Mike Dunbar

Owners of pit bulls didn’t like Our View

I don’t hate pit bulls. In fact, I think I might prefer them to some of the folks I’ve encountered online since The Bee’s editorial “Pit bulls can be deadly; hold owners accountable” was posted.

Outraged pit-bull aficionados called the editorial rubbish. Ignorant. A hit piece. One person said the writer was a coward for not signing it.

Let’s dispose of that first. Any “Our View” editorial is published as the voice of The Bee, which includes the permanent members of our editorial board – me, Editor Joe Kieta and Publisher Ken Riddick. While we talk over issues and recommendations, they usually leave the research and writing to me – as they did with this editorial. So it’s not the voice of just one editor.

Columns, like this one, are different. The opinions you find here are all mine. The editor could kill the column, but he wouldn’t tell me what to say. So I’m writing this to let the online commenters know exactly who wrote the editorial – and give them a target if that’s what they want.

If you haven’t read the editorial, the gist of The Bee’s opinion is that communities should have the right to protect themselves from vicious dogs. And that anyone who owns a vicious dog must be held accountable for its actions.

What sparked our editorial was the mauling death of 54-year-old Juan Fernandez in Modesto last month. A neighbor’s four pit bulls had burrowed under a chain-link fence into his yard. Fernandez was attacked as he tried to get them out; when his mother tried to chase them away, she was attacked and remained in critical condition for a week.

Our reporters were told by Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson that it would be difficult to charge the dogs’ owner since there were few clear signs of negligence and no evidence the owner had tried to turn them mean. District Attorney Birgit Fladager confirmed the sheriff’s analysis.

We were outraged, and that came through in the editorial. If the laws are insufficient to hold the owners of killer animals responsible, the laws must change. But we also need laws that will protect residents from dangerous dogs. Unfortunately, California prohibits bans on specific breeds. Other laws – though a little more flexible – prohibit actions that single out specific breeds for special precautions, such as double-fencing or muzzling. That’s just as ridiculous.

People should be able to decide – as a community – the protections that are necessary for their own safety. There is no Second Amendment guarantee to pit-bull ownership.

The Modesto attack has something in common with many others across the nation: The aggressive dogs were described as pit bulls. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that pit bulls and Rottweilers were responsible for more than two-thirds of all fatal attacks in a 20-year period. So when we start talking about vicious animals, we start with those most frequently linked to the deadly attacks.

That doesn’t sit well with some people. Within eight hours of being posted, our editorial drew 50 comments. Four hours later, it was 90. Now it’s 120. The name-calling started immediately.

Usually, that’s a sign that you’re right. I found one comment particularly interesting. The person said pit bulls are sweet, but a different breed could “not be fooled with.” Is that person saying we should be protected from that breed?

Many readers blasted the websites and studies we quoted. A few recommended others, but we found those studies were often paid for by groups trying to rehabilitate the image of the breed.

Recently, a mountain lion showed up in Turlock, and though no one is attacked, people panicked. Last year, five people were killed by dogs in California – all described as pit bulls or pit-bull mixes. Where’s the panic? The outcry?

Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen met with The Sacramento Bee editorial board Wednesday and was asked about legislation to allow communities to determine for themselves whether or not to allow pit bulls. She said she would not carry it, but might support it.

Last year, a woman was killed in east Stockton by a pit bull. She either lived in Olsen’s district or within a few blocks. That’s two deaths in one year. How many more?

Opinions Page Editor Mike Dunbar can be reached at mdunbar@modbee.com.