Cruelty to Animals and Cruel, Killing Animals

I am in awe of the amount of effort and money that dog lovers expended to catch the guy who tossed that bichon frise into traffic. And I am in awe of the amount of effort and money that isn't expended to get killer dogs off the street.

A $115,000 reward, Web sites, a media blitz and probably more prayers than God could handle went into tracking down Andrew Burnett, who was convicted in San Jose the other day of felony animal cruelty.

Don't get me wrong. He should have been convicted. You can't just go around heaving dogs into traffic because somebody bumps your fender. Tiny, powder-puffy Leo was an innocent bystander in a dispute between two drivers. If, as Burnett said later, he loves dogs, he had a peculiar way of showing it.

But where are the weepy animal guardians when dangerous dogs rip the faces off of small children? A day after Burnett was convicted, a 10-year-old Richmond boy was horribly mauled by three pit bulls. If he lives, the scars of the encounter, both physical and emotional, will never go away.

Because the incident occurred when the dog-tossing story was still hot, the attack on little Shawn Jones was given media play. The Richmond Police Department is even offering $10,000 for recovery of the attackers, which the owner, Benjamin Moore, says he "dumped."

But both the reward and the effort pale in comparison to the emotional frenzy that accompanied the death of fuzzy little Leo. It's this nature of a lopsided society that always gets me down.

Our files since January are filled with incidents of attacks by pit bulls and Rottweilers, on both humans and other animals: In Pacoima, a young boy and his baby-sitter are seriously injured by a pit bull mix. In Sylmar, a man is mauled by two pit bulls. In Paramount, a young boy is ripped up by two pit bulls. In West Hills, an 11-year-old girl watches in horror as a pit bull tears her kitten apart. And on and on over the years.

Children are the usual targets of animals with the power and attitude of tiger sharks, but adults aren't exempt. In San Francisco last January, Diane Whipple was killed by a Canary Island breed of fighting dog in her own apartment building. The owners are charged with involuntary manslaughter.

None of the cases, including even Whipple's death, stirred the passions of the people like the dog-tossing demise of Leo 16 months ago near the San Jose International Airport. Such tears. Such moans.

I'll grant you, Leo was cute, a cuddly, toy-like animal, but so are, or were, the children who found their heads or arms or chests in the jaws of a dog with savage instincts.

The owner of the kitten killed by a pit bull beat the dog with his fists and then with a brick in a futile effort to stop the attack. He finally shot the animal, but it took three bullets to kill it. Only then did the powerful jaws loosen. Nearby was the little girl who owned the kitten. She could just as easily have been the victim.

There are about 400 breeds of dogs in the world, and so-called experts will tell you that aggression is not "breed specific." They point out that it was a Presa Canario that killed Diane Whipple, the kind of animal that hardly anyone has ever heard of.

A report by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that there were 15 to 20 fatal dog attacks each year in the nation between 1979 and 1996. Most of the attackers were pit bulls and Rottweilers kept as pets.

The Presa Canario, or Canary Island dog, is a relatively new menace on the block, a dog bred for its viciousness in what has been characterized as an "arms race" among dog breeders to create the perfect canine killing machine. The 123-pound Presa outweighed Diane Whipple by 11 pounds.

Not every so-called "fighting dog" is a killer. I met a Rottweiler the other day in Whittier whose only display of hostility was to try to lick my hand off. He wagged his tail with such ferocity, I thought his head might loosen.

On the other hand, a pit bull being walked unleashed by its owner in front of a friend's house last week began approaching his young son in an attack mode. Only when my friend and the dog's owner intervened was an assault prevented.

Unless you're a nut or a drug dealer, there's very little reason to own dogs that are potential killers. Their possession reveals a dark side of a culture too often huddled in fear of itself.

A pit bull fancier I knew used to argue in defense of his pet that many dogs bite, not just the fighting breeds. But it's the size, power and inbred aggression of pit bulls and Rottweilers, among others, that make them deadly. When was the last time you heard of a Pekingese killing anyone? Getting nipped by a 5-pound peke is a lot different than being attacked by a dog trying to eat you alive.

Not only is the latter more painful, but hardly anyone would care, surely not our compassion-wailing animal guardians. Unless, of course, you got the upper hand and bit the pit bull to death. Then they'd hunt you down like a dog.

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Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. He can be reached online at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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