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Pit Bull Victim Stresses Owner Responsibility

September 03, 2002|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kerrie Morgan knocked on a door in 1986 and it changed her life forever.

Crouching behind that door in Huntington Beach was a 100-pound pit bull named Spike. Within seconds, the dog had sprung at her and mangled her hands. Today--16 years, several operations and countless tears later--Morgan said she has learned to cope with life minus a left middle finger.

What she still has trouble understanding is the carelessness that led to the attack.

"I don't have anything against pits," said Morgan, 44, a senior animal control officer with the Orange County Department of Animal Care Services. "There are other dogs out there that bite. What it boils down to is having responsible pet owners. Had these people been responsible, this never would have happened."

The experience has come back to haunt her with the recent pit bull attacks in Southern California. A 2-year-old La Habra boy suffered massive lacerations in an Aug. 18 attack at a relative's home. Several days later, a Los Angeles letter carrier was seriously injured when a pit bull bit off part of her nose. And on Aug. 23, a 26-year-old Garden Grove woman was bitten 14 times by a pit bull that had charged her from behind.

About 3,000 Orange County residents have been bitten by dogs this year, authorities say; the total for 2001 was about 4,000. Most bites have been relatively benign. Most serious altercations have involved pit bulls--and when a pit bull hurts someone, experts say, the damage can be severe.

"You have to understand," a Los Angeles Animal Services spokeswoman said, "that you are dealing with a really powerful animal."

In Morgan's case, it was the breed's power that had brought her to the dog owner's door in the first place. As an animal control officer, part of her job is to respond to complaints regarding potentially vicious animals. Spike had already bitten two people. So Morgan was dispatched to the house to speak with his owner.

"I wasn't afraid," she said, "because, unfortunately, I thought that responsible people kept dogs from jumping out of doorways."

In this case, she was wrong: The officer had barely gotten two sentences out when the dog leaped at her without warning from behind the open door. "It happened so fast," she said, "that all I saw was a big black-and-white flash. He held on long enough to break my bone and separate the finger from my hand."

In the aftermath of the much-publicized attack, the dog was put to death. And Morgan began the life of a seriously injured victim with post-traumatic stress.

All told, she had three operations to completely remove the finger and eliminate residual pain, lost eight months of work and underwent two years of therapy to deal with the emotional aspects of the trauma. Morgan said that on her first day back on the job she was sent on another call to Huntington Beach. "I wasn't ready for that."

She spent several months in a desk job. Eventually, thanks mostly to her own determination that the incident not derail her career, the now senior animal control officer was able to resume her original duties and, later, get promoted to the level of instructor.

Today, Morgan and her husband live in a three-bedroom Riverside house that is paid for, in part, with half the proceeds from a $300,000 judgment she won in a civil lawsuit against Spike's owner.

The rest, she said, went for lawyers' fees and medical bills.

Surprisingly to some, one of her favorite things about the house is that it has ample space for two cats and an Australian shepherd named Taylor.

"I was a dog lover before, and I still am," Morgan said.

She even likes pit bulls, which she sometimes deals with at work. "There are some really nice pits," Morgan said. "The wrong one just came out the door that day."

Yet she has little tolerance for pit bull owners who don't control their pets. "One of the big lessons of this experience," she said, "is that not everybody thinks the way I do. I wouldn't open the door with a nasty dog at large."

To guard against those who would, Morgan said, she now takes precautions when knocking on the doors of unknown dog owners. "I give myself three feet and put my foot against the screen," she said. "I've leaned on a lot of doors in my life."

Her own door is guarded by a large German shepherd that's curled up on the floor. The dog is a little ragged and stays silent--the product of some taxidermist's art. Yet it does its job, giving would-be intruders pause.

It's most desirable quality, Morgan says: It doesn't bite.

*

Basic Safety Around Dogs

* Don't approach an unfamiliar dog.

* Don't disturb a dog that is sleeping, eating or caring for puppies.

* Don't pet a dog without allowing it to see and sniff you first.

* Avoid eye contact with an unfamiliar dog.

* Remain motionless when approached by an unfamiliar dog.

* Don't scream while running from a dog.

* If knocked over by a dog, roll into a ball and lie still.

* Immediately report stray dogs or dogs displaying unusual behavior.

Source: Los Angeles Animal Services

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