Death toll comparable to hurricanes
by Merritt Clifton
The two death reports came in almost simultaneously on approximately the 35th anniversary of the day in September 1982 when I began logging fatal and disfiguring dog attacks in the U.S. and Canada. A third report from the same day arrived 24 hours later.
At first I just collected information from the major U.S. and Canadian newswires, monitored with the help of an extensive and ever-growing network of volunteers. As news reporting moved online, the monitoring became easier, with even more volunteers helping to find and verify dog attack accounts, and to obtain more sources of information about each one. Now there are several whole Facebook groups assisting––but, because the numbers of attacks have increased exponentially, there is much more work to do to assemble the data.
End of summer
Unfortunately, I did not write down the exact date when I started logging fatal and disfiguring dog attacks, because my initial intent was just to track the data long enough to write an article in my then-capacity as a sports columnist about which dogs might be most dangerous to fellow runners.
As it happened, fatal and disfiguring dog attacks were few enough then that I found continuing the log for much longer was necessary to be sure of collecting a truly representative sampling of data.
But I know more-or-less when I started the log because it coincided with the end of summer.
Yesterday, September 20, 2017, I was just trying to decide between writing up my annual recap of the dog attack logging data and doing an early report on the effects on animals of Hurricane Maria, which had just hit Puerto Rico, when the first two fatality reports arrived.
Mississippi & Ohio
In Neshoba County, Mississippi, WTOK-TV announced the death of 61-year old Connie Storey, mauled 10 days earlier while feeding her son’s pit bull.
In Knox County, Ohio, Columbus Dispatch reporter Dean Narcisco posted that, “The Knox County sheriff’s office is investigating the death of a 1-month-old boy. According to dispatchers,” Narcisco wrote, “paramedics responded just after 6 a.m. to a home near Mount Vernon after receiving a 911 call from homeowner Teddy Hagans reporting that a dog might have been involved in attacking and killing his baby boy in a bassinet. The county dog warden’s office responded and removed two pit bulls from the residence.”
Connie Storey and Barrett Ethan Hagans, the month-old son of Teddy Araya Hagans and Courtney Michelle Cole, were respectively dog attack fatalities #696 and #697 in my log of U.S. and Canadian incidents.
Storey and Barrett Ethan Hagans were also human fatalities #392 and #393 inflicted by pit bulls, who have accounted for 56% of the total number of human fatalities in the U.S. and Canada since 1992, and have never accounted for less than 50% in any given year.
The third fatality, #698 overall and apparently #394 killed as result of a pit bull attack, was an as yet unidentified 61-year-old man, who died of a suspected heart attack in Hamilton, Ontario, after a dog mauled his arm. A pit bull was removed from the scene.
We now know through historical research that this is a recurring pattern. Since the first U.S. dog attack fatality reported with specificity as to breed occurred in 1833, there has never been a 10-year time frame within which pit bulls did not inflict half or more of the documented human fatalities.
Keeping my original log of fatal and disfiguring dog attacks in the U.S. and Canada long since led to keeping similar but separate logs of attacks in the United Kingdom, India, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia, and to logging dog attacks on animals as well.
All of these logs show essentially the same pattern: pit bulls and other closely related “bully” breeds such as Rottweilers, bull mastiffs, Presa Canarios, Dogo Argentinos, Cane Corsos, et al inflicting mayhem grossly disproportionate to their numbers in the dog population as a whole.
Surveys of dogs offered for sale through classified ads, both printed and online, show that there has never been a time or place––at least since dogs for sale have been advertised––when pit bulls, by all of the many names used for them combined, have made up more than the fraction over 5% of the total dog population than they do in the U.S. now.
Deaths rise proportionate to pits in the dog population
Historically, within the 200 years that dog populations can be estimated from available data, pit bulls and other bully breeds have rarely amounted to more than 1% of the dog population anywhere.
But pit bulls have been consistently much more likely to kill someone than the average dog.
Further, the fewer pit bulls there have been in the dog population, the fewer fatal attacks have been reported.
From 1930 through 1960, a time when pit bulls amounted to well below 1% of the U.S. dog population, only 15 total non-rabid dog attack fatalities were reported, nine of them by pit bulls and three by Dobermans. No fewer than 23 pit bull fatalities have been reported in any year since 2009, with an average annual toll exceeding 31.
Connie Storey and newborn Barrett Ethan Hagans were pit bull attack fatalities #21 and #22 of 2017. The unidentified man in Hamilton was #23. At the present pace of fatal attacks, 2017 will end with approximately the average number of pit bull attack deaths.
Dog population as a whole becoming more dangerous
But pit bull attack deaths are far from the whole pattern emerging from my 35 years of logging the mayhem. Two further patterns that should concern anyone who cares about either human or animal welfare are the rising numbers of total fatalities and the correspondingly rising numbers of disfigurements.
After 10 years of logging, I had recorded just 158 fatal and/or disfiguring dog attacks, including 105 by pit bulls, causing injury to 45 children and 60 adults, among whom there were 18 fatalities and 38 disfigurements. Fifty-six people also bitten during the same attacks escaped without suffering disfiguring harm.
Only one other dog breed type, Rottweilers, accounted for more than nine fatal and/or disfiguring attacks. Eighteen Rottweilers had attacked 12 children and six adults, inflicting two fatalities and eight disfigurements.
Altogether, after 10 years, I had logged 31 dog attack fatalities and 53 disfigurements by all breeds combined.
Canine arms race
Pit bull proliferation during the ensuing decades unfortunately touched off a sort of canine arms race, encouraging the proliferation of other dangerous breeds as well. Few years in the present century have not seen several breeds, including Rottweilers, bull mastiffs, and German shepherds, inflicting as many fatalities and disfigurements by themselves as all non-pits combined did from 1982 through 1992.
Already in 2017, with more than three months of the year to go, 2,100 dogs, of all breeds combined, have been involved in fatal and/or disfiguring attacks, killing 33 people altogether, disfiguring 483, injuring a total of 407 children and 348 adults during the course of the attacks in which at least one victim was killed or disfigured.
Even if one allows that the total U.S. and Canadian dog population has nearly doubled since the 1982-1992 time frame, the dogs of today are still at least six times more likely to kill or maim someone.
“Wolf-like” & “northern” breeds
Fatal and disfiguring attacks by the most dangerous of the non-bully breeds have also increased. These include both actual wolf hybrids and mixed breeds merely represented as “wolf dogs,” plus the superficially wolf-like German shepherds, Malamutes, Akitas, huskies, and other “northern” breeds.
The stereotypical dog attack fatality or disfigurement, when I began my research, involved a dog of “northern breed,” or a German shepherd or other “wolf-like” mix, mauling a child somewhere in Canada, usually on a First Nations (Native American) reservation where working sled dogs are kept chained while others roam.
The stereotype turned out to be wrong in one respect. Even when pit bull attacks were few compared to today, my log demonstrated within a year of beginning it, pit bulls killed more people than all the northern breeds and other “wolf-like” dogs combined.
(See Wolf hybrids, 12-pit bull attack on toddler spotlights soaring risk on reservations, Pit bull proliferation hits “Indian country”: fatal dog attacks triple, and Pit bulls now in the “rez dog” gene pool.)
Unprecedented mayhem accepted as “normal”
But the stereotypical “northern breed” or “wolf-like” dog attack has accounted for just over half of the dog attack fatalities I have logged in Canada since 1982, and not only still occurs with dismaying frequency, but occurs at an accelerating rate.
Fatality #391 in my log, for example, was six-year-old Cameron Mushanski, killed on September 13, 2017 by his family’s two Malamutes in Riceton, Saskatchewan.
Attacks of this sort do not occasion the alarm that they should, perhaps because the ever growing numbers of pit bull and other bully breed attacks appear to have numbed observers into accepting an unprecedented amount of mayhem by dogs of any sort as “normal.”
Dog attack fatalities of course attract the most attention, but disfiguring injuries also deserve much more notice than they receive. Indeed, “one free bite” laws that do not impose restrictions on dogs of dangerous breed until they have already harmed someone tend to treat disfiguring injuries as insignificant.
Yet disfiguring injuries cause both physical and emotional pain to the victims throughout their lives. Children attacked today may bear visible scars and/or be living with severe disabilities into the next century.
Another way to look at the data is that Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria combined are known, at this writing, to have killed a combined total of about 150 people in the U.S. and U.S.-held territories.
The three most devastating hurricanes ever to hit the U.S. and U.S.-held territories in a single year, in other words, killed about as many people as have died in dog attacks from 2014 to date in 2017, and about as many as pit bulls have killed since 2012.
Obviously hurricanes do a lot more than killing people. Hurricanes are enormously disruptive to the lives and activities of many millions of people, doing damage to homes, businesses, and infrastructure that may take years to repair.
But hurricanes are not easily preventable through enacting and enforcing simple legislation at the community level. Fatal and disfiguring dog attacks are.
Few breed types involved
Even though there are now far more dangerous dogs among us than there were 35 or even just 25 or 10 years ago, they still fall into just a few distinctive breed types.
Over the past 35 years, pit bulls and close pit mixes, still just 5.3% of the dog population, have accounted for 74% of the fatal and/or disfiguring dog attacks.
Other “bully” breeds, including boxers and mastiffs as well as Rottweilers, bull mastiffs, et al, are 5.6% of the dog population, but have accounted for 13% of the fatal and/or disfiguring dog attacks.
The “wolf-like” and “northern” breeds, including all German shepherds and Malinois variants, are just under 9% of the dog population, who together have accounted for 7% of the fatal and disfiguring attacks.
Chows, who ancestrally are combinations of “bully” and “northern” breeds, are less than 1% of the dog population who have accounted for 1% of the fatal and disfiguring attacks.
Regulate to prevent accidents
Looking at these broad groupings, there is a clear stratification of risk. Some dog types are clearly much more dangerous than others.
Yet all of the dog types combined who present elevated risk compared to the average dog come to just one dog in five; all “bully” breeds combined are just one dog in ten; all pit bulls are just one dog in 20.
If one of almost anything else in five, 10, or 20 that are as common in society as dogs presented a health and safety hazard resulting in dozens of accidental fatalities and thousands of disfigurements per year, it would be regulated in a manner designed to prevent the accidents.