Pit bulls stir loathing, loyalty
Some argue breed naturally dangerous, others blame owners
June 28, 2008 - 10:49PM
By SARAH GRONECK
For The Telegraph
Janet Williams still gets chills when she thinks about a pit bull attack that almost claimed the life of her dog, Maggie, about a month ago.
It was one of the first warm days in May, and the 80-year-old Williams decided to take Maggie, a Lhasa apso, out for a walk. Upon stepping out the back door of her home in
Rosewood Heights, she was startled to see a pair of pit bulls coming toward her.
"I heard the dogs barking," Williams recalled. "The two pit bulls were coming right at us. I pulled Maggie toward me, but she fell on her back. That's when one of the pit bulls grabbed her."
The other pit bull stood watch, Williams said.
Williams yelled for help and tried to hit the pit bull with her fist but could not get the animal away from her dog.
"I found a brick from near my garden hose, and I dropped it on the pit bull's head," she said. "You do that without thinking, and I really was scared by then."
Eventually, the pit bull freed Maggie, but not before the Lhasa apso suffered severe wounds to her hind legs and to the lower part of her back. With the help of her neighbors, Williams rushed Maggie to a local pet hospital, where the dog underwent emergency surgery.
"If Maggie had been out by herself, she would be dead," Williams said. "Think of what those dogs could have done to children."
In recent months, pit bull attack stories such as Williams' have popped up frequently in local and national news reports. These dogs often get mixed reviews with people. Some see the dogs as misunderstood, while others believe them to be aggressive and vicious.
Doctors and scientists still are pondering the age-old question of nature versus nurture with the aggressiveness of pit bulls: Are they bred to be vicious and born that way, or is their aggressiveness the result of how they are raised?
Kelly Iams, president of the Gateway American Pit Bull Terrier Club in St. Louis, said she does not believe pit bulls are born vicious.
"Pit bulls can be abused or tortured, but I don't think that they can be born human-aggressive," she said.
Iams, who worked at the Belleville Humane Society for four years and for a rescue team for the last three years, said she never has seen a pit bull attack a person out of anger.
"Pit bulls can be dog-aggressive if they aren't allowed to be social, but so can a lot of terrier breeds," she said. "If we could be as forgiving and loving as the dogs we own, there would never be this hype that surrounds (dog breeds, especially) the pit bull."
Dr. Donald van Walleghen, a veterinarian at Jersey-Calhoun Veterinarian Hospital in Jerseyville, has seen many pit bull attacks during his career. He believes that, to a certain degree, the pit bull's fighting characteristics are both instinctive and bred.
"Pit bulls were developed as fighting animals. Like hunting dogs whose characteristics have been selected for, pit bulls were selected over time to improve and enhance fighting characteristics," he said.
Van Walleghen indicated that his clinic sees a substantial increase in dog bites during late springtime and the early fall, the height of mating season.
"Males have a tendency to fight each other during mating season, and this goes for pit bulls, as well," Van Walleghen said. "There is no question that all dog bite attack injuries rise during that period of time."
The violence these dogs exhibit during mating season relates to the increased attacks on children, Van Walleghen said.
"I truly believe that pit bulls have a hard time distinguishing between small children and dogs. Children run around and do things that excite dogs, increasing attacks against children," he said. "Adults are different to dogs because they discipline and work with them. Dogs see adults almost as a different animal than children."
Having seen both kind and unruly pit bulls, Van Walleghen said the solution to the problem of attacks is for owners to keep close track of their dogs.
"Unfortunately, I think that the animal should be confined to a pen and, when it comes out, should be under control or supervision of adults who can handle the animal," he said.
Van Walleghen also cautioned new owners to research their pet selection thoroughly before rushing out to buy a pet.
"I think that a lot of people that get pit bulls really don't realize the responsibility that they are taking on," he said. "People really should consult a veterinarian or different dog breeders before buying a pit bull. Owners should get dogs that will enhance their lives rather than being a burden, and this goes for any breed."
With the seemingly dramatic increase of pit bull attacks in recent years, politicians have tried to come up with solutions. Some have instituted breed-specified legislation to keep pit bull attacks at a minimum in their cities and counties.
Breed-specified legislation is, according to the Animal Legal and Historical Center, "a statute or regulation that is directed toward one or more specific breeds of dogs." Breed-specified legislation may ban or regulate a certain breed.
Although animal discrimination laws are illegal in Illinois, breed-specified legislation has become a commonplace topic at St. Louis area municipal meetings.
A recently approved ban on pit bulls in Florissant, Mo., brings breed-specified legislation close to home. Florissant Councilman Keith Schildroth said the ban became a topic of interest for the council after a pit bull mauled another dog. The injured dog survived, but a number of Florissant residents were outraged.
"The owner's neighbors came to me and asked that I help get rid of the dog," Schildroth said. "So, I went to the mayor and the administration and began writing an ordinance."
His ordinance passed in December 2005. From that day on, only the pit bulls that were grandfathered in with the ordinance were allowed to live in Florissant.
"I have dogs, and I love them," Schildroth said. "But when people come to you and ask for help, you have to respond."
When asked whether pit bulls are born vicious or raised to be that way, Schildroth said he believes pit bulls contain a bit of both.
"I think that nature and nurture are both part of the pit bull's temperament," he said. "Their history of being bred to fight and the way they were brought up can negatively affect their behavior."
Pit bull attacks have decreased as a result of Florissant's action.
Ledy VanKavage, senior director of legal training and legislation for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, sees breed-specified legislation in a different light.
"It is now a witch hunt," said VanKavage. "People single out pit bulls when the problem is really the reckless owners."
For years, VanKavage has fought against breed-specified legislation as an advocate of the ASPCA. She and several Illinois legislators recently succeeded in making animal discrimination laws illegal in Illinois, including passing the 510 ILCS Animal Control Acts last June. The Animal Control Acts create a series of steps by which authorities can identify negative behavior in dogs. Authorities then may punish the dog in accordance with its individual crime. VanKavage said dogs with dangerous behavior will be spayed or neutered, as well as microchipped, before being returned to the owner.
VanKavage said the worst conviction for a dog is if it is named vicious.
"When a dog does something bad against a person, it is considered a felony," she said.
The dog then either will be euthanized or enclosed for the rest of its life.
To correct negative pit bull behavior in the home, VanKavage called for Alton and other River Bend towns to institute tethering restrictions.
"Tethered dogs tend to become more aggressive because they are constantly chained up and have little social contact," she said. "Dogs should not be tethered for more than hour."
Towns such as South Roxana already have implemented rules on tethering. VanKavage said that by outlawing or restricting tethering, dog-fighting complaints should drop tremendously.
Thus far, the laws have been successful in keeping dog attacks down, she said.
VanKavage is the proud owner of three pit bulls.
"I've just learned to train them like you would train any other breed," she said. "They are dogs, not werewolves."
Time will tell whether these new restrictions in Illinois and Missouri will prove successful in reducing the number of violent incidents involving pit bulls.
As for Janet Williams' dog, Maggie, the little Lhasa apso has made a near-full recovery. However, she will have a limp for the rest of her life, Williams said.
"She went through hydrotherapy and has almost recovered," said Lisa Bell, Williams' daughter. "My mom had to take the dog to the vet every day. I just told her that she was my hero. And yet, it scared me half to death, too."
Bell said she hopes that what happened to her mother will make others aware of the consequences of aggressive dogs.
"I just want people to be aware that this could happen to them," she said. "Mom was lucky in so many ways."
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