The elderly gent didn't stand a chance. Last Wednesday morning, 7:20 a.m., two pit bulls jumped him the moment he came out with his trash into the alley at 24th and J Streets in Sherman Heights. It was probably the dogs' owner, a neighbor, who called 911. First to arrive were the police. Then an ambulance. Then, 40 minutes after the first call, Animal Control. Backed by the police, the Animal Control officer lassoed the two dogs. The first one he caught at the end of his noosed pole and hauled it into the Animal Control paddy-wagon. The second he carried, muzzled, in his arms. The ambulance took off, the animal paddy-wagon left for the overcrowded animal shelter, where the dogs would wait to live or to die.
This is the latest in a string of pit bull attacks in San Diego. "Girl Pulled from Jaws of Pit Bull," the headline read just a week earlier in the Union-Tribune, January 6. It happened on Parkside Avenue in Paradise Hills: a pit bull mauled an 11-year-old girl after biting another child. Chula Vista police officer David Padilla, who saved the girl, eventually shot the dog for fear it would attack other children.
In Valencia Park two Wednesdays before that, on December 23, three pit bull terriers knocked Linda Evans, an Animal Control officer, to the ground and bit her on the buttocks, arms, and hand. Officer Darrell Hanson was bitten on the left thigh when he came to her rescue.
Last October in Oak Park, on the edge of Lemon Grove, a police officer trying to separate a fighting pit bull named Rocky from a Doberman named Tyson was forced to shoot the Doberman lest he become a victim himself. On Friday, November 13, a 62-year-old man, fleeing two rottweilers chasing him down Willow Glen Drive in Rancho San Diego, was clipped by the mirror of a passing truck.
The latest string of San Diego dog attacks raises the question: what happened to the promise of a "new era" in Animal Control?
That was when Mid-City police and Animal Control vowed to cooperate to increase the number of animal control officers and to free up the police from the role they had assumed, that of de facto animal control cops.
"The old way of doing things," Mid-City officer Jerry Hara told the Reader last August, "was [police] handled the criminal problems, and whenever we had dog problems, we'd just call Animal Control. The only problem with that is sometimes they only have one or two people for the entire county of San Diego. When you call them, they might [take] an hour to get there. And you can't sit there and baby-sit a dog for that long."
To hasten reforms, Mid-City police officer Christina Burhans wrote a memorandum outlining the escalating issue of vicious dogs, which too often ended up as a police responsibility.
"Animal Control is overwhelmed with the magnitude of the problem and is not able to respond to vicious dog calls or investigations," she wrote. "[The San Diego County Department of Animal Control employs] a total of 34 officers split between shelters in Bonita, Carlsbad, and Gaines Street. Their operation covers over two million people."
[Police] officers, she wrote, had noticed an increase in the number of dog-bite calls, citizen complaints of vicious dogs, and reports of gang members using pit bulls to intimidate officers and residents. "In the first six months of 1998, officers citywide responded to 438 calls for service with a total out-of-service time of 400 hours. Mid-City [officers] spent 208 hours out of service on 224 animal calls during Fiscal Year '98. Countless other radio calls of fights, shootings, stabbings have a direct relationship with pit bull fights where wagers are placed. This figure includes officers having to kill three dogs in Mid-City alone."
Police officers, she was trying to say, should not have to double as animal handlers. This is why Animal Control was created. Burhans proposed developing "a four-way partnership with Animal Control, the community (through the law enforcement subcommittee), Code Compliance, and the police."
The idea was to share information, to train police to handle difficult dogs, and to enforce county laws. Owners with animals considered dangerous must carry $100,000 liability insurance, muzzle the animals when in public, have their dogs branded with permanent identification, and must register the animals as dangerous dogs in addition to obtaining a regular license.
The objective was to find ways for Animal Control to shoulder more responsibility, which, after all, was supposed to be theirs alone.
Perhaps most important, police were prepared to help Animal Control create a less complicated telephone-answering system, so that citizens could get action, quick. They were even prepared to help Animal Control create a volunteer program that left paid Animal Control officers to be available for field work.
Five months and many dog bites later, some police say nothing much has happened.
"I am disappointed with Animal Control," says one peace officer involved, who asked not to be named. "I think they could do a better job. Why is it still us responding when it's really Animal Control's job? Why don't they use volunteers to liberate more of [their officers] for emergency response?
"[People] constantly have to wait," the officer continues. "Animal Control is always saying they're understaffed. I wonder what they've done to get on the ball with that? I continue to hear of dogs attacking people and hear people say, 'I called Animal Control and I didn't get them so I hung up and called 911.' So our 911 systems might be utilized for their nonemergencies just because people can't get through to them. That would tell me that Animal Control isn't doing their job."
"Our program," says Lieutenant James Treece of the San Diego County Department of Animal Control's Vicious Dog Task Force, "has kept San Diego's statistics manageable. Let me give you the figures: Nationally, between 1986 and 1994, dog-bite injuries increased 37 percent. That's a U.S. figure. But locally, the number of dog bites in San Diego County have stayed about the same. In 1989 there were 3209. In 1998, last year, the number of dog bites was 3256. Not a great difference. And add the fact that the county population went up from 2,498,000 in 1990 to 2,724,000 by 1997. The number of people has been increasing, and that means the number of dogs has been increasing. There are an estimated 450,000 to 500,000 dogs in the county now. But I find it interesting that despite the national 37 percent increase in dog bites, locally our statistics haven't shifted during a ten-year period."
"I think that we are meeting the needs of the community," says Lieutenant John Humphrey of Animal Control's patrol division. "And the city of San Diego will be increasing their funding for animal control services beginning in July. That will bring additional staff on board."
Humphrey admits that with only ten patrol officers in the Central Division, "we're very busy. But I would say our response times to high-priority calls has been really fairly good. Department wide we [average] under one hour, and probably in the central region closer to half an hour."
Yes, he says, cops often get there first. "First of all, Animal Control officers are not authorized to exceed the speed limit as [police] officers are. And there are several hundred more police officers on the payroll than Animal Control officers."
What happened to the idea of volunteers to liberate officers for the field? "We really don't have any patrol officers at a desk or in the shelter. That proposal was to increase our volunteers answering the phones. We made technical changes to our phone system and informational phone menu, which has improved the wait time on our phone."
Mid-City community-relations officer Misty Medina agrees progress has been made since August. "We've formed a very valuable partnership with Animal Control. We have a very good information exchange. I've even put on my running shoes, got my dog-catcher's noose, and done ride-alongs with them chasing dogs myself. They'll be coming to a supervisors' meeting this month to do an information exchange with all the supervisors. It's not as adversarial anymore. And when we call for them, response time is better."
Medina says that last year's idea of training police officers to handle vicious dogs "died off." But the ride-along certainly helped her appreciate how dangerous the Animal Control officers' work can be.
Lieutenant Treece, a 25-year veteran of Animal Control, doesn't disagree. "[Pit bulls] are bred to have a high tolerance to pain and low fear," he says. "And they're tough! Bullets can bounce off their head. In one case a guy struck a pit bull with a crowbar and broke his own hand. The dog had a concussion but was up and going straightaway. That's selective breeding. That's what we're dealing with."
An unexpected test came at midnight, last Thursday, outside this writer's office. Suddenly, a wild possum is confronting a dog. One of them has minutes to live. What to do? Call Animal Control? Let's see, 236-4250.
"You have reached the San Diego County Department of Animal Control. Our offices are now closed. Shelters are open, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. through 5:30 p.m. And Saturday and Sunday, 12 p.m. through 5:00 p.m. Our phone-center hours are Monday to Friday..."
After 45 seconds it does finally get to an emergency number. "To report life-threatening emergencies involving an animal occurring now, press 1." The recorded voice on "1" says call the sheriff at 565-5262. According to Humphrey, the sheriff will contact an Animal Control officer sleeping with his wagon at home, ready to roll any time.
But not tonight. The possum discovers a tree. The dog's owner comes out growling. The barking becomes a whimper.