In Frederick, a tragic reminder of pit bull ruling

Could pit bull mauling death of 87-year-old have been prevented?

Last April, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law what I call Maryland's pit bull anti-discrimination measure. The legislation negated the 2012 ruling of the Maryland Court of Appeals that ownership of a pit bull should bear special liability because the dog is "inherently dangerous," and it applied the same legal standards to all dogs.

O'Malley's concurrence with the General Assembly appeased owners of pit bulls, pit bull rescue groups and others who were outraged by the court's breed-specific ruling. They called it "canine racism" and said it would lead to tragic consequences — apartment dwellers and other renters forced to move or to give up their beloved pit bulls, animal shelters crowded with pit bulls, and shelters unable to place them in new homes.

After O'Malley's signature officially lifted the legal burden of pit bull ownership, advocates expressed optimism that more of the dogs would be adopted. Tami Santelli, Maryland director of the Humane Society of the United States, said the new law would "stop people [from] being kicked out of their homes just because of the dog they have, and finally pets will stop being surrendered to animal shelters just because of the ruling."

In late April, a local television station aired a news report about pit bulls awaiting adoption at the Frederick County Division of Animal Control and Pet Adoption Center. Officials hoped the new law would "get more pit bulls adopted," the report said. The kennel supervisor, who presented a brawny pit bull named Nino for the camera, said the biting problem associated with pit bulls was "not a breed issue [but] an issue of good ownership." The director of the shelter called pit bulls "great dogs, properly socialized." The story had the force of an infomercial for adoption.

The next month, a pit bull arrived at the home of Eugene "Smitty" Smith on Stonehouse Road, north of Frederick. Smith, a long-time dairy truck driver, lived with his son and his son's fiancee. He apparently loved the pit bull, even let him onto his bed at times.

But, on Jan. 7, as Smith was on the floor of his house taking down the family's Christmas tree, the 5-year-old dog attacked him, mauling his head and left arm, according to police. Smith was pronounced dead of his injuries at Frederick Memorial Hospital. He was 87, and, of course, people who knew him have expressed shock.

It's painful to imagine an old man dying that way, but Smith's death is hardly the first by pit bull, and other senior citizens have been victimized by these strong and volatile animals.

It's not known how the pit bull came to live at the house, but Frederick County animal control officials — the ones who pushed for pit bull adoptions in that TV report last spring — made it clear they had nothing to do with it.

"At no time was the dog in contact with or in the possession of the Frederick County Division of Animal Control and Pet Adoption Center," said the official statement about the incident.

So where did the dog come from?

According to the statement, the dog had been owned by someone "in a neighboring Maryland county" for about three years. "The animal control agency responsible for that jurisdiction had no history of complaints related to the dog or owner's address," the statement said. "The former owner adopted the dog from an animal rescue organization based in the Baltimore area."

But Frederick officials refused to identify that Baltimore-area organization, saying the investigation of Smith's death was still incomplete.

The dog has been euthanized. Smith's funeral service was private. In his online obituary, the family asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Frederick County animal control. One of Smitty's co-workers told the Frederick News-Post that he loved dogs and cats; he kept biscuits in the cab of his truck for the pets that lived on the dairy farms on his routes.

But I have to wonder: Should Smith's own pet have been an 84-pound pit bull?

I've been following pit bull news stories on the Internet for almost three years now; attacks are regularly reported, injuries severe and traumatic. Based on what I've read, I would never own a pit. And I certainly would not recommend them to any household with either a senior citizen or a child.

But it's a free country. People get to own guns, if they wish. They get to own their dog of choice. Beagles, pit bulls — state law no longer discriminates.

The question is whether people are fully informed of the risks when they consider adopting or buying a pit bull. Shelters still have plenty of them. Monday, I counted at least 28 pits or mixes on the website of a Maryland rescue operation; there were only four dogs of other breeds looking for a home.

I guess I understand the eagerness to rescue pit bulls and the heartfelt desire to increase their adoptions. But not with blindness to the facts, not without clear and sufficient warning about the risks they pose.

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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