After a pit bull dog attacked her cocker spaniel in February, Alice Prenovost of Hawthorne launched a petition drive calling for city action. As a result, the Hawthorne City Council is expected to adopt an ordinance to require special permits for pit bulls and other potentially dangerous dogs.
In Lawndale, residents along two blocks of 169th Street sought help from their city officials last month after a pit bull attacked a mail carrier, causing deliveries to be suspended for four days.
Animal control officials and others who work with dogs say they don't know whether pit bull attacks are increasing, but the breed is growing in popularity and some owners treat the dogs as weapons.
"They're becoming increasingly popular in major pockets of the United States," said Ron Berman, an animal behavior consultant and trainer who works with four South Bay animal hospitals. One of those pockets is "in the southern area of the general L.A. district, around the San Pedro and Carson area and then in Hawthorne and Lawndale. . . . In many places they've taken over the popularity that the Doberman used to have."
For some owners, "It's a macho trip--an aggressive extension of how they feel," said Dr. Alice Villalobos, hospital director of the Coast Pet Clinic in Hermosa Beach.
"They're fantastic dogs, very loyal and devoted, and they make wonderful pets," she said. "But dogs attack because they are trained or bred to do that. And pit bulls are well known for being very territorial, so they're just doing their job, protecting their home."
In Prenovost's case, however, it was her cocker spaniel Buffy that was protecting her turf when attacked, Prenovost said.
The cocker was in Prenovost's front yard when a teen-age boy walked by with the pit bull on a leash. Buffy stuck her nose through a hole in a wooden gate and the pit bull grabbed the 25-pound cocker by the nose and "shook her like a pillow in its mouth," Prenovost said.
"The frightening thing is that not even four adult men who came to help could get that pit bull to release my dog. It was so strong, it even broke the gate. And the owner had no control over the dog whatsoever. We finally had to turn a hose on the pit bull to distract it."
Buffy recovered, but Prenovost decided that something should be done to protect others.
"As I circulated the petition, I realized that many people are disturbed by the pit bulls in the area," said Prenovost, who got 200 people to sign. "Lots of the dogs run loose, and people with small children are especially worried that something might happen."
As a result of her petition, the City Council is expected to adopt an ordinance May 13 that will require special permits for dogs--"in particular pit bull dogs, trained or with a proven propensity to attack persons or animals."
Owners of such dogs will be required to apply to the city's business license office for a permit. A city staffer will inspect the dog's quarters before approving the permit. Denial of a permit may be appealed to the council.
Hawthorne has been particularly sensitive to the dangers of pit bulls since a 3-year-old boy was killed by one in the Moneta Gardens area five years ago.
"The child lived in an apartment building next to a courtyard with a real low fence," recalled City Atty. Michael Adamson. "The dog was in the backyard on a rope tied to a stick . . . and the boy apparently chased a ball into the yard" and was attacked. The boy died 10 days later.
Adamson said pit bull attacks have increased in Hawthorne in recent years, but he had no figures on attacks or the number of pit bulls in the city.
"Animal lovers may say that we're picking on the breed, but there is reason for it," he said. "We don't have problems with other dogs--even large animals like Dobermans or German shepherds. And we're not banning pit bulls. We're just saying they're like piranhas--you have to take extra precautions."
Most cities in the South Bay have leash laws, but only Rancho Palos Verdes and Palos Verdes Estates have specific ordinances dealing with dangerous dogs, said Don Anderson, operation manager for the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The SPCA provides animal control services for most South Bay cities.
Rancho Palos Verdes has a law permitting impoundment of a dog that has attacked a person until the owner proves it will not be a threat again. A Palos Verdes Estates ordinance allows the city to revoke the license of a dog with a record of attacks. Without a license a dog may not remain in the city.
Under state law, a dog owner is responsible for damages caused by the pet. Prenovost, however, said she has not been able to collect the $200 she spent on Buffy's injuries from the pit bull's owner, who has moved to another city.
The dog that attacked a postal carrier in Lawndale also has been moved elsewhere. For a while after the attack, a community safety officer accompanied the carrier, who was not seriously hurt. The Postal Service suspended mail delivery for four days until the carrier's safety was assured.