinement areas.

“Many of these dogs are treated horribly,” she says. “An inspection program would do wonders for their welfare as well as protect humans from attack.”

Which sounds fine, but who is going to conduct these inspections? In the last decade the city’s Department of Animal Services has been gutted pitifully. It now employs exactly one veterinarian to handle the thousands of sick and injured animals coming through its doors. The number of control officers has shrunk so low that many existing regulations are routinely ignored.


Such desperate conditions do not exist in other cities. In San Diego, an active task force handles dangerous dog complaints and, according to Humane Society officials in Washington, has been turning the tide.

In New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared recently that leash laws would be enforced in city parks to prevent attacks on children and others. He has also proposed requiring owners of aggressive breeds to carry liability insurance.

But in Los Angeles, we snooze away the day. After the mutilation death of Fily Araujo, Mayor Riordan said nothing, proposed nothing. When reporters asked whether the mayor would support boosting the budget for the Department of Animal Services, his office replied that he just might.

Bravo. Meanwhile, more pit bull puppies pour into the marketplace every day from the backyard breeders. More puppies that will grow into unpredictable maulers of children.

On Friday, wondering about the possible lingering effects of a pit bull attack, I called Erick Navarro’s mother. Erick is the boy whose face was slashed and skull fractured by a pit bull attack last year.

How is he doing? I asked.

Good, his mother said. And then she paused.

Of course he still has the scars on his face and neck. And he still has the nightmares. Dogs chasing him, slashing his body. He is seeing a therapist about the nightmares.


And then Monday night happened, she said. She was watching TV news with Erick when Fily Araujo’s mauling was announced. Erick stared at the screen for a moment and then started shaking, trying to hide his eyes.

So, his mother said, she got up and turned off the TV.

Here in Los Angeles, it was all she could do.