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Proposal takes aim at pit bull maulings

The Baltimore Sun

Dominic Solesky was playing tag behind his family's Towson rowhouse on a spring afternoon when he heard his friend scream. The 10-year-old boy remembers running down the alley to help his pal. He heard a rattle from a nearby cage -- and then saw a brawny dog jump a fence and head his way.

The attack's toll: two surgeries for Dominic and more than two weeks in the hospital.

Now, a Baltimore County lawmaker says Dominic's suffering shows that more must be done to protect the public from pit bulls.

"The damage they can do to a human or another animal is much worse than what other breeds can do," said County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Towson-Perry Hall Democrat.

"It's like the difference between having a .22 handgun and a semiautomatic," he said. "A semi is a gun just like a .22, but it can do a lot more damage if it's not controlled."

Gardina's legislation, up for debate at a council work session tomorrow, would require pit bull owners to muzzle their dogs in public, keep them in cages at other times and post warning signs outside their homes. It joins a series of efforts across the country to address maulings by pit bull terriers.

A recent attack on a 7-year-old girl in Baltimore prompted a City Council member to propose legislation to control dangerous animals. But the Baltimore County bill -- like a law in Boston and other legislative efforts to single out pit bulls -- has drawn particularly ardent criticism from some dog owners and animal rights groups, who say the approach is not only unfair but also is ineffective and costly.

"People that are irresponsible are not going to follow these types of laws," said Marcy Setter, education director for the Internet-based Pit Bull Rescue Central. "What we need to do is focus on irresponsible ownership, regardless of breed. That's where the issue lies, and that's what the research tells us."

For years, government officials and animal rights activists have debated the fairness and effectiveness of breed-specific laws. At least 12 states have banned such laws.

There is no such ban in Maryland, where three locales -- Prince George's County and the towns of Port Deposit in Cecil County and North Beach in Calvert County -- prohibit the ownership of pit bulls.

Supporters of pit bull legislation point to studies showing that the dogs are responsible for an inordinate number of attacks. According to a report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of 238 dog-bite-related deaths from 1979 to 1998 in which the breed was known, pit bulls accounted for 66, more than any other breed.

In 2004, the city of Boston passed a law requiring pit bull owners to spay or neuter their dogs, muzzle their dogs in public and post warning signs outside their homes.

Stephen Crosby, deputy director of Boston's property and construction management department, which enforces the law, said pit bull attacks have fallen since the restrictions were put in place, although he attributed the decline to a number of factors.

"There are folks who will say that 'I know good pit bulls,' and there are," Crosby said. "Unfortunately, it's a breed that has a tendency to have more problems than perhaps some other breeds. They always led Boston with the most dog bites."

A recurring concern about pit bull legislation is how exactly to define a pit bull, a term that can refer to several breeds. Animal rights activists point out that many dogs are mistakenly identified as pit bulls.

Crosby said that Boston's animal control officers have had few problems identifying pit bulls.

Gardina's proposal would apply to the Staffordshire bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the American pit bull terrier and any mixes that include those breeds, regardless of whether the animal has shown any signs of being a problem. The restrictions would also apply to dogs with violent histories that are deemed "dangerous" or "menacing" by the county.

The bill would require owners to keep the dogs in a cage with a concrete base, muzzle them outside the cages and post property signs that read "Pit Bull Dog" or "Beware of Dog." Violators would face a fine of up to $1,000.

Gardina said late last week that he was considering an amendment that would remove the muzzle requirement because of concerns that muzzles would agitate the dogs.

The county's health officer has opposed the bill, pointing out that a task force on dangerous animals recommended this spring against breed-specific laws. At least three of the seven council members have also voiced concerns about the legislation, including Kenneth N. Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat who initially co-sponsored the bill but said he changed his mind after researching the matter.

The authors of the CDC report on dog-bite-related deaths pointed out that breed-specific laws have prompted constitutional questions involving dog owner's rights to equal protection under the law and due process.

Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat, called Gardina's proposal a "knee-jerk" reaction to high-profile pit bull attacks, adding, "I question whether any animal should be kept muzzled and caged at all times."

Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county Republican, has also raised concerns about Gardina's bill.

Setter, the Pit Bull Rescue Central official, said the pit bull is the latest in a line of dogs that have become what she calls "the media monster," joining the German shepherd, the Doberman pinscher and the Rottweiler. She said most pit bull attacks involve dogs that were not properly leashed.

"If we could enforce our current leash laws, many of these incidents wouldn't happen," she said.

City Councilwoman Agnes Welch, a Democrat who represents the 9th District in West Baltimore, introduced legislation last week that would require residents to keep dangerous animals in pens with a concrete base and a roof anchored to the frame.

Welch introduced the bill less than two weeks after a pit bull attacked a 7-year-old girl in Southwest Baltimore.

The city has also launched a crackdown on dogfighting, which often involves pit bulls, creating a task force to investigate allegations of animal cruelty.

The attack against Dominic Solesky occurred in late April after a pit bull named Clifford escaped from a cage in the backyard of its owner's rowhouse.

Dominic and three friends had been playing tag with Nerf Darts in an alley behind his family's rowhouse on Ridge Avenue, Dominic recalled.

When he heard a scream, he ran down the alley and saw a friend on the ground, Dominic said. The boy had been attacked by a pit bull, suffering scrapes, the boy's father said.

Several yards away, a pit bull escaped from a cage and jumped over its owner's fence. Dominic bolted, but within seconds the pit bull, later identified as Clifford, was on top of him, he recalled. Within a few minutes, the pit bull mauled the 60-pound boy, biting a chunk out of his cheek and severing a femoral artery in his left groin area.

"It was just dragging me around," Dominic said.

The owner came outside, pulled the dog off him and put it in the house, Dominic recalled.

Dominic's friends went to get his mother.

"It literally looked like a shark attack," Irene Solesky said. "It was not something I was prepared to see."

Dominic was in the hospital for 17 days, his parents said.

Authorities euthanized the pit bull and charged the owner with reckless endangerment.

The owner did not want to comment for this article, said his attorney, Leonard Shapiro.

Shapiro said the dog might have been riled up by darts coming his way.

"It certainly was not unprovoked," Shapiro said of the attack, adding, "It looks like an unfortunate set of circumstances rather than some maniac dog running through the neighborhood."

Dominic walks with a limp and attends physical therapy sessions three times a week, said his father, Tony Solesky. He said his son is expected to recover.

Dominic's parents said that insurance has not covered all of the hospital bills, forcing them to pay many expenses out of pocket.

Tony Solesky said he is in favor of restrictions targeting pit bulls.

He said that he is a dog lover whose sister has a pit bull and that Dominic has even petted her dog since the attack.

"But I would never suppose that my love for my dog would supersede what needs to be done when you're trying to come up with a rational plan to protect people," he said.

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

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