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'Hysteria Has Taken Over' : Pit Bull Fear Spreads to Owners, Neighbors Alike

July 02, 1987|BOB BAKER and CRAIG QUINTANA | Times Staff Writers

Like a stubborn virus, pit bull panic refuses to fade.

Nearly 300 pit bull terrier owners throughout California--many of them afraid of being arrested, sued or attacked--have turned their dogs in to animal shelters and asked that they be destroyed, according to a Times survey of three dozen public and private shelters in major cities.

In Los Angeles County alone last week, about 70 pit bulls were destroyed at the request of their owners and an equal number of stray pit bulls--some thought to have been intentionally released by owners--were picked up, officials said.

The majority of dogs turned in in Los Angeles County came from South Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley and the east San Fernando Valley.

In Orange County, 24 pit bulls or pit bull crosses have been given up to animal shelters in the last 10 days. But Dr. Nila Kelly, county chief of veterinary services, said that is not an inordinately high number. "Maybe two or three more, but it's nothing unusual," she said.

Widespread fear of the dogs was triggered by a fatal Northern California pit bull attack on June 13 and a nationally televised incident June 22 in which a pit bull bit a Los Angeles animal control officer. Animal control officials are uncertain whether the furor is ebbing. Clearly, it has trickled into everyday life in a myriad of odd and poignant ways:

At the Pasadena Humane Society's shelter, officials received two calls from pit bull owners who did not want to give up their dogs but were so worried about a violent outburst that they inquired whether they could simply remove the dogs' teeth.

"That was a shock," said Steve McNall, the shelter's executive director, who advised the owners that if they were that anxious they should dispose of the dogs.

In Corona, a businessman who began printing "Outlaw Pit Bulls" bumper stickers a week before the well-publicized attacks stands to cash in.

"We're looking at a big order" from a major convenience-store chain, said Lance Bigelow, who has pledged to donate 5% of his profit to a drive to ban pit bulls from private homes--if such a drive ever comes about. "I'm sure a politician will eventually begin some sort of movement like that," he said.

In West Los Angeles, the owner of two pit bulls has been noticing a curious reaction when he walks either of his animals.

"I can't do it without someone running across the street and snatching their child," said Viren Moret. "They'll watch me all the way down the block to make sure I don't let my dog off the leash--and my dogs haven't bitten anyone."

Pressure From Neighbors

In Norco, another pit bull owner--like hundreds throughout the state--complains about neighbors pressuring him to get rid of his pets.

"Every night when I come home they ask me if I've gotten rid of them," said Richard Sanders, who grew up with pit bulls in Tennessee. "I was raised with them and I've never known one of them to go crazy. It's a very, very idiotic public."

That assessment is echoed, in somewhat gentler terms, by a variety of animal experts.

"Less than 1% of the pit bulls have bitten, but 99% of the owners are being victimized because they own a dog that people think might be of a breed that is dangerous," said Richard Avanzino, president of the San Francisco chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Trouble at the Clinic

Avanzino said a brawl nearly broke out recently when a pit bull owner brought her dog into the lobby of a Northern California dog clinic. In another incident, a doctor walking his pit bull was intentionally sprayed with a water hose by a homeowner in the neighborhood, Avanzino said.

"Hysteria has taken over for reason and logic," said Lt. Marshall Vernon of the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation's west San Fernando Valley shelter, who called the public's mood about pit bulls a "witch hunt."

"Nobody's interested in other dogs that bite," said Ken Lipton, a personal injury attorney who estimated that of 200 dog-bite victims he has represented in the last two years, only four were bitten by pit bulls.

One person who welcomes the panic is John Rock, a deputy Los Angeles city attorney responsible for handling petitions from San Fernando Valley animal control officers who want to file criminal complaints against owners of dangerous dogs.

They're Not Children

"It's great that it's generating the public fear that it is," Rock said. "A lot of people treat their animals like kids. . . . People refuse to believe their animals can do anything wrong."

Sadly, a number of shelter officials say, many of the pit bulls that are being turned in are not the most aggressive of the breed.

"I don't think that the panic is affecting the people it should be at all," said Tecla Simonton, assistant director of the Pomona Valley Humane Society. "The kinds of people who own the kinds of dogs we need, most of them are not going to come in."

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