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Cause of Pit Bull's Fatal Attack on 5-Month-Old Girl Is Still Unclear : Animals: Mauling of baby underscores the fact that any breed can harm a small child, experts say. The dog involved may be destroyed.

July 19, 1995|DAVID R. BAKER and LISA M. BOWMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sheriff's deputies and animal-control authorities don't know what drove a family pet to attack and kill 5-month-old Jessica Hull--perhaps a sound the baby made. Perhaps a movement.

Shortly after 11 a.m. Monday, the baby was mauled by her family's pit bull in their Oak Park home. She died that afternoon at Los Robles Regional Medical Center, with multiple bite wounds to her head and leg.

But while the cause of the attack--the first known dog-mauling death in the county's history--remains unclear, several animal-behavior experts said it points to an important fact many people don't understand. Any breed of dog, they said, can threaten small children.

"There is no dog that you could safely leave in a room with a small baby unattended," said Kathy Jenks, director of Ventura County's Department of Animal Regulation.

To a dog, she said, an infant looks like prey. "Anything down low on the ground making squealing sounds, . . . a dog can't see that as a person," she said.

In this case, sheriff's deputies say both of Jessica's parents were home during the attack. Mother Natalie Hull was just 8 or 10 feet away from the seat where Jessica was sitting, said Sgt. Dave Paige, though he wasn't sure if mother and child were in the same room. Hull heard her child crying, went to investigate, and saw her daughter caught in the grip of their pet's teeth, he said.

She and the child's father, Bryan Hull, rushed Jessica directly to Los Robles, arriving at 12:09 p.m, according to hospital records. She died at 5:30 p.m.

More than 60% of dog attack victims each year are children, according to the Humane Society of the United States, and most of the fatal attacks in recent years have involved children.

In 1993, nine of the 12 victims of fatal dog attacks in the United States were children. Last year, at least 11 of the 12 fatal attacks involved children. So far this year, all five fatal-attack victims, including Jessica, have been children.

"The normal scenario is that a child is left unattended or alone with a dog," said Humane Society spokeswoman Janet Hornreich. "The dog is going to do more severe damage to children because they're the same size as or smaller than the dog."

The couple could not be reached for comment Tuesday. "They are shattered," said a family friend who was watching the couple's condominium while they retreated to a parent's home.

The county Animal Regulation Department took the dog from the condominium Monday afternoon and transported it to the county's animal shelter at the Camarillo Airport. The dog, named Lucy, was being held in quarantine Tuesday afternoon. It will probably be destroyed, Jenks said.

Even if a dog doesn't see a child as potential prey, psychologist and animal behavior consultant Deena Case-Pall said, children can unwittingly make their pets feel threatened.

"The things that threaten a dog are close, forceful eye contact, being cornered, being disturbed while they're chewing on something or eating, being disturbed while they're resting," she said, "and children do these things all the time."

Although this is Ventura County's first recorded fatality, dog bites are far from rare. Jenks said her department handled 1,195 dog-bite complaints last year.

And while pit bulls have a reputation for viciousness, they cause fewer bite reports locally than other breeds. Shepherd mixes, Jenks said, top the list of dog-bite complaints, followed by cocker spaniels and different kinds of terriers.

Jessica is the first child this year to fall victim to a pit bull, according to the Humane Society. Last year a pit bull killed one child nationwide. Hornreich defends the breed, saying the incidence of attacks by breed actually depends on how well trained and socialized the dog is, not how naturally aggressive it is.

Lucy, Jenks said, seems a very sweet dog. The dog, however, is not very obedient, she said. "She loves people, but she's very distracted by other animals," Jenks said.

Regardless of a dog's breed or temperament, parents must teach their children to respect dogs and not violate their space, Case-Pall said. But more importantly, parents need to supervise dogs and children when the two are together.

"Dogs are animals," she said, "and I strongly believe that any time there is a small child around any dog . . . there needs to be an adult there to monitor the child's behavior and the dog's behavior."

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