AUSTIN, SAN ANTONIO–The Texas House of Representatives on May 4, 2011 approved by a vote of 123 to 7 a bill which could send the keepers of a dog who kills a child or a senior citizen to prison for life.
Assigned to the Texas Senate criminal justice committee on May 5, the bill appeared to be unlikely to advance before the May 30 close of the Texas legislative session, but appeared to have public as well as political favor, and–if stalled–is likely to be reintroduced in the next session.
Current Texas law provides from two to ten years in prison for the keeper of a dog who injures a human without provocation, or if the dog is unsecured and attacks someone who is not on the keeper’s property.
Both the existing law and the proposed law pertain only if the dog has a history of committing previous unprovoked attacks, or if the keeper has previously been notified by an animal control officer or court notice that the dog is dangerous.
The current law is called Lillian’s Law, after Lillian Stiles, 76, of Thorndale, who was fatally mauled in 2005 by six Rottweiler/pit bull terrier mixes who escaped from a neighbor’s yard.
A passer-by who tried to help Stiles was also injured. Jack Wayne Smith and Crystal Michelle Watson, of Young County, in 2008 became the first persons convicted under Lillian’s Law, after their two pit bulls killed seven-year-old Joshua Tanner Monk. Smith and Watson each drew seven years in prison, plus a fine of $5,000. The 11th Texas Court of Appeals in Eastland in January 2011 upheld the sentences and the constitutionality of Lillian’s Law.
“One free bite” unchanged
The bill to increase dog attack penalties was not endorsed by DogsBite.org founder Colleen Lynn, of Austin. “Neither Lillian’s Law nor the increased penalties eliminate the ‘one bite free’ rule,” Lynn pointed out. “Unpredictable violent attacks by pit bulls and Rottweilers without a history of prior aggression, as is often the case in fatal and disfiguring attacks, are unaffected by these laws.” In addition, Lynn noted, increasing the penalties for off-property attacks do nothing to deter on-property attacks, as in cases where a child victim is in a relative’s home. For example, seven-month-old Izaiah Gregory Cox of San Antonio was killed on March 31, 2009 in his great grandmother Irma Garcia’s home, when Garcia’s two pit bulls broke down a baby gate to attack him.
University of Texas Health Science Center surgery professor Stephen M. Cohn pronounced Cox dead, then assigned John Bini, M.D., now chief of surgery at the Wilford Hall Medical Center, to research the forensics of fatal dog attacks.
“Texas, the state that leads the nation in dog bite fatalities, is a ‘one bite’ state that prohibits breed-specific laws,” Bini, Cohn and four colleagues summarized in the paper that resulted, Mortality, Mauling, and Maiming by Vicious Dogs, published in the April 2011 edition of Annals of Surgery.
Dog law vs. wildlife law
“In Texas, the laws regarding dogs that have been deemed dangerous are quite strict,” Bini, Cohn, et al continued. “These laws are similar to those regarding dangerous wild animals. The difference between the approach to wild animals and the approach to dogs is that wild animals are defined as dangerous on the basis of their species, whereas dogs must cause bodily injury before they can be determined to be dangerous. Texas law specifically prohibits municipalities from enacting legislation specific to dog breeds.
Although municipalities can ban or restrict the ownership of species of wild animals within their jurisdiction,” due to perceived greater risk of the animals harming someone, “they cannot regulate the ownership of specific breeds of dogs.”
Investigating the consequences of dog attacks, Bini, Cohn, et al “reviewed the medical records of patients admitted to our level one trauma center with dog bites during a 15-year period,” they wrote. The center in that time treated 228 patients for dog bite injuries. Breed-specific information was not routinely recorded, but the breed of dog was available in the treatment records for 82 patients, 29 of whom were injured by pit bulls. “Compared with attacks by other breeds of dogs, attacks by pit bulls were associated with higher morbidity rates, higher hospital charges, and a higher risk of death than attacks by other breeds of dogs,” Bini, Cohn, et al found. “Strict regulation of pit bulls,” they concluded, “may substantially reduce the U.S. mortality rates related to dog bites.
Bini, Cohn, et al compared their findings to both contemporary and historical records. Between 1966 and 1980, they found, German shepherds killed 16 humans. Pit bulls killed just six, but relative to the numbers of either breed, pit bulls were 75 times more likely to kill someone. “As pit bulls have become more popular and their numbers have increased, so have the numbers of deaths attributable to their attacks. They now are the single breed responsible for the vast majority of deaths due to dog attacks,” Bini, Cohn, et al affirmed.
Bini, Cohn, et al referenced 44 previous studies, but missed three recent papers that reached similar conclusions.
Head and neck dog bites in children, by Angelo Monroy, M.D., and five others, reviewed comparable forensic evidence. It appeared in Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (2009).
Laurel Holmquist, M.A. and Anne Elixhauser, Ph.D. of the Healthcare Cost & Utilization Project and Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality in November 2010 documented an 86.3% increase in U.S. hospital stays resulting from dog bites during the years 1992-2008.
Joan R. Vilabi, M.D., public health director in Barcelona, Spain, with five colleagues, investigated Decline in hospitalizations due to dog bites in Catalonia, 1997-2008. An effect of government regulation?, for the journal Injury Prevention in 2010.
“In 1999 and 2002, regulations on dog ownership, with specific reference to potentially dangerous dogs, were approved by both the Kingdom of Spain and the government of Catalonia,” Vilabi et al summarized. “They mandated that all dogs have to be identified, and that the dog owner is responsible for the dog’s actions. The definition of potentially dangerous dogs included several breeds, those with certain physical traits [regarding size, weight, thorax size, muscle, head and jaws, etc], and also dogs declared dangerous by a veterinarian because of a history of aggression.”
The breeds restricted in Catalonia include: pit bull terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Rottweiler, bull mastiff, Naples mastiff [Cane Corso], Argentinian mastiff [Dogo Argentino], Bordeaux mastiff, Canary fighting dog [Presa Canario], Brazilian Fila [Fila Brasiero], Doberman, tosa inu, Akita inu, and their mixes.
“The adoption of stricter government regulations on dog ownership in Catalonia was followed by a decrease in hospitalizations due to dog bites,” Vilabi et al found. Hospitalizations due to dogbite fell 22% in Barcelona, and 38% across Catalonia as a whole. “The results suggest that a regulatory approach may help in reducing serious dog bite injuries,” Vilabi et al concluded. ‘The current low demand for breeds considered potentially dangerous has led to their practical disappearance from pet shops.”