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Beware of Loaded Pit Bulls at Home

Orange County | Dana Parsons

January 30, 2004|Dana Parsons

You wouldn't keep a loaded gun within reach of a child, would you?

Then why in the world would anyone have a pit bull?

That question doesn't get asked a lot, even though -- unlike the gun -- there's no constitutionally protected right to keep and bear an animal that sometimes gets a hankering to rip you up.

I'm just wondering what the attraction is for a dog that will lap at your face on Monday and rearrange it on Tuesday. I'm especially baffled after making a cursory stroll through Internet and newspaper archives that detail periodic pit bull attacks.

I emphasize that the attacks are periodic. No, pit bulls don't attack someone every day.

But if there's a thread that runs through the stories, it's that the attacks are unpredictable and often come from dogs that hadn't attacked anyone before.

So, again I ask: Why would someone want a pit bull, especially as a family pet?

Unfortunately, a Santa Ana couple may be grappling with that question this week, after the family pet attacked their 18-month-old daughter, leaving her in serious condition.

The Santa Ana dateline is the latest in a series in recent years that includes Los Angeles, Riverside County, Baltimore, Tampa, Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans, New York and Colorado. In each of those cases, however, the victim died.

John Bisnar is a partner in a Newport Beach law firm that has handled hundreds of dog-bite cases over the years. Only a few kinds of dogs, including pit bulls, account for more than 90% of them. The other leading offenders are Rottweilers and various Alaskan breeds.

Still, the occasional suggestion that specific breeds be banned probably won't get much traction, Bisnar says. For starters, pit bulls aren't a specific breed. "If you say no pit bulls," Bisnar says, "do you do a DNA test? How do you determine the breed of a dog and in what percentage? Is it 50%, 75%, 90%? So, it becomes an unwieldy task."

Besides, America loves its dogs.

"I'm a dog lover, but I would never have a pit bull or a Rottweiler," Bisnar says. Why not? "The degree of danger, the harm they can cause."

Like even the most ardent defenders of pit bulls, Bisnar agrees that various factors can account for why they act aggressively. Besides the obvious fact of their breeding, an owner's action can also affect a dog's behavior.

Still, I like my loaded-gun analogy. While not original, it's apt, Bisnar says. "I'd say a pit bull in the house is just as dangerous as a loaded gun. Maybe more so, because you don't know when the pit bull is going to go off."

Dogs kill about a dozen people each year in the United States, according to federal statistics. Of an estimated 4.7 million people bitten, 800,000 require hospitalization.

I also buy the argument of Encino attorney Michael Rotsten, who specializes in animal cases. "You could take a Chihuahua," he says, "and teach it to be a violent little beast that may chew up thousands of people's fingers and infect them seriously."

Probably true, but has a Chihuahua ever turned on its owner and killed him? The pit bull archives include numerous cases where the dog killed its owner. And I think I'm on fairly safe ground by saying that owners don't teach dogs to attack them.

That suggests to me that humans haven't quite figured out the pit bull. The Humane Society of the United States says the group doesn't single out a breed or a type of dog for condemnation, pointing instead to how people handle them.

Fair enough.

I'm not hung up on blaming the dog. Nor is it my job to tell people what kind of dog to have.

Nobody would think I'm nuts for warning about loaded guns.

What about loaded pit bulls?

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Dana Parsons can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com.

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