Thursday, April 24, 2014

What makes a dangerous dog?

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 1/10/2014

It was a night Ottawa resident Ben Iwersen will not forget.

“When my 5-year-old daughter was 18 months old, she was attacked by a black lab over on Tremont [Avenue],” Iwersen said. “That dog was vicious, plain and simple. After it was quarantined for 10 days, it was released to the owner. Three months later, the dog attacked again, another little girl in the neighborhood. Fortunately, she got away, but her pet Chihuahua didn’t fare so well.

It was a night Ottawa resident Ben Iwersen will not forget.

“When my 5-year-old daughter was 18 months old, she was attacked by a black lab over on Tremont [Avenue],” Iwersen said. “That dog was vicious, plain and simple. After it was quarantined for 10 days, it was released to the owner. Three months later, the dog attacked again, another little girl in the neighborhood. Fortunately, she got away, but her pet Chihuahua didn’t fare so well.

“Should we ban black labs?” Iwersen asked Ottawa city commissioners. Iwersen was one of 14 residents who asked the city commission to repeal a breed-specific legislation that bans pit bull breeds from the City of Ottawa during a public forum Wednesday night at City Hall, 101 S. Hickory St., Ottawa.

Jason Berve, Ottawa, has been trying for months to get the city commission to lift the breed-specific legislation. The commission chambers were filled with his supporters Wednesday night for the forum scheduled by the commission to hear residents’ opinions about the breed-specific legislation, both those for and against the ordinance. There was no action to be taken by the commission after the forum.

Berve said the current pit bull ordinance — banning pit bull breeds American Staffordshire Terrier, American Pit Bull Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Bull Terrier and as well as mixes of those breeds — does nothing to protect residents from the real issue: negligent owners.

Iwersen, who said he was not in favor of banning black labs, said his point was that breed-specific legislation doesn’t solve the issue of protecting the community from dangerous dogs, but he said putting the focus on the actions of the animal and negligent owners would.

“My daughter has a scar on top of her head from the 14 staples she received that night,” Iwersen said. “She’s always going to have that. She has to live with that forever. How does a pit bull ban protect other kids from that? It doesn’t. A vicious dog law would. I urge the commission not to focus on the breeds, focus on the actions. I feel it would protect our community better and our families better.”

Berve thinks Ottawa city commissioners put the pit bull ban in place nearly 30 years ago in October 1987 as a reaction to a national media craze at the time in the 1980s when he said pit bulls were blamed by the media for nearly every dog attack.

“Ottawa jumped onto a national bandwagon law with no real evidence to support either side at the time,” Berve said. “A pit bull ban was yesterday’s leaders’ quick fix, fear-based response to yesterday’s theatrical media pressure.”

Berve said he spent hours of research to see what events might have triggered the local ban, but came up empty except for a mailman needing hospitalization after a German Shepherd attack.

ORDINANCE ORIGIN

Bob Bezek, city attorney, said Berve’s theory about the ordinance being linked to a national media craze was not accurate. Bezek, who wrote the 1987 ordinance banning pit bulls during his first year of working with the city, told city commissioners several factors were involved in shaping the nearly 30-year-old ordinance.

“At that point in time, we had a number of houses that were manufacturing drugs inside the city,” Bezek said. “And what the police department noticed and what was of particular concern was that the people that were doing that — holding drugs, manufacturing drugs and selling drugs — they were using pit bulls as cheap security.

“And so houses would have two or three of the dogs inside, and the problem was occurring when our officers were basically entering the house, pursuant to a warrant, they were presented with a guy in the corner and a dog coming at them, and that was a problem and it was a reoccurring problem to the point that we had to deal with it,” Bezek said.

Bezek was charged with drawing up some proposals to address the problem, he said, and one of those was to adopt breed-specific legislation banning pit bulls. The city also had dealt with a few bite issues, Bezek said, citing a couple of girls who were attacked by pit bulls in an alley.

“We also had neighborhood complaints, primarily involving those same particular [drug] houses and the dogs that were there,” Bezek said. “To the idea this was somehow ratcheted out of national media, or that this was some fear-driven response, or that there wasn’t something specific that we were dealing with — but going on media accounts of big bad dogs — that wasn’t the case at the time.”

Other animal experts who work with dogs on a daily basis stepped forward to back up Berve’s contention that the ordinance should put more focus on negligent owners, and not on a specific breed.

Anthony Barnett, vice chair of the Lawrence Humane Society, said he has worked with dogs for the past 10 years, including working with law enforcement on cruelty and dog fighting cases in several states. He also said he currently is embedded with the Kansas City, Mo., SWAT team to evaluate the dangers presented by dogs during the serving of high-risk warrants.

“I’ve evaluated dogs for aggression for several years now,” Barnett said. “Basically, over my career, I’ve seen the very best and the very worst dogs have to offer. I’ve seen aggressive [behavior] in all breeds.”

In the past 30 years, since the Ottawa ordinance was adopted, Barnett said, experts in the field have learned a great deal about best practices and public safety. Barnett, who uses pit bulls as therapy dogs that have been well-received at Veterans Administration hospitals and other treatment centers, offered his services to the city as they consider the issue. He urged them to seek out professionals who have experience working with dogs.

Katie Bray, a Lawrence attorney who specializes in animal law, also offered her services to the city. She said since the City of Ottawa already had a vicious dog law on the books, there was no need for the ordinance regarding pit bulls.

Dr. Laura Erwin, an Ottawa veterinarian who works with dogs on a daily basis and quarantines dogs after they have bitten someone at Cottonwood Animal Hospital on behalf of the City of Ottawa, said the focus should be on educating the owners on how to properly house and care for their pets and on the importance of spaying and neutering their animals.

“Of the 28 dogs quarantined at Cottonwood Animal Hospital between 2012 and 2014, the only thing these dogs have in common was 24 were not spayed or neutered,” Erwin said. “The breeds were all across the board, so I don’t think it has anything to do with the breed, but it has to do with educating owners on properly housing their animals and having them spayed or neutered.”

Research shows 86 to 88 percent of dog bites in the United States come from unaltered dogs, Erwin said, urging the commission to adopt stricter fines for owners who don’t spay and neuter their pets.

“I think we have missed the mark on making Ottawa safe by not approaching the humans in this equation, because humans are the ones causing the problem, not being responsible pet owners and not taking initiatives to make sure their dogs don’t bite,” Erwin said. “I think we have moved past the point in life where we say, ‘You look a certain way, so you can’t live here.’ There are more important factors that play a role in why a dog bites, not what breed it is.”

Sue Farrell, Ottawa resident and former Franklin County commissioner, echoed what several speakers said when she talked about how abuse and neglect can create a vicious dog, and that the city needs a comprehensive law that doesn’t specify any particular breed but addresses vicious dogs of any breed and an owner’s responsibility for training their pets.

“Pit bulls are not inherently vicious,” Farrell said. “Back in the 1930s, they called [pit bulls] nanny dogs because people had them for their kids. I would like to see a change in the ordinance that puts the responsibility on people, not the dogs.”

FAMILY PETS

Jessica Roberts, a Rantoul resident, brought up a point shared by a couple of the other speakers when she said her family had moved out of Ottawa because they didn’t want to give up their pit bulls, which she said were important members of their family. Roberts said she would never put her children in jeopardy if she thought the dogs were dangerous. She said her pit bulls are loving dogs.

Ottawan Larry Fisher, the only private resident to speak in favor of keeping the pit bull ban in place, said he understands what people are saying about pit bulls being friendly dogs. But Fisher said his wife and daughter once were forced into the trunk of their car to escape a pair of pit bulls. A responding police officer had to take shelter in his patrol car and ultimately had to pin the dogs against the house with his vehicle to capture them, Fisher said. He also referenced the attack Bezek detailed on the girls in the alley in the 1980s.

“Pit bulls have that one gene that when they go off, you can’t stop them,” Fisher said. “People are talking about educating owners. How are you going to educate owners? Is the City of Ottawa the place to have a pit bull? It’s a big responsibility if the owner doesn’t take care of the dogs. If something happens, it’s too late. Would the City of Ottawa be liable for allowing a change [in the ordinance]?”

Dennis Butler, Ottawa police chief, said he probably spent more time researching this issue than any other issue in the little more than nine years he has been the chief.

Based on that research, which Butler documented in detail for commissioners and the audience, he said there was no evidence to suggest that pit bulls bite people or attack other animals at higher rates than other breeds.

“But there is repeated research and written evidence that when [pit bulls] do attack, the injuries are more severe, maiming occurs at a higher rate and results in more deaths that is consistently higher than that of any other breed,” Butler said. “The gap between the pit bull breed, which holds the No. 1 position in fatal attacks, is nowhere close to the same total for the No. 2 breed on the various lists I’ve reviewed. On those lists, it’s not always the same breed at No. 2, but it’s always pit bull at No. 1.”

WHEN AN ATTACK OCCURS

Butler said one of the behaviors cited most often in pit bulls is the lack of warning before an attack occurs.

“Many of us have experienced instances where a dog signals his aggression by barking, growling, snapping and biting, but this is not the case in many situations with pit bulls,” Butler said. “Research of the pit bull breed indicates they were not bred to show signs of aggression before attacking. Therefore, it makes sense to me that people familiar with pit bulls as family pets claim how friendly and loyal they are around other dogs and people, and I believe them when they say this.

“Most people who own pit bulls as family pets would not intentionally expose loved ones to a dog they believed to be dangerous,” Butler said. “In many accounts after serious or fatal attacks occur, family members are quoted as saying the pit bull was never aggressive before, nor had it bitten anyone previously, and they are at a loss to explain the reason for the attack. Nonetheless an attack has occurred, and someone’s life and sometimes many lives have changed because of it.”

In contrast, Berve cited evidence that breed-specific legislation is ineffective and expensive.

“How can you justify putting people’s family members on death row based on appearance and appearance alone?” Berve asked city commissioners.

He urged the commission to adopt a comprehensive dangerous dog ordinance that will not target dogs based on appearance, but on behavior and owner actions. He cited a Facebook page he started less than three months ago  that already has about 2,500 followers who want the breed-specific legislation repealed in favor of a more comprehensive ordinance that doesn’t target specific breeds. (Not all of the followers on Berve’s Facebook page, however, are local residents.)

The City of Ottawa currently has mechanisms in place to reduce the likelihood of serous injury or death of persons from dog attacks, Butler said, adding that he failed to see how repealing or amending the pit bull ordinance would make the community safer.

Research completed by a consortium of physicians in Texas showed from January 1994 through April 2009 pit bulls accounted for 113 of 158 fatal attacks on humans during that 16-year period, Butler said.

Citing research, Butler said the attack pattern of pit bulls is different from that of other dogs.

“Pit bulls seem to attack adults almost as frequently as they attack children,” Butler said. “Pit bulls are well known for the tenacity with which they continue an attack.”

Butler cited figures that indicated the Ottawa Police Department vigorously enforces the vicious dog ordinance on the city books.

“It is my humble and professional opinion that repealing or amending this ordinance will not make our community safer, and I urge you to leave it unchanged,” Butler said.

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