by Merritt Clifton
David Glass, 51, of Lamar, Mississippi, on September 21, 2014 became the 300th person to be fatally mauled by pit bulls in the 32 years that I have logged fatal and disfiguring dog attacks within the U.S. and Canada.
While the Glass family grieves, I am adding up columns of numbers.
Thirty-two years ago, as a young reporter investigating the exotic animal traffic along the U.S./Canadian border for rural Quebec media, I expected these numbers to document the relative risk of keeping exotic pets, including big cats and constricting and venomous snakes, compared to the then very low risk of keeping dogs.
Having access to all of the major U.S. and Canadian newswires, I had begun tracking fatal and disfiguring exotic pet incidents in late 1978, tracking dog attacks as well to provide a standard of comparison. Though the advent of online news sources has made gathering animal attack information easier, other researchers who have backtracked attacks, notably Colleen Lynn of Dogsbite.org, have found very few that eluded my notice.
I made the dog part of the animal attack log breed-specific in September 1982, upon becoming aware that different breeds of dog have distinctly different attack behaviors.
A big German shepherd and a pit bull clarified that for me.
The German shepherd lived in a cage behind a house on the outskirts of Brigham, Quebec, having already been declared incorrigibly dangerous because of past incidents. One day in early summer 1982 he broke out of the cage and charged at a group of children who were just getting off the school bus. I was jogging toward the scene from the north, about 100 yards away. Brigham mayor Gilles Daignault––who loved dogs––was approaching in his car from the south, about the same distance away. Anticipating imminent harm to the children, Daignault accelerated, hit the German shepherd, suffered a heart attack, and died in his driveway two blocks away.
The German shepherd fell in the road unconscious. Unaware of what had happened to Daignault, I picked up the German shepherd and carried him back to his home and caretaker. The German shepherd was just waking up when I left. I was urged by the caretaker to leave as quickly as possible.
Twenty-four hours later I was jogging past the house in the opposite direction when the German shepherd broke loose again and charged me. I guessed that he mistook me for the cause of his injury. He gave me every possible warning sign before lunging, tearing my left wrist open, but on the open road I had no safe direction in which to retreat. I fought him off, wrapped my profusely bleeding wrist with my t-shirt, and was rushed to the nearest hospital, 20 miles away, by the Brigham postmaster.
I knew nothing even of the existence of the pit bull until he silently attacked me from behind two months later at about 5:00 p.m. on a busy street in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Hundreds of other people were walking or jogging along the same street. It was simply luck of the draw that I happened to be the closest to the open doorway through which the pit bull bolted out. I was ambulanced to receive emergency surgery, and flew home the next day to receive follow-up treatment back in Quebec, under the Quebec provincial health plan.
Even as I fought for my life in the street against the completely unprovoked pit bull attack, I recognized the extreme behavioral difference between the German shepherd, who appeared to have a motive for attacking me and gave enough warnings for me to have retreated safely if there had been anywhere to go, and the pit bull, who apparently attacked only because I was the nearest moving object.
This, I realized, would be worthy of further study. The German shepherd had followed all the classic rules of canine confrontation. The pit bull had behaved much more like a stealth predator. How many other variations might there be in dog attack behavior, and to what extent might this reflect what the dogs were bred and trained to do, for example hunting, herding and guarding flocks, patrolling human property, fighting and baiting, or simply serving as family companions?
Dobermans & huskies
When I made my dog attack log breed-specific a few weeks later, I did not expect pit bulls to appear in great numbers. I knew animal control officers who had served for decades without ever encountering any.
But I did expect see a lot of several other breeds.
German shepherds and shepherd mixes then made up 16% of U.S. shelter dog admissions. I expected to log a lot of German shepherds.
Dobermans, then also popular, were the most feared of breeds. Newspapers all over the U.S. in 1955 reported the fatal mauling of Winifred Bacon, 64, by her two Dobermans near Toms River, New Jersey. Five years later a Doberman killed his mistress, Frances Tetreault, 50, of Northvale, New Jersey. The second fatality in five years inflicted by a single breed of dog in one region lastingly established the bad reputation of Dobermans.
Bacon and Tetreault were killed toward the end of a 30-year time frame within which there were only 15 total U.S. dog attack fatalities. Nine of those 15 fatalities were inflicted by pit bulls, but the Doberman attacks occurred near the New York City media hub. The pit bull attacks had occurred chiefly in the rural South, and except for the 1945 fatal mauling of Doretta Zinke, 39, near Miami, had drawn little notice.
I did not yet know about the pit bull attacks, but I expected to log many Dobermans. In actuality, only 20 Dobermans and a few Doberman mixes have inflicted attacks severe enough to qualify for inclusion in my dog attack log.
Back in 1982, and for several years afterward, I expected attacks by huskies and other northern breeds to be the most numerous. My news beats for the past several years had included Native American affairs. I was well aware of the packs of semi-feral sled dogs and their untrained offspring roaming reservations, especially in the Far North. Every now and then some of these dogs attacked a child. They were often––and increasingly controversially––shot by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Pit bull risk emerges
I was surprised when after a year I had logged as many fatal and disfiguring attacks by pit bulls as by all other breeds combined. As pit bulls then were completely uncontroversial and still little known, I attributed this to a fluke of small sample size, and kept collecting data.
My primary news beats in rural Quebec included public health and occupational safety. This led to frequent research assignments from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety. I discussed my dog attack data compilation with the Centre epidemiologists. They affirmed my methods, but shared my bewilderment that pit bulls continued to account for half or more of all the fatal and disfiguring attacks, year after year. They too had never seen a pit bull.
Eight years after beginning my log of fatal and disfiguring dog attacks, I became news editor for the Animals’ Agenda magazine, and began to publish my findings. By then it was clear that what I was discovering was no fluke: pit bulls were indeed more dangerous than all other dog breeds combined, even though they were still only 2% of U.S. shelter dog admissions and 1% of the total dog population.
A year after that, in 1989, Denver, Miami, and several other U.S. cities banned pit bulls. Pit bull advocacy emerged to try to deny the weight of evidence.
Wolf hybrids & Rottweilers
Over the past 25 years several other dog breeds have emerged as exceptionally likely to kill and disfigure humans. Wolf hybrids rose to popularity, then faded out, after state and provincial wildlife agencies successfully asserted jurisdiction over breeding and selling them. Rottweilers and various mixes of pit bull with mastiff have also proved to be as deadly as pit bulls, proportionate to their numbers.
But for 32 consecutive years pit bulls have accounted for half or more of the fatal and disfiguring dog attacks in each and every year. Never has any other breed category accounted for even half as many.
While David Glass became the 300th human fatality in my log, all other dog breeds combined, including Rottweilers, Akitas, Cane Corsos, Dobermans, huskies, and German shepherds, have killed 268 people––an appalling toll in itself, considering how rare fatal dog attacks were for 30 years before 1960.
History refutes fallacious arguments
The scarcity of fatal dog attacks between 1930 and 1960 belies the frequent argument of pit bull apologists that fatal dog attacks occur because negligent caretakers fail to neuter male dogs and allow them to run free. Exhaustive research done by National Family Opinion Survey founders Howard and Clara Trumbull, published by the American Humane Association, established that as of 1960 less than 1% of the dogs in the U.S. and Canada were sterilized; the dog population in 1937 skewed as heavily as 9-1 toward males because of the common practice of drowning unwanted female pups to avoid accidental litters; and throughout those three decades practically all dogs ran free except in the busiest parts of big cities. Indeed, as of 1950, about a third of the dogs in the U.S. were unowned street dogs, as in much of the developing world today.
Historical research has subsequently found that pit bulls have killed half or more of all human dog attack victims in every 10-year time frame since 1844, while never accounting for more than a small proportion of the total dog population. As of 1961, dogfighting investigators for the Humane Society of the U.S. estimated, there were only about 200,000 pit bulls in the entire U.S., of whom about 10% were actually fought in any given year.
The U.S. pit bull population has expanded about twenty-fold since then, to about four million dogs counting close mixes. About one million pit bulls per year are surrendered to animal shelters or are impounded, primarily for dangerous behavior. About 80% of the pit bulls coming to animal shelters each year flunk behavioral screening––and attempts at behavioral remediation––and are killed as too dangerous to adopt.
Human fatalities from pit bull attacks have expanded about twenty-fold as well, to 30-plus per year.
Shelter dog attacks
When I began my breed-specific dog attack log, the U.S. and Canadian humane communities promoted dog adoptions by proudly boasting that no adopted shelter dog had ever killed or seriously injured anyone. This remained true from 1858, when Anne Waln and Elizabeth Morris opened the first U.S. shelter known to have done adoptions, until 1988, when a newly rehomed wolf hybrid killed a child. Another newly rehomed wolf hybrid killed a child in 1989. The ensuing lawsuit forced the shelter that adopted out the wolf hybrid into bankruptcy. The sheltering community learned a bitter lesson. There was not another fatal attack by a shelter dog until 2000. Then there were three through 2009––one by a pit bull, one by a Doberman, one by a bull mastiff.
By then, however, pit bull advocacy had exploded into an industry in the wake of the 2007 Michael Vick dogfighting case. After appeals on behalf of the Vick dogs proved lucrative for the Best Friends Animal Society and the American SPCA, other humane organizations including the Humane Society of the U.S. jumped on the bandwagon, funding campaigns to repeal breed-specific legislation which had held pit bull proliferation and attacks in check in many cities, and to promote pit bull adoptions from shelters.
The results were predictable.
Of the 210 fatal dog attacks occurring since January 1, 2010, 138––66%––have been inflicted by pit bulls.
Thirty-five shelter dogs have killed people. Among those shelter dogs have been 25 pit bulls, seven bull mastiffs, two Rottweilers, an alleged golden retriever who appeared to be part pit bull, and a husky.
The pit bull toll on other animals
Human fatalities are only the smallest part of the toll of death and suffering occurring from the humane community having abdicated responsibility to the public and other animals to allow, indeed encourage, an ever-growing abundance of dogs created specifically to rip living beings apart alive in fighting and baiting events, in pursuit of fugitive slaves, and in helping the Ku Klux Klan to conduct lynchings.
Throughout the year 2013 I applied to estimating the numbers of fatal pit bull attacks on other animals essentially the same statistical approach that epidemiologists use to estimate the incidence of sexually transmitted disease. The method, described in full at http://wp.me/p4pKmM-bS, is designed to conservatively account for under-reporting.
Based on that study, the animal toll from pit bull attacks in 2013 was upward of 41,000, or a little over twice the toll from all dog attacks that USDA Wildlife Services estimated circa 2000. About 6,500 fatal attacks on other animals are likely to have been inflicted by pit bulls from shelters and rescues.
“First, do no harm.”
I have spent almost my entire life committing journalism and doing research on behalf of animals, including dogs. I remember the shelter conditions of 50-60 years ago, spent an entire year counting street dogs and feral cats in nine nations of Europe instead of attending the fifth grade, was present in 1972 when Berkeley became the first city in the world to abolish killing homeless animals by decompression, began actively promoting cat sterilization in 1976, was already logging mass neglect cases and other data of use to the humane community before beginning to take a breed-specific look at dog attacks, and was chosen to be keynote speaker at the first No Kill Conference in Phoenix in 1995 in recognition of years of effort to prevent surplus animal births and demonstrate alternatives to high-volume shelter killing.
My understanding, these many decades, has always been that the first and most basic goal of humane work is to prevent animal and human suffering. The preamble to the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians might appropriately be taken, as well, by humane workers: “First, do no harm.”
My most significant finding from 32 years of logging fatal and disfiguring dog attacks, unfortunately, is not that pit bulls consistently commit most of the attacks.
Rather, it is that much of the humane community has lost sight of the goal of preventing suffering, in pursuit of avoiding euthanizing physically healthy animals, no matter how deranged or inherently dangerous those animals are.
Further, absorbed in futile efforts to rehome every animal, much of the humane community has become distracted from the need to prevent the births of the animals who are most likely to kill others, and in turn to be killed.
I intend to continue logging fatal and disfiguring dog attacks for as long as I am able, hoping that it will not take 32 more years for the humane community to return to humane values and common sense concerning pit bulls and other dangerous dogs.