A Georgia grandmother is facing serious criminal charges after her two pit bulls attacked and killed her 20-month-old grandson yesterday.
According to a press release from the Georgia Department of Investigation, the woman was babysitting her grandson when the dogs lunged through the door of her home, knocking her to the ground and attacking the child. The woman attempted to shield the child from the dogs and was eventually able to get the dogs back inside the residence and rush the boy to an urgent care clinic, where he was pronounced dead.
But an investigation revealed that the woman had been cited by local police on multiple occasions for disorderly animals. As a result, she was arrested on charges of second degree murder, cruelty to children and involuntary manslaughter.
This case will undoubtedly rekindle an age-old debate: are pit bulls dangerous?
Pit bull lovers are passionate in their argument that pits are no more dangerous than any other dog. Instead, they say, it’s all in how the dogs are raised.
Efforts to ban specific breeds of dogs have long been opposed. Even President Barack Obama weighed in during his time in the White House, saying, “research shows that bans on certain types of dogs are largely ineffective and often a waste of public resources.”
On the other hand, court precedent is not kind to pits. Courts have consistently ruled that local municipalities can ban the ownership of the breed because of the disproportionate threat of aggression they pose. In 2012, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that pit bulls are “inherently dangerous,” making it easier for bite victims to sue the dog’s owner.
It’s hard to get a handle on just how aggressive pit bulls are, because there are so many dog bite incidents in the United States each year (about 4.5 million, on average). Further complicating statistics is that thoroughbred pit bulls are relatively rare these days. The pit bulls of folklore, which were bred first to be bull-baiters, then bred to fight each other after large animal baiting was outlawed, have long been bred with other dogs, creating a lot of bulldog mixes. (However, a 2009 study from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found that 51% of all dog bites over a five-year period were perpetrated by pit bulls. The next closest breed was rottweilers, accounting for 9% of dog bites.)
One thing that’s indisputable, though, is that the larger, stronger pit bulls, with their powerful jaws, are far more deadly than other breeds of dogs. In 2016, pit bulls accounted for 71 percent of the fatal dog attacks in the United States. In all, pit bulls were responsible for 22 dog bite fatalities last year. No other individual breed accounted for more than three.
According to the Wikipedia page that tracks reported dog fatalities, the statistics are similar across previous years. And of the two fatal attacks reported in 2017 (now three, since the Georgia case has not yet been listed), all involved pit bulls.
A recent case in McCreary County, Ky., which saw four dogs maul a 79-year-old man to death, stoked an ongoing controversy that has played out on Facebook. Investigators there have not specifically named the breed of the dogs involved in the attack but it has been widely speculated that they were pit bulls.
From the very young to the very old, no one is immune to attacks from pit bulls. While most pits may not be aggressive, any pit attack can be deadly — even for able-bodied victims — because of the breed’s size and strength. Last June, a 53-year-old Connecticut woman was mauled by several pit bulls as she walked with her friend, who owned the dogs. She was blinded by the attack, undergoing surgery to remove both eyes and a leg. But she died a week later. The dogs also turned on their owner as he attempted to intervene, and he, too, suffered life-threatening injuries. Just weeks earlier, a 43-year-old California man was killed as he helped a pit bull’s owner repair a scooter.
Pit bulls also have a reputation of being unpredictable. In April 2016, a mother was watching television with her two small children and her adopted pit bull — which had been advertised by the San Diego Humane Society as “vivacious, bubbly and cheerful” — when she coughed, causing the pit bull to react by biting the head of her three-day-old son, killing the newborn baby.
Despite all this, pit bulls were once among America’s favorite breeds. Far from being ostracized, they were welcome in just about any home. Remember the beloved Petey from The Little Rascals? Yes, Petey was a pit bull.
That’s no longer the case. Even PETA, the world’s foremost advocate for animal rights, supports breed-specific sterilization for pit bull. Daphna Nachminovitch, a high-ranking spokesperson for the organization, says that “the public is misled to believe that pit bulls are like any other dog. And they just aren’t.”
So are pit bull attacks really on the rise, or is it just that they’re more sensational, leaving them in the headlines while other dog bites go unreported? And if they are on the rise, why?
Time magazine investigated the issue in a 2014 story, entitled “The problem with pit bulls.” The story cited research that found pit pulls are responsible for 68% of dog attacks despite making up only 6% of the dog population. It reported on a medical study that called for pit bulls to be regulated “in the same way in which other dangerous species, such as leopards, are regulated.” It cited numbers from dangerous dogs being adopted from shelters: between 1858 and 2000, there were only two instances of shelter dogs killing humans. From 2000 to 2009 alone, there were three such instances. And from 2010 to 2014, there have been 35 shelter dogs who fatally attacked humans. Twenty-four of the 35 were pit bulls.
The Time story also explored the recent controversy of pit bulls, which has seen a growing backlash against claims that the breed is any more dangerous than any other. It cited two specific events. The first: Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Pit bulls are especially popular in Louisiana and Mississippi, and many were rescued during hurricane relief efforts, turning rescuers into advocates for pits. The second: The Michael Vick dogfighting scandal two years later, which prompted a growing sympathy for pit bulls.
Indeed, as Time pointed out, pit bull attacks have risen by nearly 600% since the Vick story broke. The writer pointed out that the subsequent burst of sympathy for pits led to more people adopting them and bringing them into their homes. She quoted the founder of DogBite.org, an advocate of dog safety, as saying, “If you need a marker in your head for when pit bulls got out of control, it’s 2007 with Michael Vick.”
Here’s what you need to know: regardless of side with the Maryland Court of Appeals and believe that pit bulls are inherently dangerous, or with the American Pit Bull Foundation and believe it’s people, not the dogs, that are the problem, one thing remains true — owners are responsible for their dogs.
Many rural Tennesseans mistakenly believe that allowing one’s dogs to run loose is a rite of passage as a property and pet owner. But Tennessee does have a “leash law.” If your dog attacks someone, or if your dog goes onto someone else’s property and attacks their pets or damages their property, you can be held responsible — not just in civil court, but in criminal court, as well. And that holds true whether your dog is a pit bull or a golden retriever.
Specifically, Tennessee law says that a dog must be under control of its owner at all times and cannot run at large. If your dog is running at large and damages someone else’s property, you can face fines and be guilty of a Class B misdemeanor. If your dog runs at large and causes serious bodily injury — or death — to someone, you can face both fines and imprisonment as a convicted felon. (Know the law; read it here.)