New Bern, NC – What would prompt the largest military base on the East Coast to ban certain breeds of dog from their housing? Are pit bulls inherently violent animals, or is their upbringing and reputation to blame? There are no easy answers, but we seek to further investigate this controversial breed.
DogsBite.org is a national dog bite victims' group dedicated to reducing serious dog attacks. In 2011, they reported 22 fatal pit bull attacks that occurred in the United States, and the number for this year continues to rise. Recent events in Eastern North Carolina have brought this issue close to home and sparked debate about this breed, which has a reputation for viciousness.
In 2009, one pit bull demonstrated its destructive potential when Fayetville Sheriff's Deputy Lynn Lavallis answered a call placed by a mother claiming that her daughter was being chased by a pit bull. While she was inside getting information from the mother about the incident, the dog attacked and punctured each tire of Lavallis's police cruiser.
The strength of a pit bull's bite is the main breed characteristic that causes them to attack with fatal results more frequently than other breeds.
New Bern Veterinarian, Stephen Stelma.
"Any dog with teeth can bite. The problem is, when a pit bull bites, it's extremely powerful and it can do a lot of damage. When they attack, they're aggressive and they won't let go they keep after it they can even kill people."
The pit bull is a medium to large sized dog that can be the mix of multiple terrier and boxer breeds. They are known for their short coat, heavy musculature, strong, wide jaw and rectangular head.
In Stelma's experience, he has found pit bulls to be naturally docile and friendly to humans, though they do have a predisposition to be aggressive towards other animals.
"I've been bit by one pit bull ever in my 25 year career. I would argue that they're not more dangerous than other dogs. I used to own them, I have many many patients that are pit bulls, and I trust them far more than a lot of other dogs in general."
Stelma points to upbringing, not nature, as the culprit for the pit's reputation for violence. Pit bulls were originally bred for bull baiting, a practice where a dog would bite the nose of a bull while it was being castrated to keep the bull's handlers from getting gored. Because of this, pit bulls were bred to have impressive bite strength and to possess aggression towards other animals. Later this practice developed into a spectator sport where bulls and pit bulls were made to fight a precursor to modern day dog fighting of the sort that has been put into the media spotlight since quarterback Michael Vick was exposed for his involvement in the sport. Aggression towards humans was never a trait initially tolerated in the breed. Later, they were used in the military for their loyalty and aggression. Pit bulls are bred with the tools for violence, but are they only aggressive when encouraged to be so by an owner?
"Any breed can be made to be aggressive I think it's how they're handled when they're young; how they're socialized toward people and other animals. But I think part of it is the pit bull has a reputation and tend to be owned in some cases by people who want just a big, bad dog. And so they bring the dog up to be aggressive and to be protective and to not trust and love other people and other animals."
The fact that owners looking for a "dangerous" or "threatening-seeming" dog gravitate toward pit bulls creates a vicious cycle which produces violent dogs and cultivates the public's fear. This nature vs. nurture debate is central to the question of the so-called dangerous breeds.
In 2009, Robbie Jenkins and Tremayne Spillman were keeping a friend's pit bull in their care when it chewed off their 4 month old baby's toes while the couple was sleeping. The dog had been left to roam the house. The parents claimed not to hear the baby's cries until morning. The dog was euthanized, and the parents face felony charges of child abuse.
So who is to blame: violent dogs, or poorly equipped owners? President and Founder of Onslow County's Partners for Animal Welfare, Dottie Anne Harding, weighs in:
"Anybody who wants to own a dog should understand the breed. These are working dogs. And they're called working dogs because these are not dogs that should be in your apartment or in your home 8 hours a day. They need to be worked or they develop anxiety conditions, aggression, frustration "
Harding believes that any inherent aggression in a breed can be handled and minimized if the owners are informed and act appropriately while raising and handling their dog. Dozens of pit bull rescues in NC follow these same guidelines for ownership and rehabilitation: if you train and treat a dog correctly, it will become a suitable family pet. While Harding claims that small breeds are responsible for the majority of bites,Statistics show that three dog breeds, pit bulls, rottweilers and wolf hybrids, are responsible for about three-fourths of all serious dog bite injuries and that pit bulls attack adults just as often as they attack children.
As the case finally closes on the pitbull attack resulting in the death of 5 year old Mikayla Woodard of Waxhaw, NC resulting in a two year prison sentence for the owner of the dog, Michael Gordon new cases are opened frequently portraying the deadly potential of this breed. Two women in Greenville were attacked on June 12, landing one of the women Wanell Dancy in the hospital. She claims the dog was trying to kill her. Onlookers say that the dog was attempting to bite her throat when she blocked it and he bit off a piece of her breast instead. The other victim Shermeik Nicholson owns five pitbulls herself but believes this dog was raised to be violent. The dog, Sunny, was also responsible for attacking two children in Havelock and inflicting wounds on their faces, arms, and hands back in February of 2012. Sunny was euthanized after being kept in containment for two weeks. He tested negative for rabies. We made multiple attempts to contact the Animal Control Offices in Greenville to see what measures were in place to track a dog like Sunny who had been violent in the past and then moved to a new area. Our calls were never returned.
Some believe that the dangers of owning these dogs are so clearly evident that legislation is necessary. As a result of the perceived aggression of certain breeds, Camp Lejeune has joined the ranks of military bases that now ban these dogs from their housing.
"As of May 2009, we've had an order out that bans full or mixed breeds of pitbull, or rottweiller, or wolf hybrids, or any dog of any breed that exhibits traits of aggression as determined by our domestic animal control officer."
Nat Fahy, Deputy Director of Public Affairs Marine Core Base Camp Lejeune.
"since the order was enacted, those base residents who own these vicious breeds that were covered in the base order were grandfathered in. And so we allowed a time window of about three years to pass, and now we are going to be asking that anyone who owns these breeds, that they are not authorized from September 2012 from keeping those types of breeds on base."
Officials are requiring all base residents to re-register their dogs on an annual basis and have them visually inspected by the domestic animal control officer to ensure that none of these banned breeds are being harbored. Fahy cited an event back in 2008 as the catalyst for the ban:
"We had a very tragic incident in May 2008in which a 3yr old boy died as a result of wounds sustained by a pit bull that was brought on base by a visitor, so that is really what prompted the commanding officer at the time to take a look at those dangerous breeds."
Whether or not a dog is born with violent tendencies or raised to have them, if you find yourself in a potentially dangerous situation involving an aggressive dog, here are some tips on what to do: First, stay calm. If you try to run, the dog will instinctively label you as a prey animal and begin to chase you. Try to find an object like a stick that could be used to block the dog's bite. Stand sideways to assume a non-threatening position and stay still, protecting your face, chest, and throat. Try throwing a shirt or any other piece of cloth over the dog's face to disorient it. Instruct any onlookers to contact your area's police and animal control office, or do so yourself if the dog retreats. They will send officers to the area to assist you and assess the threat level the dog is presenting.
For more information on protecting yourself from dangerous dogs, go to humanesociety.org or you can try to call your local animal control office.
For Public Radio East, I'm Emily Byrd.