Our View: Start protecting us from dangerous pit bulls

The man who owned two pit bulls that attacked a Texas man in 2011 had this sign posted on his property.
The man who owned two pit bulls that attacked a Texas man in 2011 had this sign posted on his property. Fort Worth Star-Telegram file

Should we have the right to protect ourselves from vicious dogs? Or do we just roll over, play dead and refuse to speak up because the misguided pit bull lobby makes a lot of noise?

Last October, 54-year-old Juan Fernandez of Modesto was mauled to death in his own backyard by a pack of four aggressive dogs that everyone – including the sheriff’s deputies who killed them – described as pit bulls. His 77-year-old mother tried to rescue him and just barely escaped with critical injuries.

With her son dead, Maria Fernandez left the state; it’s doubtful she will ever return. The owners of the vicious dogs left town, too.

Sheriff Adam Christianson told us in November that charges against the dogs’ owners were unlikely; there had been no prior complaints, and he could not show negligence. District Attorney Birgit Fladager, citing the same reasons, said recently charges won’t be filed.

We’re not lawyers, but this seems like a crime. That it will go unpunished leaves us both outraged and frustrated. If law enforcement can do nothing, then we must do something.

Why? Because the attacks continue.

Two weeks ago, the face of a 40-year-old woman in Pinole was ripped off by her 9-year-old pet pit bull. A neighbor told sfgate.com the pit bull “had a kind, loving temperament … it must have snapped.”

Must have snapped.

Two pit bulls snapped in downtown Stockton last week, attacking two men and killing a cat. When a police officer responded, they appeared to work in tandem, circling and lunging at him before they were shot.

The Stockton victims were lucky. The website dogsbite.org attributed 27 fatalities to pit bulls in 2014. That was up from 25 in 2013. From 2005 to 2014, pit bulls accounted for 203 deaths – or 62 percent of the total number of people killed by dogs. Yet, pit bulls make up only 6 percent of the total dog population.

A woman out for a run was killed in Stockton last year. A 40-year-old man was killed by his pet pit bull in Indiana; a 64-year-old woman was killed by four dogs in her backyard; an 83-year-old woman killed by her granddaughter’s four pit bulls; a toddler was killed by her grandmother’s pit bull. There’s more.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a 20-year study ending in 2000, and found that two-thirds of all fatal dog bites came from either pit bulls or Rottweilers. Mostly pit bulls.

It’s harder to protect ourselves in California than other states, but here’s how we start:

First, since 2005 cities and counties have been allowed to require that pit bulls and other aggressive breeds be spayed or neutered. Ripon and Manteca already have these laws. Stanislaus County and all its cities should follow suit.

Second, the 2004 state law authored by Tom Hayden that disallows “breed-specific” laws should be repealed. That would allow cities and counties to mandate specific outdoor enclosures such as cement-floored, five-sided chain-link-fence kennels. It would allow limits on the number of large dogs as opposed to smaller dogs. It could require muzzles based on breed or size.

Stanislaus County executive Stan Risen fears “over-regulation”; we fear encountering dogs not properly muzzled, confined or restrained.

What’s worse? Forcing owners of aggressive dogs to responsibly care for their animals by following a few extra rules, or burying another of our neighbors?

Assembly Republican leader Kristin Olsen told The Bee’s editorial board that she wants to prohibit criminals from owning pit bulls. “There’s a plethora of evidence that pit bulls in the hands of convicted criminals are being used as weapons,” she said. But Olsen admits pit bull owners are vocal. And often being vocal is enough to scare off good laws.

You don’t have the right to own a lion, bobcats or leopards. The same is true for gorillas, crocodiles, alligators, cobras, mambas and sharks. Owning pet bears and rattlesnakes is illegal. Yet the number of people killed in the U.S. by all of these animals combined each year is about half the number killed by pit bulls.

So why is it that local jurisdictions can outlaw all of the above as pets, but can’t outlaw the deadliest of them all?

After our last editorial concerning pit bulls, we got more than 500 emails – most polite, some rude, one or two threatening. Most accused us of wanting to discriminate against their favorite breed. They’re right; we do want to discriminate. Dogs are not people; there’s nothing illegal or immoral about discriminating against dangerous dogs – or any dangerous animal. It’s done all the time and for good reason.

Their angry denunciations are at once self-serving and irrelevant. Besides, few of those emails came from people living in this area.

But we do live here. And it’s time for our county supervisors and City Council members to join their counterparts in Ripon and Manteca and pass laws to provide at least a modicum of protection from dangerous dogs. Require pit bulls and aggressive breeds to be neutered, then require them to be muzzled and properly caged.