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If dog bites man, Texas law may bite the owner right back

Legislators propose that an unprovoked mauling involving serious injury elicit a long prison term.

March 31, 2007|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — In January, a 10-year-old San Antonio girl was killed by her neighbor's pit bull. In February, a pair of dogs attacked two Houston girls on their way home from school, dragging one down the street as she screamed for help. Both girls survived. In March, a 50-year-old woman south of Houston died after being mauled by her mixed-breed bulldog.

Dog attacks regularly make headlines in Texas, and legislators are proposing laws with some of the nation's harshest criminal penalties for owners of pets that cause serious injury or death.

Under a bill sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, the owner of a dog that killed someone without provocation could be charged with a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

"For those people who are irresponsible in the maintenance of their dogs, if they don't keep them penned up in the yard and they injure or kill a human, we'll put the dog down and hold the owner responsible. That's as it should be," Wentworth said.

As the law now stands, a dog owner could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor and be sentenced to as much as a year in jail, said state Rep. Dan Gattis, who sponsored a House bill similar to Wentworth's.

The proposed legislation would do away with Texas' "first bite is free" law, which can give owners a pass the first time their dogs attack.

Two years ago, a 76-year-old woman in Gattis' district was mauled to death by six dogs -- mixes of pit bull and Rottweiler -- that had escaped from their pen.

"It wasn't an isolated incident," he said. "What we're seeing happen across the state of Texas and the nation is numerous maulings and deaths due to extremely dangerous dogs in our communities.

"It's about time we did something about it."

Animal welfare groups such as the Texas Federation of Humane Societies support the legislation as long as specific breeds such as pit bulls are not targeted.

"Certainly something has to be done" about holding owners responsible, federation Executive Director Patt Nordyke said.

"If you make it a misdemeanor or slap on the wrist, people are less apt to pay attention, and it will be repeated. People are going to be more likely to keep their dogs properly contained if you make it a felony," she said.

More than 2 million children were bitten or attacked by dogs in 2005, according to the U.S. Postal Service.

Letter carriers are also vulnerable: 3,249 were bitten by dogs in 2005. From 1997 to 2000, Houston led the nation in dog bites of postal workers, and the city again topped the list in 2005, with 108 mail carriers attacked by dogs.

"I don't know why that is; maybe because we have more warmer months when dogs are let outside," said postal service spokesman David Lewin. Mail carriers are trained to ward off dog attacks and have the option of carrying pepper spray, he said.

Los Angeles lawyer Kenneth Phillips, whose practice is limited to victims of dog attacks, said the proposed Texas law was a good start but "not the answer to the dog-bite epidemic."

"If you simply criminalize a certain type of accident," he said, "it will present an illusion of safety without actually solving the problem comprehensively."

Education, safety training and insurance mandates for dog owners are among the measures needed to reduce the number of dangerous dogs, he said.

lianne.hart@latimes.com

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