by Merritt Clifton
ALBANY, CHICAGO, DENVER, INDIANAPOLIS, NEW YORK CITY, WASHINGTON D.C.–Dog Bite Prevention Week 2009 opened with opponents of breed-specific legislation claiming victories in Indianapolis and Highland Park, a Chicago suburb, but closed with a 13-page verdict against pit bull advocates in Loudoun County, Virginia.
The Indianapolis city/county council on May 12, 2009 voted to table an At Risk Dogs bill introduced by councillor Mike Speedy. The bill will not be discussed again until after a new community budget is approved, probably not before October, Speedy said. But Speedy vowed that the At Risk Dogs proposal will be brought back at the first opportunity.
The At Risk Dogs proposal would have required that pit bulls be sterilized, in a community where more than 30% of the dogs arriving at shelters are pit bulls. It paralleled legislation in effect in San Francisco since January 2006, credited with achieving a 23% reduction in shelter intakes of pit bulls, and a 33% reduction in the number of pit bulls killed by animal control in only two years, after more than a decade of non-mandatory programs made little difference. Similar ordinances are in effect in smaller cities in at least 10 states. Yet another took effect on April 16, 2009 in Moses Lake, Washington.
The Highland Park city council on May 14, 2009 deferred until after a June 22 public workshop any further action on a pit bull ban proposed by mayor Michael Belsky after a newly acquired pit bull belonging to a 17-year-old boy inflicted severe facial bites on a 14-year-old girl.
“The girl had been petting the 9-month-old male dog, which was on a leash, as she sat with its new owner in his front yard,” reported Lisa Black and Robert Channick of the Chicago Tribune. “The owner, who wasn’t identified,” Black and Channick added, “was cited for violating city ordinances regarding a biting dog as well as failure to have a dog license or rabies vaccination, authorities said.”
The Belsky proposal parallels the pit bull ban enforced in Denver since 1989, except for 15 months when it was overturned by state legislation that was itself overruled by Denver District Court decisions in December 2004 and April 2005. Colorado law prohibits breed-specific ordinances, but the court found that the law overreached state authority over cities with “home rule” charters. Since the Denver ordinance took effect, Denver has had fewer dog attack fatalities and disfiguring injuries than any other U.S. city of comparable size, and has impounded and killed fewer pit bulls, despite a surge of impoundments and killing when enforcement resumed after the 15-month suspension.
Illinois, like Colorado, is among the 11 states that prohibit breed-specific ordinances, but Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan on March 16, 2007 wrote to the general counsel for the Illinois Department of Agriculture that “a home rule unit,” such as Highland Park, “is not prohibited…from regulating or banning the keeping of specific breeds of animals.”
Highland Park state representative Karen May told Black and Channick of the Chicago Tribune that that proposed pit bull ban appears to have public support. “The problem,” May explained, “is that some rabid animal-rights activists are just waiting to bring suit,” at anticipated high cost to the city.
The Loudoun County case was in court for two years before Loudoun County Circuit Court Judge Burke F. McCahill on May 21, 2009 ruled that the county pit bull policy does not violate state or local laws. As in Colorado and Illinois, Virginia law holds that a dog may not be deemed dangerous solely based on breed, according to a non-binding 2007 opinion by former state attorney general Robert F. McDonnell.
After the Loudoun County shelter refused to allow county resident Ron Litz to adopt a pit bull, Litz and the Animal Rescue League of Tidewater alleged in May 2007 that the shelter had enforced a defacto breed ban by killing all 56 pit bulls it received in the preceding year.
The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors then instituted a policy of transferring pit bulls who pass temperament testing to nonprofit rescues for possible adoption.
Loudoun County shelter manager Inga Fricke testified at a two-day trial in May 2009 that 26 pit bulls have been transferred under the new policy, while 122 have been euthanized, only one of whom would have passed the adoption standards set for other breeds. Best Friends Animal Society training manager Sherry Woodard asserted that this continues to demonstrate “breed bias.”
Responded Judge Cahill, “Use of this term as well as the statistics can be misleading for a variety of reasons. If I were to rely on the statistics alone, I would have to ignore the evidence that there are differences in breed characteristics.”
The foundation for the Cahill verdict, however, was his finding that “The decision to not allow adoptions was made by the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. Although couched differently in the pleadings, this case is really an attempt to attack a policy decision of a legislative body.”
Best Friends, the American SPCA, and American Humane have led opposition to breed-specific laws in recent years–and while the Indianapolis, Highland Park, and Loudoin County controversies smouldered, more than 50 years of dog attack history circled around in New York City and Albany, New York to bite the American SPCA and American Humane.
NYC housing ban
Because non-breed-specific measures had for 15 years failed to reduce dangerous dog incidents and dogfighting in public housing, the New York City Housing Authority on April 29, 2009 defied the American SPCA and American Kennel Club by reinstituting bans on keeping pit bulls, Rottweilers, and Dobermans in public housing–and reinforced the ban by extending it to any dog weighing more than 25 pounds. The limit had been 40 pounds. ASPCA spokespersons pledged to fight the New York City Housing Authority on behalf of pit bulls and other large dogs, renewing a conflict dating to the June 1937 opening of Harlem River Houses.
The initial issue was human racial discrimination. Harlem River Houses was only the second federally funded housing project in the U.S., the first in New York City, and though not formally segregated, was specifically designed to house families of African ancestry.
Harlem River Houses excluded pets. The no-pets policy was later extended to all public housing in New York City. The ASPCA for more than 40 years sought to overturn the ban on pets. The scope of the New York City Housing Authority meanwhile grew to include more than 7,000 buildings at 46 sites, including 178,000 apartments, home to 430,000 people. Dogs were smuggled in, despite the rules.
Then-mayor Edward Koch proposed a crackdown in August 1987, two days after police shot a pit bull who menaced five children at a Bronx housing project, then lunged at the first police officer to reach the scene. Citing public health department findings that pit bulls constituted 1% of the dogs in New York City but inflicted 4.5% of the bites requiring medical treatment, Koch recommended legislation to “prohibit the sale, purchase, possession, renting, leasing or harboring of a pit bull [anywhere] in the city,” reported Alan Finder of The New York Times. Pit bulls already in New York City were to be sterilized, muzzled in public, and insured against liability.
Testifying against the Koch bill were then-American SPCA president John Kullberg, AKC president Ken Marden, and Phyllis Wright, the first Humane Society of the U.S. vice president for companion animals. The Koch bill was nonetheless adopted in 1989, in amended form, requiring that pit bulls be tattooed, photographed, registered, and insured. No more pit bulls were to be allowed in New York City after October 1, 1989. In September 1989, however, enforcement was halted by a preliminary injunction issued by the New York State Supreme Court on behalf of a coalition headed by the American SPCA, the AKC, and the Canine Defense Fund.The New York City Board of Health replaced the Koch ordinance in April 1991 with non-breed-specific regulations applying only to dogs who were declared dangerous after a hearing.
By then pit bulls accounted for 6% of the bites requiring medical treatment.
The New York City Housing Authority reportedly paid damages of $190,000 to a woman who was injured by a pit bull in 1992, but evicted only about a dozen tenants per year for illegally keeping dogs until 1995, when it evicted 50.
Taking over New York City animal control duties from the American SPCA in 1994, the Center for Animal Care & Control in the third week of February 1996 impounded a dozen alleged fighting pit bulls from city housing projects, and warned that it needed stronger laws to protect project residents.
None were passed. Within just a few days in mid-1997, a elderly man died from a heart attack while defending his schnauzer from an escaped pit bull; a teenaged boy fell to his death from a housing project roof while trying to evade an attacking pit bull; a pit bull mauled a 12-year-old girl at a housing project; and a teenaged boy killed a Brooklyn housing project maintenance man for reporting his pit bull to police. A hot line set up to respond to dog incidents in the projects received more than 2,100 reports, mostly about either menacing or neglected pit bulls.
Four percent of the dogs in New York City were now pit bulls, accounting for a third of all dog bites requiring medical attention, and 40% of the dogs impounded for biting, up eightfold even as the number of pit bulls had only quadrupled.
“Politicians who pander to pet owners without considering human safety should be rebuked,” editorialized the New York Times, but in 1998 the New York Housing Authority responded to a federal law allowing project residents to keep pets by dropping most restrictions on what pets could be kept.
Between the CACC warning in 1996 and the end of 1999, the number of dog bites reported to the New York City health department increased from 6,000 to 11,000, including about 3,400 by pit bulls.
But pit bulls themselves were the major casualties of allowing them to proliferate–and still are. From 1997 through 2008, the number of impounded animals killed in New York City shelters dropped from 43,036 to 16,489. Only the number of pit bulls killed increased, to more than half of all dogs received. The CACC has adopted out more pit bulls than any other breed since 2004, yet so many come in that pit bulls reportedly still have a euthanasia rate of more than 90%.
Founded in 1867, the American SPCA is usually considered the progenitor of the U.S. humane movement. American SPCA founder Henry Bergh and attorney Elbridge T. Gerry in 1877 famously invoked animal protection law to rescue an abused child named Mary Ellen Wilson. Gerry went on to found the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The Mary Ellen incident helped to inspire the formation of the American Humane Association, also in 1877.
American Humane has since 1878 had parallel animal and child protection divisions, making it the oldest national child protection society in the U.S. as well as the oldest national animal charity. In 1915 American Humane initiated Be Kind to Animals Week, the first annual event organized nationally on behalf of animals, and began honoring “Be Kind to Animals Kids.”
There are now many pro-animal national events competing for media attention, including the Pet Adopthons coordinated by the North Shore Animal League America; Home 4 the Holidays, coordinated by the Helen Woodward Animal Center; and the Great American Meatout, coordinated by the Farm Animal Reform Movement.
Yet Be Kind to Animals Week still garners the most recognition, according to searches of the News-Library.com archives–19% more mainstream media mentions since 1995 than Spay Day USA, the runner-up, and more than twice as many mentions as Dog Bite Prevention Week, in third place, even though the latter enjoys the patronage of the U.S. Postal Service.
“Be Kind to Animals Kid” winners’ stories are usually told in about 5% to 15% of the coverage, but 2009 grand prize winner in the ages 6-12 division Annie Lee Vankleeck, age 6, of Shokan, New York, appears to have been named in barely 1%.
Lack of notice of Vankleeck’s award may have saved American Humane from being asked hard questions about it by media.
Opened the American Humane announcement of the award, distributed on May 4, 2009, “‘Every chance she gets, Annie tries to help pit bulls,'” said her mother, Sharon. Wanting to do something to help animals, Annie and her family went online to look at their local shelters’ websites. After finding out that Out of the Pits, a nonprofit pit bull rescue in Albany, needed gently used blankets and towels, Annie made it her mission to fulfill that need.” The American Humane announcement did not describe Vankleeck working directly with the Out of the Pits dogs. But it did establish that she has contact with at least one pit bull: “She is keenly aware that people can be prejudiced against or afraid of pit bulls, so she will not bring her pet pit bull, Ike, to show and tell at school.”
Out of the Pits was begun in 1996 by Cydney Cross, a former adoption counselor and shelter manager for the Mohawk & Hudson River Humane Society in Cohoes, New York. Cross appears to have left the humane society in 2006.
Out of the Pits has received mostly favorable media coverage, but a photo published on October 29, 2008 by the Albany Times Union depicted an Out of the Pits event of a sort that many shelters would not encourage no matter what kind of dogs were used.
Described the caption, “Olivia Moody, 8, gets a little love from Piggly Wiggly at a kissing booth set up by Out of the Pits, a local pit bull education and rescue organization in front of Sloppy Kisses pet boutique on Broadway in Saratoga Springs… Sisters Skyler and Paige Rosewell, both 6, and Sean Rosewell, 3, visit with Toby at the kissing booth, which was set up to mark National Pit Bull Awareness Day.”
The event was also mentioned by the Saratogian, of Saratoga Springs.
Josephine Ramsay, 52, circa August 2008 adopted a three-month-old pit bull puppy from Out of the Pits. Early on the evening of April 16, 2009 the pit bull, now about a year old, inflicted facial injuries to Ramsay’s nephew, Frankie Flora, age 5, of Wappingers Falls, New York, that reportedly required more than 1,000 stitches to close. Ramsay herself was also injured.
“The fact that one of their adoptions ended in a tragic attack is heartbreaking,” said American Humane executive director Marie Belew Wheatley, “but has nothing to do with our honoring this young lady [Vankleeck]. In fact, at the time the selection was made, this accident had not yet happened. At the time of announcing the award winners, we were unaware of the terrible attack in New York.”
Nominations for the 2009 Be Kind to Animals Kid contest closed on April 15, 2009, barely 24 hours before Frankie Flora was attacked, and two weeks before the award was announced. That the dog was adopted from Out of the Pits was mentioned by WABC television news on April 18, and reported by the Poughkeepsie Journal on April 22.
The American Humane periodical National Humane Review in July/August 1961 devoted an entire page to six recommendations from World Health about “How to prevent 50% of dog bites”:
1) Don’t give a dog to a child under age six. This might prevent 18% of bites.
2) Discourage playing ball with a dog, riding a bicycle near an excited dog, and running while playing with a dog if it excites him. This might prevent 10% of bites.
3) Don’t wake a dog suddenly. Be careful of the mother when picking up her puppies and be careful with sick animals. Perhaps 3% of bites avoided.
4) Teach children how to care for pets and not to abuse or tease dogs.
5) Don’t pet or startle a dog while feeding him. Don’t take food away from a dog.
Don’t intervene in a dog fight. Perhaps 10% of bites prevented.
6) Avoid holding your face next to a dog’s so as to prevent serious bite wounds.
The page was designed to be used as a poster in animal shelters. Alongside it was a two-page article called Confessions of a Vicious Dog, reprinted from a Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Company handout that was distributed to school children throughout the PacTel service radius. It consisted of basic advice for not getting bitten by ordinary dogs in ordinary situations.
But already there were hints that some dog breeds might be significantly more dangerous than others.
Pits & Dobermans
Ten days after Germany surrendered to end World War II in Europe, with fighting still underway in the Pacific theatre, defense plant worker Doretta Zinke, 39, took an evening stroll near an Army transmitter station outside Miami Springs, Florida. Zinke met nine pit bull terriers kept by Joe Munn, 43, of Hialeah. Two Army Air Force enlisted men ran to her aid, but she had already suffered fatal injuries. She died within 90 minutes.
“One of the few recorded cases of an adult human being fatally attacked by dogs,” according to Associated Press, the Zinke death shared headline space as far west as Joplin, Missouri with the battle to capture Okinawa.
Twenty-six pit bulls were impounded from Munn. Fifteen adult dogs were shot; 11 puppies were gassed. Munn “said he bred the dogs to sell and denied they had been used for pit fighting,” reported Associated Press. “The humane society [apparently the Humane Society of Greater Miami] received hundreds of telephone calls from people asking that the society intervene in the killing of the animals,” Associated Press continued. “Humane officials said they were carrying out the order of authorities who with disinterested veterinarians deemed the dogs of the ‘most vicious type.’ Prior to the attack on Mrs. Zinke, they had been accused of attacking other people within the past week.”
Doretta Zinke was among the first victims on record of a dog attack following a now familiar pattern, in which dogs–usually pit bulls–leave their caretaker’s property and then kill or disfigure a complete stranger, who was minding her own business in a place where she should have been safe. The Zinke case was also among the first on record in which animal advocates aggressively defended dogs who were impounded in such a situation, at a time when whole litters of puppies and kittens were routinely killed for population control, with scarcely a hint of protest or suggestion that anything else could be done.
The standard procedures of surgically sterilizing dogs and cats had been approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association in 1923, but were still a dozen years from use by Friends of Animals, the first U.S. charity to facilitate dog and cat sterilization, and were still 28 years from acceptance by the American Humane Association, the only national animal advocacy group in the U.S. from 1877 until the Humane Society of the U.S. formed in 1954.
Fatal dog attacks, until the last quarter of the 20th century, almost always involved infants or toddlers, and/or rabid dogs. The last adult killed in a dog-related incident in the U.S. before Zinke may have been James Farrell, 55, town marshal for Ada, Ohio. Farrell in 1937 was found dead in the road after trying to haul two dogs to the pound on his motorcycle.
Until the late 20th century, fatal dog attacks on infants and toddlers were also exceedingly rare by current standards. In 1976, for example, Joanne Bashold, 24, of New York City, left her four-day-old baby girl alone with a German shepherd who had not been fed for days. Bashold was later acquitted of negligent homicide.
The most recent similar incident in New York City had apparently occurred on February 11, 1877, when a Spitz fatally injured the newborn daughter of a woman named Kate Hartman.
The Spitz, in the 1870s, was widely believed to have an unusual susceptibility to rabies. Within less than 10 years of formation, the American SPCA became involved in opposition to breed-specific animal control policies targeting the Spitz. ASPCA founder Henry Bergh recognized, correctly, that the Spitz was disproportionately involved in transmitting rabies to humans because–at a time when dogs of any discernible lineage were rare–it was popular among German immigrants who lived in crowded tenements where a mad dog could quickly bite and infect many people.
Later, when vaccination brought rabies under control, while other dog breeds gained popularity, the purported threat of the Spitz faded from memory.
But neither the Spitz, nor the Doberman, nor any other breed before the late 20th century proliferation of pit bulls and Rottweilers ever killed and disfigured humans at anywhere even remotely close to the numbers who have been killed and maimed in the past 27 years by pit bulls and Rottweilers. Pit bulls and their closest mixes, exclusive of dogs raised to fight, have at this posting killed 294 Americans and Canadians and disfigured 2,007 since 1982. Rottweilers have killed 87 and disfigured 322.
All other dogs combined–95% of the total dog population–have killed 177 and disfigured 605.
DogsBite.org founder Colleen Lynn, studying 88 fatal dog attacks occurring in the U.S. in 2006-2008 found that pit bulls killed 82% of the adult victims, and committed 81% of the fatal attacks in which dogs left their caretaker’s premises–as in the Zinke case.
Joe Munn, owner of the pit bulls who killed Zinke, was convicted of man-slaughter at a time when criminally charging anyone for a dog attack was even more unheard of than dog attacks themselves. Munn served one year of a five-year prison sentence, but apparently did not learn his lesson. Harry Smalley, 73, in April 1955 walked his leashed dog past Munn’s Miami dry cleaning shop. Two of Munn’s pit bulls rushed out the door to attack the leashed dog, mauling Smalley when he intervened.
The Smalley attack did not attract much note, but two months to the day later, newspapers all over the U.S. reported the unwitnessed fatal mauling of Winifred W.L. Bacon, 64, by her two Dobermans at Island Beach State Park, near Toms River, New Jersey. Five years later a Doberman killed his mistress, Frances Tetreault, 50, of Northvale, New Jersey.
The second fatality inflicted by a single breed of dog in one region lastingly established the bad reputation of Dobermans. Dobermans have since 1982 killed just seven people, disfiguring 12. Their record in 1955-1960 was no worse, but any dog attack fatalities were then so rare as to attract coverage equivalent to a sensational murder.
Preventing dog attacks has been recognized as a duty of government throughout recorded history. Before 1955, however, this was mostly in the contexts of protecting livestock and preventing rabies. People whose dogs chased or injured either humans or livestock were warned to keep the dogs muzzled, tied, or confined. If the offense was repeated, the dog would be impounded and killed. Severe harm to either humans or livestock occurred seldom enough that the doctrine of “one free bite” was already established as far back as written dog laws have been discovered. Cases of a dog killing or maiming someone were so rare that the legal focus was on preventing chronic problems, rather than catastrophic single events.
Until vaccinating pet dogs against rabies became mandatory throughout the U.S. in the 1950s, rabies control consisted of sporadic roundups and massacres of free-roaming dogs, usually only after outbreaks occurred–as is still done in parts of China, India, Indonesia, and other nations where rabies vaccination has yet to become universal.
Except during rabies outbreaks, dogs and dog bites appear to have been little feared. Yet if most of what is generally believed to lead to dog bites today had led to bites 50 years ago and earlier, the incidence of bites should have been exponentially higher than now. Most Americans, like most other people, lived in constant proximity to free-roaming dogs, many of them unfamiliar. Of the 32 million dogs in the U.S. circa 1955, according to pioneering dog and cat population ecologist John Marbanks, about 30% were street dogs, who lived much as many dogs still do in the developing world.
Under 1% of all dogs were sterilized, as of 1960, when sterilization frequency first was studied. In consequence, about 90% of the dogs in the U.S. were mongrels, and about six million surplus puppies per year were among the eight million dogs per year killed by animal shelters.
By far the most bites were inflicted by bitches defending litters. Of the dogs who had homes, half or more were allowed to wander. Tethering, now known to make dogs more territorial and dangerous, was the chief means of confinement. The American Humane Association gave Walt Disney a lifetime achievement award in 1956, particularly lauding his 1955 animated feature Lady & The Tramp for promoting the idea of keeping pet dogs at home.
Bite prevention as we know it today was rarely discussed. The National Humane Review did not even mention dog bites in 1955. The first notice of dog bites after the June 1955 death of Winifred Bacon came in the July/August 1956 edition. There the AHA saluted U.S. Postmaster Arthur E. Summerfield for taking notice that 6,000 mail carriers were bitten on the job in 1955.
Summerfield in June 1956 convened a conference in Washington D.C. to introduce the notion of preventing dog bites. The chief executives of the AHA, American SPCA, American Kennel Club, and Popular Dogs magazine were invited to share their ideas.
“Eugene J. Lyons, postal personnel chief, reported on field tests the department is conducting to find a way of discouraging dogs from attacking mailmen,” said United Press. “The conference developed two major thoughts,” summarized the National Humane Review. “One, educate the owners to their responsibilities and encourage them to have more obedient dogs and, two, to give safety training to letter carriers on how to behave with strange dogs.”
Only 3,000 letter carriers are bitten by dogs each year now, half as many as in 1955. But the 130,000 letter carriers working in 1955 walked an average of eight miles per day, encountering about 35 free-roaming dogs per day. The 214,084 letter carriers working in 2008 walked an average of five miles per day, encountering fewer than six dogs per day–and most of those are leashed. Though letter carriers today are only half as likely to be bitten, they are about six times more likely to be bitten by the dogs they meet.
After the Summerfield conference the National Humane Review did not again mention dog bites until it published the six World Health recommendations for avoiding them in July/August 1961.
Wrote the editors in introduction, “Man’s best friend was reportedly responsible last year for biting some 611,000 persons in the United States. It was also reported that man’s best friend cost Americans some $5,000,000 in medical bills during the year.” The cost of dog bites in 1960 would equal about $100 million today. As of 2007, 4.7 million Americans were bitten by dogs. The cost of treating the 800,000 who received hospital care came to $268 million, not including plastic surgery for victims like Frankie Flora.
Not clear from the National Humane Review report is whether the 611,000 dog bites reported in 1960 were all bites, or just bites receiving hospital treatment. If the latter, adjusting for inflation since 1960, the average cost of a bite receiving hospital treatment has more than doubled, from the equivalent of $164 in 2009 dollars to $336.
Rabies was still common enough in the U.S. in 1960 that bite treatment often included a series of 14 post-exposure vaccinations, painfully injected into the abdomen. The U.S. no longer has canine rabies. The higher cost of first aid today appears to be associated mostly with bigger and deeper bites.
As to the numbers, the journal Public Health in 1973 published findings by Alan M. Beck, Honey Loring, and Randall Lockwood that “The rate of dog bites reported in St. Louis from 963 to 1973 almost doubled,” but were “comparable to those for other urban areas.” Beck, Loring, and Lockwood believed that that 1960 figure included all bites. They estimated that the U.S. bite total had risen to about one million per year.
The rate of increase in dog bites they found projects to about twice the present estimated bite total. This suggests that 50% of dog bites are now prevented, as World Health projected was possible in 1963–but the other 50% reflect exponentially more dangerous dogs.