MERCED — Is it the dog? Or is it the breed? Two vicious pit bull maulings this month in Delhi — one of which killed a toddler — have raised those questions yet again.
Colton Smith, 17 months old, was mauled to death Friday by a pit bull named Max in the back yard of his baby sitter's Delhi house.
The dog hadn't been neutered. The other case involved a woman mauled Oct. 1 on a street in the town.
The two attacks add to the already ruinous reputation of pit bulls. They may be the most maligned dogs in America.
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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 any one breed. More often than not, attacks are caused by owner neglect or abuse, rather than traits tied to a certain breed, advocates say.
No one breed to blame for all attacks
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 breeds were involved in those attacks.
Merced County statistics on dog attacks show a similar mixture. From 2007 to 2009, there were 309 reported dog attacks, and 76 were pit bulls, according to the county.
While no one breed has been at fault in the majority of attacks in the county or state, the circumstances surrounding most attacks are similar. According to Rick Blackwell, the county's animal services manager, the dogs typically 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 bitten 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 legislation prohibiting the banning of any specific breed of dog.
California is one of those states, according to the ALDF. State law does require certain dog breeds to be fixed.
These trends have pitted animal advocates against each other. Some argue that such legislation is wrongheaded, while others support it.
Adam Goldfarb, director of the Pets at Risk Program with the Humane Society of the United States, 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 17-month-old Colton, the preliminary autopsy said the cause of death was loss of blood because an artery in his neck had been punctured in the mauling, according to a press release from the Merced County Sheriff's Department.
Sheriff's Sgt. Jason Goins said the dog, Max, had been left in the back yard and sometimes was tethered. He said the dog had been at the residence only about a week. The dog's owners, Gustavo Garcia and Martha Carrera — future in-laws of the child's baby sitter — had left the dog at the house while they were in the process of moving.
No charges have been filed in the case.