I had actually been hoping that I wouldn't really have much reason to blog about this sad story. A little girl in Titusville, Fla., about an hour from Orlando, had been riding her bike home from a friend's house when a pit bull tied out in a yard broke whatever was restraining it and attacked her. She suffered broken bones and will be scarred for life. It's a complete tragedy and a travesty, and there's no excuse for it. Should never have happened. Period.
Some people are now inclined to want to take aim not at the people who own dogs that bite people but at a breed of dog. In Florida, municipalities are not permitted to pass breed-specific ordinances because state law prohibits it. There have been debates on Facebook about this recently, and today the Orlando Sentinel has posted an editorial talking about how this case is renewing "the need for regulations." How about renewing, instead, the need to ENFORCE regulations that are on the books that would help communities keep tabs on dangerous dogs, in general, pit bull or not?
The Sentinel quotes stats from dogsbite.org, an organization that was founded with the sole purpose of skewing public perception against pit bulls. Among other things, dogsbite.org insists that breed-specific legislation is the best way to keep people safe from dangerous dogs, partially because enforcing laws already on the books, or making them stronger, isn't effective. They say those laws already on the books are punitive and retroactive, not proactive – in other words, they claim, they only punish people after the fact, rather than before a bite occurs.
Not so, if those laws are designed to target and punish irresponsible ownership practices and are enforced effectively. If laws are effective, they aren't just reactive – they should also serve as deterrents. If people were concerned that they could get into trouble for not being responsible about the dogs they own, perhaps they'd think before being careless, irresponsible or otherwise clueless in the first place.
In reading the story out of Titusville, you might initially think this is a freak accident that could have happened to anyone at all who owns a pit bull dog – that this is a pit bull thing and not an owner-made-bad-decisions thing. But just reading a bit between the lines, I can see red flags in this case, and I can see at least one way that the law could have intervened before this dog ever got the opportunity to hurt this little girl. If we had more detail, would there be more? Quite possibly, but this is what we do know right now:
- This dog was not current in its rabies vaccinations, even though the law states that owners must keep dogs current on rabies. So there's a violation right there, a red flag for irresponsible ownership and an opportunity for a law enforcement to intervene in this dog's care before this dog's irresponsible owners allow something like this to happen. Why don't people receive penalties and fines for failing to keep this vaccine current? Why do we wait until after a dog has bitten someone to take action to sanctio the owner? Since rabies poses a serious public health threat, why are people who refuse to keep their animals current on vaccinations not handled more seriously? Should they even be permitted to keep dogs, considering the fact that rabies vaccines are generally cheap, easy to obtain at vaccine clinics (sometimes for free) and probably the bare minimum in medical care you should be providing for your dog?
- This dog was tied out on some kind of tether, apparently unattended, in a front yard. Why on earth would you ever tie a dog out on a front-yard tether in a residential neighborhood by itself? Horrible, horrible idea. If you're going to confine your dog outdoors, do it in a way that's safe for both the public AND the dog. A place where kids and other animals can't wander in to bother the dog and the dog isn't going to get frustrated and pent up trying to get at things it sees moving around, just beyond its reach.
- Dog is not a resident of the house where the attack occurred. Apparently, it belonged to the homeowner's boyfriend. So not only is a dog chained out front of a residential home with no protection from the world, no person to monitor its interactions with the environment and no barrier to make sure it can't access people or other animals moving around it, it's also not in a familiar, home environment. It's tied up outside somebody else's house, while its owner is ... where, exactly? I can only guess inside, since the news reports say that the girl's friend had to come running out of the house to pull the dog off the child who was attacked.
So we have a person who owns a dog who is not obeying the law (rabies vaccinations) and is also not using common sense/precaution in handling his dog (tied up outside, unattended, strange environment). Could this accident have been prevented? I say yes and not by banning a breed of dog.
I think if the emphasis were on better enforcement of current laws, as well as some enhancement of laws regarding taking responsibility for the actions of one's animals, the law could also have deterred the person who owned this dog from making such a tragically foolish and ultimately irresponsible decision. And a little girl in Titusville would not have had to endure this nightmare.
Make laws that make sense, make laws that discourage irresponsible behavior that results in these kinds of incidents. And enforce those damn laws or they're pretty much worthless.
If you ban the pit bulls in Titusville or anywhere else in Florida, you're not protecting the public from dangerous dogs – when it's an unvaccinated, aggressive mastiff or malamute or mongrel tied to a tree outside by itself that attacks someone, those laws won't help. And I don't think it makes the victims of attacks by any of those breeds of dog feel any better to know that the pit bulls are banned but the irresponsible owners of other breeds can carry on and do as they please.