Two years after Maryland court ruling, pit bulls on attack

Liability controversy has been settled, but safety remains concern

In the two years since the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that pit bulls were inherently dangerous dogs, I developed a hobby: Pit Bull Google. It's a very edifying activity. Anyone with access to the Internet can do it.

You click on Google News to get the search engine's most recent results. You enter the words "pit bull," and "attack" or "police." (If you only enter "pit bull" you get the latest concert reviews for the rapper known as Pitbull.)

Without fail, the search turns up a news story about a vicious dog attack somewhere in the U.S. within the last four to 48 hours.

On Friday, the search turned up a story from California about an 8-year-old Santa Monica girl with "significant wounds" and "flesh ripped away" from an attack by three pit bulls. According to the Los Angeles Times, the attack left bite wounds from the girls' left shoulder down to her foot; her mother was bitten on the forearm.

In the two years that I've been playing Pit Bull Google, I've read and watched news reports about adults and children killed by pit bulls or what police described as "pit bull mixes," about elderly people and toddlers being maimed, or about pit bulls killing other pets.

Sometimes the owner of the pit bull — or the owner's child — is the victim.

That was the case last November when a 56-year-old woman was attacked and killed by her pit bull in the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello neighborhood of Baltimore.

That was the case last week when a pit bull attacked and injured a 2-year-old boy in Essex; the dog was the family pet.

"The wound was really, really bad," the boy's father told WJZ-TV. "He was missing half his face, pretty much." Baltimore County police said that during the struggle to get the dog off the child, the dog had been killed.

"This is something that could happen to anyone," the dad told 'JZ. "I don't know where this aggression came from."

Actually, Maryland's highest court had an answer to that question.

In a ruling issued April 26, 2012, the court concluded that such aggression is innate and that owners of a pit bull or "a pit bull cross" could be held liable for damages even if their pooch had never bitten anyone before. "When an attack involves pit bulls," the court said, "it is no longer necessary to prove that the particular pit bull or pit bulls are dangerous."

Well, of course, that turned out to be one of the most controversial decisions in the court's 238-year history, with hundreds of animal advocates calling it canine bigotry and saying, "It's not the breed, it's the owner."

I wrote a column concurring with the court's opinion — that one owns a pit bull at one's own risk of injury or litigation, and please keep your pit away from me. Many pit bull lovers took offense, and in the most visceral way.

Some sent photographs of their beloved pets sleeping with toddlers and other small children — proof, in their minds, of the animal's underreported and unappreciated gentle nature.

Animal rights advocates demanded that the Maryland General Assembly take action that would negate the court ruling.

A few weeks ago, the legislature finally came up with a remedy: It made all dogs, regardless of breed, subject to the same liability standard. Supposedly this settles the issue — a breed-neutral approach in which all of us, from pit bull owners to the owners of beagles, are treated the same under the law.

So everyone is happy, sort of.

Tony Solesky, whose son suffered life-threatening injuries in the pit bull case that went to the Court of Appeals, thinks public safety was overlooked in all the howling over the court's decision. "All of the uproar was not about whether you could own dogs safely but about how being held [legally] responsible might affect the public's willingness to own dogs," he said. "Nothing for public safety was advanced."

Solesky has an important point.

He follows a website devoted to recording dog bites. Operators of the site engage in a form of Pit Bull Google and post information almost daily from news reports about bites and fatal attacks by pits and other dangerous dogs.

The latest was about an 83-year-old woman in Texas; she died of injuries sustained "from her head to her toe" in an attack by a neighbor's pit bull, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

Solesky's point about safety is lost on people who believe there are no bad breeds, just bad dog owners.

But making no distinction among breeds — if only so we avoid contact with the dangerous ones — seems illogical. Research bears that out. Trauma doctors at the University of Texas looked at 15 years of dog-bite data and found that attacks by pit bulls happen more frequently than other attacks, cost more to treat and pose a higher risk of death.

After playing Pit Bull Google off and on for the last couple of years, those conclusions are too easy for me to believe.

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

drodricks@baltsun.com

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