Saturday, April 6, 2002

Some people shouldn’t have dogs

With the sun rising earlier and setting later each day, my husband and I have more time to walk our dog, Frankie. We’ve noticed that in the four-and-a-half years that we’ve lived in Lake County, a lot more families with dogs have moved into our neighborhood.

Frankie gets really excited whenever he comes into contact with another dog. He’ll start whimpering and tugging at the leash – not because he wants to attack, but because he wants to socialize with another member of his species.

Watching Frankie walk alongside us, sometimes it’s hard to believe that this alert, intelligent and affectionate animal is the same one that we took into our home two years ago.

When we got Frankie, he was a shivering, skeletal wreck, who had been chained up in a small shed and abandoned. After several weeks of virtually no human contact, his muscles had atrophied, and he seemed to have lost any interest in living. When we discovered him, he was lying in his own wastes, on a soiled mattress, surrounded by decaying trash.

After several visits to the local vet and to the specialists at U.C. Davis, I have pretty strong opinions about the level of responsibility that is required when caring for a pet. And as we make our rounds of the neighborhood, we’re confronted daily by people who, in our opinion, should not have a dog.

At one house, a once-beautiful animal has wasted away, physically and psychologically, from neglect and has begun acting out aggressively by chasing cars and barking at visitors.

A few doors down, a dog is tethered outside on a leash for hours, barking. Its chief human interactions consist of its owner’s shrill commands to shut up.

Problem dogs and their owners aren’t just limited to our neighborhood. A man came into the Observer American office on Wednesday, with a letter to the editor about a pit bull that had attacked and seriously injured his dog on Easter Sunday. His main concern was to thank the veterinary clinic that had treated his dog, but he was also very adamant in his opinion of the pit bull. “It should be put down,” he told me. “It’s dangerous.”

Dog attacks have received a lot of attention in the press lately. In the April 2 Record-Bee, syndicated columnist Joan Ryan writes about 11-year-old Shawn Jones, gruesomely disfigured and severely disabled by a pitbull attack that took place eight months ago. The dogs’ owner left Shawn for dead and hid the dogs but because Shawn lived, the man was only charged with a misdemeanor. As a result of public outcry, the State Legislature modified existing law to allow felony charges in similar attacks.

And on March 21, Marjorie Knoller of San Francisco was convicted of second-degree murder in the dog-mauling death of 33-year-old lacrosse coach Dianne Whipple. Knoller’s husband, Robert Noel, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Reading Associated Press coverage of the trial, I was not surprised by the verdicts. Here is a couple who deliberately took into their apartment building, Presa Canarios that had been bred to be guard dogs. They denied that the dogs were dangerous, even though more than 30 witnesses said they had been terrorized by the dogs. In fact, this couple repeatedly denied any responsibility whatsoever in the death of their neighbor. In the words of juror Shawn Antonio, “There was no kind of sympathy, no kind of apologies.”

It would be hard for me to believe that anyone could deny their own culpability to so great a degree, were I not seeing it in my own neighborhood.

A few houses down from us, a young, exuberant pit bull is constantly allowed to roam loose. It’s not a vicious dog, but that doesn’t make it any less dangerous. My husband, who used to raise pit bulls, told me that a pit bull can lock its jaws and nothing can force it to relax its hold if it doesn’t want to let go. Imagine what would happen if this energetic dog got carried away while roughhousing with a small child or another animal.

My husband and I have spoken to the pit bull’s owners repeatedly about the importance of keeping it under control, but they seem incapable of anything but offering feeble excuses for why they have failed to do so.

Frankie had to get a rabies booster after another dog bit him. The dog’s target could just as easily have been my husband or me. Thankfully, the dog and its owners have been evicted from the community – but not before it attacked my dog.

As I reread the story of Knoller’s and Noel’s sentencing, I am faced with the conclusion that the only difference between this San Francisco couple and some of the people in our local community is the severity of their dogs’ behavior to date. I pray it doesn’t take another Shawn Jones or Dianne Whipple to convince these dog owners that they have failed in their responsibility.

Published April 6, 2002 in the Clear Lake Observer American

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