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Infant's death stirs officials to reconsider canine laws

The city's first fatal dog attack since 1994 has prompted some City Council members to consider new restrictions on vicious canines, council staffers said yesterday.

Two-week-old Terry Allen Jr. died Friday when his mother's pet pit bull knocked over his swing seat and attacked him. It was the second pit bull attack on a Baltimore child this month: On Aug. 1, a 10-year-old boy survived a mauling in an East Baltimore alley.

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The baby's death comes two years after the City Council defeated a ban on pit bulls by a two-vote margin. Council members who opposed the ban in 2001 said it was unenforceable. Instead, they passed a tougher pet licensing law.

Council President Sheila Dixon and Councilwoman Agnes B. Welch will propose new legislation to control vicious dogs in the wake of the infant's death, council staffers said yesterday. But neither council member intends to reintroduce a pit bull ban, according to Welch and an aide to Dixon.

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About two dozen jurisdictions nationwide ban pit bulls, in spite of protests from owners that the breed is not naturally vicious and becomes aggressive only when mistreated or poorly trained. Some counties have repealed the bans because of continuing opposition or high enforcement costs.

Prince George's County has seen the number of dog bites decline since it banned pit bulls in 1996, according to statistics provided by Patricia Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the county health department. In 1996, pit bulls were responsible for 108 of the 853 dog bites reported in the county. Last year, pit bulls were blamed for 68 of 743 attacks on people, and this year, they have been responsible for 30 of 362 cases.

Baltimore's pit bull fanciers have been effective lobbyists. The city's health commissioner, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, said he initially favored a pit bull ban but opposed it in 2001, in part because he decided "it wasn't going to pass."

"There are plenty of very nice pit bulls that will lap your face," Beilenson said, "and every time we had a pit bull hearing we had millions of people come out and talk about how their pit bull had saved their lives."

There were also practical problems, he said. For example, DNA analysis is the only definitive way to distinguish pit bulls from other breeds, and "we don't have the resources to do DNA analysis on every dog that we pick up," Beilenson said.

A pit bull ban also would not prevent attacks by other breeds. Health department statistics show mixed breeds were most often to blame in the 788 dog attacks reported in the city last year, followed by pit bulls, Rottweilers, German shepherds and chows.

Dixon, who initially favored the pit bull ban in 2001 but later switched her vote, plans to "bring the issue to the table in the fall," said aide Caprece Jackson-Garrett, adding that she didn't know whether the proposal would be "breed-specific." And Welch plans to introduce legislation making it illegal for adults to leave children age 5 and younger alone with an animal.

The 2001 hearings on the issue "brought out more people than anything I proposed having to do with children and education," Welch said. She said council members received many phone calls after Friday's fatal mauling. "A lot of folks didn't care about the child as much as that the dog was shot," she said.

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Beilenson urged parents not to leave small children alone with dogs of any breed.

"I wouldn't leave a kid [alone] with a dog anywhere, even a 3- or 4-year-old," Beilenson said. "I know there are millions of people who have family pets and they'll read that and say, 'What is he talking about?' ... I just think it's courting danger."

The Allen infant's parents, who had stepped outside to smoke cigarettes because they didn't want their baby exposed to the smoke, won't be charged, Beilenson said. "It's just a tragedy. ... The one thing that might have prevented this could have been a pit bull ban, but that's not going to happen."


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