NATURE

The fear of killer dogs

ANNE STEACY June 1 1987
NATURE

The fear of killer dogs

ANNE STEACY June 1 1987

The fear of killer dogs

NATURE

On her way home from school in the early afternoon of March 31, seven-year-old Heather Borle was frightened because three American pit bull terriers were loose in the lane behind her house in Kamloops, B.C. She asked a neighbor, 71-year-old Sue Kitamura, to walk with her past the dogs. They reached the youngster’s house safely, then Kitamura closed the garden gate and turned back. Suddenly, two of the dogs bolted toward her and attacked, tearing into the pensioner’s arms, legs and feet. Kitamura was bitten several times and required two

weeks of hospital treatment after the incident, one of several recent savage attacks by pit bulls in Canada and the United States, leading some communities to call for controls or complete bans on the breed.

Most pit bull owners and some animal experts say that the dogs, which can cost as little as $25 from backyard breeders, are loving companions. But their fighting nature has caused widespread controversy about their acceptability as pets. Indeed, during a weekend three weeks after Kitamura’s ordeal, two Montreal-area men were viciously mauled by pit bulls in two separate incidents. And on one day alone last month in the United States pit bulls

brutally killed two people—a 16-monthold girl in Jones, Okla., and a 67-yearold retired surgeon in Dayton, Ohio.

Breeders estimate that there are as many as 500,000 pit bulls in the United States, but there are no comparable figures available in Canada: the Canadian Kennel Club, a Toronto-based national dog registry, and its U.S. counterpart, the American Kennel Club, refuse to recognize the breed. Declared John Gough, CKC secretary-treasurer: “We are not likely to ever recognize a breed developed solely for fighting.” Still, pit bulls are popular with many Canadian dog owners because of the tough, muscular image that they project.

Descended from mastiffs used to attack bulls for sport in Britain until the government outlawed the practice in 1835, pit bulls have traditionally been bred as vicious, tenacious fighters. Their viselike jaws clamp down on their prey with twice the power of a German shepherd’s. In one incident in St. Catharines, Ont., last year, a pit bull on the attack flattened all four tires of a car with its bites while a family cowered inside. % In appearance, the stocky, muscular pit bull resembles a bull terrier, but it can be distinguished from that gentler breed by its boxshaped face and small triangular ears which are usually cropped to minimize the risk of their being torn off. The bull terrier has an egg-shaped head, a longer snout and larger, erect ears.

Some Canadian municipalities now are seeking stricter dog control laws. In Vancouver, at a meeting on May 12, the city council amended a bylaw to require that vicious dogs, including pit bulls and pit bull crossbreeds, be leashed and muzzled in public. And council members voted to impose stiff fines on the dogs’ owners for failing to keep them securely confined when they are at home. As well, the committee will ask the B.C. government to give municipalities the power to evict and ban pit bulls and dogs with pit bull blood. And in London, Ont., a municipal committee voted on May 11 to consider a ban on pit bulls after two of the dogs attacked and killed a cat.

In some cases, the dogs’ owners are feeling the impact of public sentiment as well. Police in Kamloops charged the owners of the dogs that attacked Kitamura—Rhonda McFarland, 32, and David McEachen, 31 — with criminal negligence causing bodily harm. McFarland and McEachen had the dogs destroyed, but police would have ordered them to do so if they had not. And in a landmark case on May 7 in New Westminster, B.C., county court Judge Harold Boyle sentenced Richard Gregerson, 41, the owner of two vicious pit bulls, to 30 days in jail and 150 hours of community service. During the spring of 1985 Gregerson’s dogs had terrorized five people in separate incidents in nearby Surrey. The ruling marks the first time anyone in Canada has been imprisoned after a conviction of criminal negligence involving dangerous dogs.

Still, even dog lovers are demanding tougher steps. Peter Hamilton, for one, founding director of a 2,000-member Vancouver-based animal rights organization, Lifeforce Foundation, is calling for a total halt to the breeding and selling of pit bulls. Declared Hamilton, who calls the breed an abnormal mutation: “Because they have been bred for over 50 years for the sole purpose of fighting and killing, the breed is a dangerous breed and poses a threat to people and animals.”

On the other hand, many animal experts argue that aggressive behavior is the result of poor training by owners who are interested only in the dogs’ image. The message from many of those familiar with the breed: beware of the owner. Said Lynn Gordon, director of animal welfare at the Montrealbased Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: “They can be a good family dog and protector. The onus is on the owner to train the dog to socialize and be responsible.”

In Toronto, pit bull owner Smity Anderson, 27, has a two-year-old 70lb. pit bull named Samson, father to four unregistered pups. So far Anderson has sold three of them for $135 each. Said Anderson: “Samson is gentle and intelligent and not aggressive at all. It depends on how you raise them.” And with communities across the country imposing stricter controls, pit bull owners are under pressure to raise their animals in a responsible manner.

ANNE STEACY

BEVERLEY KAGAYAMA

Toronto

DIANE LUCKOW

Vancouver