In just seven days, three pit bull attacks in Spokane left a young girl and several adults bloodied and scarred. Two of the dogs were shot and killed by police, and a third awaits euthanasia.
The cluster of attacks April 3-9 has recharged a decades-old debate about the pit bull: Is it dangerous or more prone to bite? Are such attacks to be blamed on negligent owners? And should the city restrict or even ban pit bulls?
Carrie Connerley saw what one pit bull was capable of doing and just how hard it was to stop. Her husband, Jason, was bitten in the leg during the first of the recent attacks, when he and two other men raced to help an 8-year-old girl being mauled by a pit bull next door. He smacked the dog repeatedly with a shovel. The girl and one of the other men were badly torn up.
Connerley believes pit bulls are vicious. The one that attacked the girl would bark aggressively when anyone walked by and lunge at the fence when she put her Yorkshire terrier outside.
“She just progressively got more aggressive,” Connerley said, adding she’s relieved the dog will be put down soon.
Jim Mathey, a U.S. Postal Service worker in Coeur d’Alene, has seen his share of aggressive dogs in 43 years of delivering the mail. But he’d never seen anything like what one of his co-workers encountered in mid-January.
“It was a full frontal attack,” Mathey said, describing how the pit bull bolted out a front door and took down the letter carrier, biting her repeatedly on the face, torso and arm. She received about 300 stitches and missed three weeks of work. “I didn’t think she’d be back as soon as she did.”
At first he thought there’s no good reason for anyone to own a pit bull, and he penned a letter to the editor saying it’s time to consider banning them or adopting other controls. Now he’s not sure a ban is the answer, but Mathey remains alarmed by the abrupt and brutal attack on his fellow carrier.
Accounts like these contrast sharply with the experiences of many who see nothing inherently dangerous in their pet pit bulls.
“They are such loving animals. I mean, they are amazing to me,” said Stephanie Kuritz, whose family has taken in two adult pit bulls in Spokane Valley.
Torque, the male, sleeps with one of her two youngest children each night. “He snuggles up to them. They use him for a pillow,” Kuritz said. “He’s like a best friend. And that’s the way they are when they’re raised with respect for them, the love that they need and they crave – they become your best friend.”
‘The breed of choice’
Pit bulls – terriers that include several similar breeds or mixes of those breeds – have been branded unpredictable and dangerous, and their reputation is compounded with each attack that makes headlines.
Kuritz says the real issue is too many are being bred and not enough end up in the care of responsible owners.
“You can always find puppies for sale on Craigslist. There are people out there that trade their pit bull puppies for stuff,” Kuritz said. “They can be really bad dogs in the wrong situation. And when there’s so many of them, but there’s not enough responsible owners out there, then you get so many more into the shelters. They’re just kind of thrown away.”
Nancy Hill, director of Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service, agrees with those who believe most dog attacks reflect not on the breed but on how the animal is raised and kept.
“There are very few really bad dogs, but there are unfortunately some bad owners out there,” Hill said.
Dogs that bite usually are victims themselves, she said. “And so here is a dog that lost its life because maybe the owner didn’t property train it, confine it and socialize it.”
The pit bull, with its stocky build and powerful jaws, has been favored by a criminal element, including dog-fighting rings.
“I think a certain segment of the population is attracted to a dog like a pit bull or a Rottweiler or a mastiff because it is kind of a status symbol of power or strength or intimidation,” Hill said. “Some people think having a powerful breed is going to make them a lot cooler than if they had a Chihuahua.”
Pit bulls do top the list in the number of reported dog bites in Spokane County, but Hill notes that it’s also one of the most popular breeds – like Labrador retrievers, which also are high on the list of reported bites.
Animal shelters take in and adopt out a lot of pit bulls and pit bull mixes, desired for their athleticism and loyalty, said Dave Richardson, executive director of the Spokane Humane Society.
“Right now, it’s the breed of choice,” Richardson said.
“We are seeing a lot of people defending the breed. People love their dogs. There are some amazing pit bulls out there,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with how they are socialized from a young age, how they are treated and how they are trained.”
A ‘bully breed’?
The rash of attacks in Spokane has perpetuated a fear of pit bulls among some residents, Hill said.
“All of a sudden they’re worried that a pit bull or a ‘bully breed’ maybe should not be a part of our society because they are too scary,” she said.
Yakima and Othello are among a few Northwest cities that prohibit owning pit bulls. Other cities declare pit bulls dangerous or potentially dangerous, and some have passed mandatory spay-neuter laws, special licensing or liability insurance requirements, confinement rules and similar regulations.
A backlash against breed-specific laws has led 17 states to prohibit such laws, and lawmakers in six more states considered following suit this year. A bill in the Washington House to forbid breed bans did not advance to a vote in the recently concluded session.
One group that has pushed for bans on pit bulls is Dogsbite.org, which advocates for bite victims. Its founder and president, Colleen Lynn, was attacked by a pit bull in 2007 when she lived in Seattle.
Lynn said there is no question in her mind that pit bulls are dangerous. Her organization tracks reports of pit bull attacks and claims the dogs were responsible for 62 percent of fatal dog attacks in the U.S. over the past decade, with many of the victims young children. Pit bulls contributed to 25 of the 32 fatal dog attacks in 2013, the group said.
Environment can and does play a role in any dog attack, Lynn said, but there’s more to it with the pit bull. The dog is inclined to attack without warning, tenaciously refuses to retreat and is capable of inflicting considerable harm, she said.
However, the American Veterinary Medical Association found that controlled studies do not identify the pit bull breed group as disproportionately dangerous.
Most animal-welfare groups oppose laws that target specific breeds.
“I think any breed ban or legislation is really a flawed emotional response,” Richardson said. “It really only will punish the responsible owners of all animals in that breed, regardless of whether they are trained or have a good temperament.”
Preventing dog bites, he said, entails education, training, spaying and neutering, licensing – and a commitment to responsible ownership.
“I think the dog’s overall welfare and the safety of the community does start with the owner in helping keep the dog out of harm’s way, making sure it’s on a leash when it’s out in public, making sure that it’s current in its vaccinations and not just tied up in a yard,” Richardson said.
Kuritz, the owner of two pit bulls, has seen people afraid to step inside her home based on their general fear.
“I make them come into my house and meet my dogs, meet my family member, my fur kid,” she said. “And their whole attitude changes, because they’ve finally seen the other side. They’ve never given the pit bull a chance.”