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Pit bulls feared, defended

Fri., March 30, 2007

It’s been a bad month for pit bulls.

Coeur d’Alene is thinking about banning them. Horse lovers everywhere are cursing them five weeks after two of the dogs took down an aging racehorse in Spokane Valley. And now this: Two pit bulls four blocks from home were shot to death by Spokane Valley police after killing a cat and charging officers.

“They were bad dogs and they died,” said Sgt. Dave Reagan, Spokane Valley police spokesman, of the pit bulls shot last Sunday morning.

The dogs’ owner, Kelli O’Bannon, said she doesn’t know what went wrong. Penned in O’Bannon’s backyard on High Way Court in the Ponderosa neighborhood, the dogs slipped through some loose boards in her front gate and went on a walkabout.

A quarter mile later, they killed a neighbor’s cat in the 11000 block of 46th Avenue and reportedly charged a man walking his dog. Witnesses called 911. Soon police were chasing the dogs through the quiet, pine-shaded neighborhood of manicured lawns. .

One of the dogs headed for home, with police and an officer from Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service, or SCRAPS, in tow. In the backyard of O’Bannon’s home, while officers tried to corner the animal and slip a pole loop snare around its neck, the pit bull raised its hackles and charged, according to police reports. Both officers fired, one with a pump-action, 12-gauge shotgun, the other with a .45-caliber pistol.

A few blocks down the street, another police officer had cornered the other pit bull in a backyard, where the dog lunged and was shot.

“I never in a million years thought this could happen,” O’Bannon said. “These two dogs were part of our family. They were raised from pups, sleeping inside with us at night. I have six kids. I never had a problem with (these dogs).”

Loyal pit bull owners argue that their dogs are no more dangerous than other breeds. As do animal control experts, who say bad owners are to blame. But there is plenty of anecdotal evidence against the animals as well, some suggesting the dogs are conflict-prone, some indicating pit bulls make up a large percentage of the dogs abandoned at local animal shelters.

Consider this: According to law enforcement in Spokane and Kootenai counties, at least nine times in the last 12 months, dogs were killed almost immediately after vicious attacks on people or other animals. A pit bull was involved in all but one instance.

Those statistics include two pit bulls killed in Spokane Valley after bringing down a horse Feb. 25 on North Conklin Road. The dogs were roaming the neighborhood, three blocks from home, when the attack occurred. Their owner surrendered the dogs to SCRAPS after the attack.

The stats also include two north Spokane pit bulls that partially ripped off a boy’s face Aug. 11 in the 5500 block of East Commerce Avenue. Residents beat one of the dogs to death, and police shot the other.

In Coeur d’Alene, resident Cari Elmore is asking the City Council to ban pit bulls from the city, following the death of her cat, Thomas. Elmore said pit bulls are vicious animals bred for fighting and will eventually kill a Coeur d’Alene child if the breed isn’t banned. City staff is researching laws in other cities such as Denver, where pit bulls have been banned, though officials haven’t taken a stand.

But more important than the dogs’ common breed, say animal control officials, are the shared conditions surrounding the dogs that run amok. The pit bulls that attacked the 12-year-old boy in north Spokane were on their own turf. The remaining dogs were roaming the streets alone.

The odds of a dog attacking someone jump exponentially if the animal is on strange turf, being confronted by unfamiliar people, or being chased. All three factors were in play in Spokane Valley’s Ponderosa neighborhood where police killed O’Bannon’s pit bulls.

“It’s not a dog problem, it’s an owner problem,” said Nancy Hill, SCRAPS director. “In my time here, I’ve met very few dogs that were genetically bad dogs. Dogs are what the owner makes them. You have to put them in an environment where they can be successful.”

Local animal shelters are full of dogs that didn’t have the successful environment of which Hill speaks. Roughly a quarter of the dogs at any given time are pit bulls. The pound with the most pit bulls is the Spokane Humane Society shelter in north Spokane, where the Internet roster of adoptable dogs Thursday listed 19 pit bulls. Shelter manager T.J. Brown said the number was probably closer to 22. The only breed in greater supply than pit bulls, and only by a couple of dogs, was Labradors, the most popular dog in America according to the American Kennel Club.

Most of the pit bulls at the shelter are less than 2 years old. Many have been dropped off by backyard breeders who failed to find buyers for the dogs after bringing them into the world. Brown sees a real problem with backyard breeders.

Another problem is dog owners who impulsively buy pit bulls only to find out their landlords don’t allow the dogs, or their home insurance company won’t cover pit bulls.

The Humane Society won’t allow a pit bull to be adopted out unless would-be dog owners prove their homeowner’s insurance allows them, or their landlord consents. Roughly 20 percent of the people who show interest in adopting a pit bull abandon the effort after their home insurer refuses coverage, Brown said.

Washington law allows home insurers to refuse coverage to potential customers who have a “potentially dangerous” dog. Companies like Farmers Insurance Group in Spokane don’t want the risk.

“Pit bulls are on our list of potentially dangerous dogs, which means if you want to get insurance from us and you have a pit bull, you have a problem,” said Dave Koehler, who works in claims for Farmers.

Other dogs that pose insurance problems for their owners include German shepherds and Rottweilers. That rankles animal rights advocates who contend refusing insurance based on a breed is wrongful profiling. They’ve taken their argument to the Washington Legislature four times and lost each time.

“It’s just a lazy way out for the insurance companies. They want an easy way out. They don’t want to make it work,” said Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Roy, who has tried to eliminate dog breeds as a factor when it comes to insurance.

“Punish the deed and not the breed” is the catchphrase for Campbell and others who insist all breeds have their merits.

Dogs have to be loved, said Craig Mosher, a pit bull owner who has devoted his life to helping his dog Loois survive as a paraplegic after the dog’s spinal cord was damaged during surgery. The 102-pound pit bull is able to walk only because Mosher keeps the dog’s rear legs from dragging by holding them off the ground with a special harness.

Mosher and his now ex-wife rescued the dog in 2000, after it was profiled as an abandoned pup on TV in Monterey, Calif. Loois had been used as a “bait” dog, meaning he was dangled in front of two fighting pit bulls to get them worked up for battle, Mosher said. The dog was extremely chewed up.

Love and awareness for what kind of adult dog Loois might turn into with a lot of rough play kept the pit bull from becoming a mean dog, Mosher said.

“If you’re going to have a dog, then don’t keep it in the backyard tied to a tree all day and give him a bowl of water. I’d bite you, too,” Craig Mosher said. “You got to make him part of your family,”

A video of Mosher walking Loois is featured on

Even while dealing with a high volume of pit bulls daily, Brown contends that as a breed, the dogs are worthwhile. So does Hill, who Thursday had been handed another report of two loose, West Valley pit bulls that chased a woman inside her house then stayed on her porch for 15 minutes.

Brown refers pit bull doubters to a Web site that tries to undo bad pit bull publicity,

“You know, they make wonderful pets if you can get past their history,” Brown said


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