Experts blame owners for Merced area dog attacks

Maulings have run across a mix of breeds, statistics reveal.

October 28, 2009 

Is it the dog?

Or is it the breed?

Two vicious pit bull maulings this month in Delhi -- one which killed a toddler -- have raised those questions yet again.

Are dog attacks specific to certain breeds? Or individual animals? The controversy rages across the nation and now in Merced County.

Colton Smith, 17 months old, was fatally mauled Friday by a pit bull named Max in the backyard of his babysitter's house in Delhi. The dog hadn't been neutered. The other case involved a woman mauled on the streets of Delhi on Oct. 1.

The two attacks add to the already ruinous reputation sported by pit bulls. They may be the most maligned dogs in America.

And they're notorious as a dog prized by illegal dog fighters -- most notably by pro football player Michael Vick.

In recent years, the breed has gained a reputation for violence.

Whether that reputation is deserved is another issue.

While attacks often prompt knee-jerk reactions against specific breeds, dog advocacy groups say most fatal maulings don't stem from one breed alone. More often than not, attacks are caused by owner neglect or abuse, rather than traits tied to a certain breed, advocates say.

Since 1965 there have been 62 fatal dog attacks in the state, according to the National Canine Research Council. Forty-six of those attacks were on children.

In all, 15 separate breeds were involved in those attacks.

Merced County statistics on dog attacks show a similar mixture of breeding. From 2007 to 2009 there were 309 reported dog attacks, and 76 were pit bulls, according to the county.

While one breed hasn't been at fault for the majority of attacks in the county or state, the circumstances surrounding most attacks are similar. According to Rick Blackwell, the county's animal service manager, the dogs are un-neutered, kept outside and, when a child is involved, the child has been left alone with an unknown dog.

Overall, dog bite reports have decreased in California over the past four decades -- despite a growing dog population, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund Web site.

Nationally, more than 4 million people are bit each year by dogs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even so, recent dog attacks have prompted cities and states to pass legislation banning pit bulls. According to the NCRC, hundreds of cities have passed such laws. One example is the city of Denver, which banned pit bull variations in 1989.

In 2009, similar statewide legislation was introduced in Montana, Hawaii and Oregon.

Meanwhile, 12 states have passed their own contradictory legislation prohibiting the banning of any certain breed of dog.

California is one of those states, according to ALDF. State law does require certain dog breeds to be fixed.

These countervailing trends have pitted animal advocates at odds with one another. Some argue that such legislation is wrongheaded, while others support it.

Adam Goldfarb, director of the Pets at Risk Program with the American Humane Society, said much of the fault in attacks rests with humans -- not canines. "The vast majority of dog attacks can be blamed on reckless owner behavior, not the dogs themselves," he said.

Unfortunately, he added, the pit bull is popular with reckless and irresponsible owners. He cited a statistic from the NCRC: 70 percent of all dog bite incidents involved un-neutered male dogs.

But other groups dispute the Humane Society's findings.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals supports pit bull bans. While the group says pit bulls can be family pets, they're also some of the most abused dogs in America. More often than not, the people who seek them out are not typical caring owners. "The vast majority of people who want pit bulls are attracted to the 'macho' image of the breed as a living weapon and seek to play up this image by putting the animals in heavy chains; kicking, beating, and otherwise abusing them into aggression; and leaving them outside in all weather extremes in order to 'toughen' them up,'" said a PETA policy statement.

As for Smith, the preliminary autopsy said the cause of his death in the fatal mauling was from loss of blood because an artery in his neck had been punctured, according to a press release from the Merced County Sheriff's Department.

The circumstances around his death align with similar factors in most fatal mauling deaths cited by animal advocates. Attacks often include children left alone with a strange, un-neutered dogs that are kept outside -- often as guard dogs rather than pets.

Sgt. Jason Goins with the Merced County Sheriff's Department said the dog, Max, had been left in the backyard and was sometimes tethered. He also said the dog had only been at the residence for about a week. The dog's owners, Gustavo Garcia and Martha Carrera -- future in-laws of Smith's babysitter -- had left the dog at the house while they were in the process of moving.

No charges have yet been filed in the case.

Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or jlamb@mercedsun-star.com.