I have a dog in this fight. Or, rather, I had a cat.
Mr. Whiskers was my buddy for 12 years. He sat by my computer while I worked, came with me on walks under the stars after work was done, and often lay out in the grass by the sidewalk, welcoming passersby like a greeter at Walmart. He was big-pawed, big-tummied, big-hearted.
Then one day he went up to greet a neighbor’s dog, a pit bull. Fatal mistake. With one gulp, that pit had Mr. Whiskers’s head in his mouth. Mr. Whiskers’s claws were still outside, and I’m proud to say he shredded the hell out of the pit’s chest and face as he flailed and probably screamed, trying to get loose.
Another brave neighbor saw what was going on and tried to separate Mr. Whiskers from the dog’s jaws, but as they say, you don’t unlock a pit. That’s bred into them, to take bulls down by the nose. When the dog finally did drop Mr. Whiskers, the cat was dead.
That’s when I started paying attention to pits. Reading the stats. Because, it turns out they seriously kill people, too. According to Dogsbite.org, a victims’ website, pit bulls mauled to death 176 Americans between 2005 and 2013.
In 2013, pit bulls killed 25 of the 32 Americans mauled to death by dogs, or 78 percent. Yet, pit bulls make up only about 6 percent of the total U.S. dog population. San Diego makes no effort to regulate these animals. The only exception: La Mesa.
In 2012, four people died by dog in California. The scariest thing: three of those four were killed here in San Diego County.
Rina Kelley had a pit bull encounter of the really scary kind in late 2013 (as reported by Bruce Kauffman in these pages). I’ve come down to Imperial Beach to hear firsthand what being attacked by a pit is like.
Kelley’s a cultured, forthright woman, a classical pianist of passionate Hungarian and Italian extraction. In 2013 she suffered multiple bites from a pit bull while she and her daughter were walking their dogs.
So, she and I are hiking the beach to the exact spot where the attack happened. We’re just south of the “Elephant Cage,” the Navy’s 50-year-old circular radio antenna.
“We were throwing kelp balls all along here,” Kelley says. “And my daughter’s four dogs were chasing them. Then, the balls landed by a woman who was walking her pit bull.
“I thought to myself, Uh-oh. That’s the end of Ricky. That’s the end of the chihuahua. The pit bull attacked, all right, but he went after another of our dogs, Sparky. He grabbed him by the throat. Jamie, my daughter, and I ran up immediately and grabbed them.
“The pit bull wouldn’t let go. Jamie got on top of him. I was trying to pull Sparky from his jaws.
“Jamie said, ‘Stop pulling, Mom. You’re going to hurt him more.’
“She was right. If you pulled [Sparky] a little away, it would grip again. So, I was tearing Sparky. Jamie said, ‘Ma! Get his ears!’ Except the pit bull had no ears. I couldn’t grab them. What you needed was a sharp object to stick in his eye or his ear, to stop him.
“Then Jamie had this idea. We dragged the pit and Sparky into the water. Held the pit’s head under the waves. He was drowning. Only then did he let go. Sparky ran away, and I thought it was over.
“But when Jamie got off the pit, it got up and ran after Sparky. And he attacked again. As I was picking Sparky up, the pit bit me. Bit my hands, grabbed Sparky again.
“And so I dragged the pit into the water again and kneeled on his head, until he released Sparky again. This time there’s blood all over. My hands are all bloody.
“Jamie yelled at me ‘Pick him up, Ma! Pick him up! Go! Go!’ Sparky was heavy with water. My legs cramped up. I dropped him. All this time Jamie was sitting on top of the pit bull. ‘I’m not leaving this dog until you get his leash, his muzzle, his collar and you come and sit on him,’ she yelled at the owner. The dog was biting every which way. He was dangerous.”
They finally escaped and sought out an emergency vet.
“We did not know if our dog was going to live or die. He was so badly chewed up and bleeding. We thought it was all over for him. The pit bull was fine. But my hands were a mess. Puncture wounds. Blood. Pain. He also bit the owner.
Rina Kelly recounts the pit bull attack
Rina Kelly talks about the pit bull attack on Sparky and her family while walking on the beach.
“The doctor at the emergency clinic wanted $2500 for surgery, suturing, all kinds of stuff. We asked the doctor, ‘What’s his prognosis for survival? Can he eat?’
She said, ‘Well, the bad thing is that he’s going to lose his glove of flesh around the lower jaw, his tongue will probably be hanging out,’ — which, miraculously, it doesn’t — ‘he has no teeth on his lower jaw, and he’ll probably lose the ability to salivate. He’s young. He can probably make it. But he’s in a lot of pain. Healing will be a painful process.”
And the other dog’s owner? “She says her dog didn’t bite. She denied everything, to save the dog. So, it’s lawyers now between us. If the water hadn’t been there and my brilliant daughter thought of dragging the pit under, it would have been far worse. Now I feel like bringing a gun to the beach, just in case it happens again. Because the city does nothing to protect us.”
So, Kelley started a petition to persuade the City of Imperial Beach to control its citizens’ more aggressive dogs.
“We ask that these Principal Reforms take effect immediately and be made public by the city:
“1. Dog owners provide proof of insurance to be deposited with the City at time of licensing their dog and carry such proof of insurance on their person if visiting the City. The only exception would be for dogs twenty pounds or under and not one of the Dangerous Breeds.
“2. Immediately Ban all Pits, Rots, Dobermans and Shepherds from City Beaches because their only purpose for coming is to let them run at large on the beach and if they are leashed they still pose a severe threat to persons, their children, and their pets attempting to enjoy the Beach.
“3. Adopt immediately Ordinance Number 921 from Riverside County requiring mandatory sterilization of all Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, Dobermans, Shepherds and other Dangerous Breeds listed in the Top Ten Dangerous Dog Breeds by the CDC [Centers for Disease Control].
“4. Raise the License Fee to $200 for any non-sterilized dog with a view toward encouraging sterilization.…”
I see she got maybe 25 signatures in the spaces below.
“It went nowhere,” Kelley says. “None on the council wanted to address the issue, except [council member Brian P.] Bilbray, and he said there was no way he was going to interfere with dog owners’ rights.”
Webster’s not dog-friendly
But should all pit bulls be penalized?
It’s a sunny Saturday morning on Orange Avenue in Coronado. Tom Campbell, ex–Navy SEAL, sits drinking coffee. Resting beside him is his black pit bull Webster.
“Webster is not a killer. He’s a marvelous dog who unfortunately was dumped by some person and was rescued by the local shelter. I adopted him from the shelter when he was six months old. He’s almost eight years old now. I’d had some experience with pit bulls in the past. I knew what kind of dogs they were. That’s important. You could probably do away with 95 percent of dog-related injuries if people understood the breed of dog they were purchasing.”
But Campbell acknowledges the stats. “Pit bulls are not naturally man-stoppers, but unfortunately they have taken on a cult following. And it’s not a good cult of people in this country who use all the attributes of the breed to turn them into dogs that they are not. They’re not naturally aggressive towards humans. In fact, just the opposite. They were bred hundreds of years ago in England and Scotland to be very friendly toward their masters and toward humans. They were bred as bull baiters and bear hunters. And they still hunt all different kinds of animals with pit bulls today. Especially in the Southeast [U.S.], chasing feral hogs and things like that, because they’re so good at that kind of work. [Pits] get a lot of press because of the gangs that abuse them and misuse them. And when they go after people, it’s generally because they have been abused or they’ve been mistrained to do that kind of thing, by people like Michael Vick. People have been attracted to these dogs because of their athletic ability, their motivation to please their master, their strength — they’re very, very strong — and so they make ideal dogs for doing all the wrong things. A pit bull has a tremendously strong jaw. It can harm people. And that’s one of the reasons why it is so important for people to really truly understand the breed that they’re involved with.”
One of the problems, he says, is owners who treat their pits as though they were toy poodles. “I wouldn’t keep a pit bull or any large dog in a small apartment. It’s not fair to the dog. People think, Oh, I want to come home to my big lovable dog. The dog who’s been lying in his small apartment all day long, who has not been able to get out and exercise. That dog is probably going to be frustrated, anxious, and [more] likely to cause harm to someone than a dog that is in a proper place for its size and breed. But I think it’s a shame for somewhere like Denver to ban pits or any breed, because I just don’t think there are any really bad dogs. There are bad trainers, bad adopters, bad people who misuse any breed.”
Webster looks big, powerful, but totally lovable. He keeps asking for caresses, giving big lavish licks. But how scared are the kids on Campbell’s street of Webster?
“My neighbors know Webster. They know him well. He can go to any house on my street. He’s welcomed in their house, with children, without children. He’s probably the friendliest dog on the block.”
Tom and Webster, his rescued pit bull
Tom Campbell talks about life with Webster, his beloved pit bull.
And with other dogs? “Uh, no. He’s not dog-friendly. That’s one of the things that I understood before I adopted him, that pit bulls, especially males, even though he’s neutered, will at times be dog-aggressive. I absolutely do not take him down to Dog Beach and release him. That’s not where he should be. He should be with me. I can take him to an enclosed area, a park where I can let him off-leash, to run and chase a tennis ball all day long. But I do not release him alone with other dogs.”
He gives Webster a pat. “He is a brilliant dog. He knows 100 different terms, English words for his toys, my shoes. But I would never leave him alone with a child. Here, though, with me, in the street, kids come up, they pull his ears and he licks them and I don’t have any problem with that. The only problem is if I see a dog coming, I’ve got to make sure that he’s totally under control.”
Leticia Orosco cruises past, walking Carter, a six-year-old chocolate-brown pit bull. He’s a rescue, too. “My son Jesse found him on the internet, at the Devore Shelter, which is in Riverside. It’s a kill shelter where they actually euthanize the animals when they’ve come from bad situations. Carter had been what they call a ‘bait dog,’ which means they have aggressive dogs training on him to become fighting dogs. They would tape his mouth up. That’s what they do to bait dogs. They tape their mouths so they don’t bite back, and throw them in a pit, so that other dogs can get aggressive and learn how to fight. And that’s what the scars on his face are. That’s the scenario he came from. They post dogs like Carter [on the internet] in the hope that someone will come and rescue them.
“And my son just wanted an animal. And that’s how he came across Carter. He saw him on the internet and he went to Riverside and rescued him the day before he was to be euthanized. Three and a half years ago.
“I knew he could be a problem dog. But Carter was the most calm dog. If Jesse was away at school during the day, I’d come home and I’d find Carter in the family room with Jesse’s baseball glove or shoe right by his head. But never chewed or torn. It was just like a comforting thing of knowing that his master was going to come home.
“People do shrink away when we walk by. I’ll be walking and some people will grab their children off to the side. And that’s okay. I respect that. I’ll always walk Carter to my left. And I’ll step down if I see a family coming and I notice the body language. But I can be walking by and little tiny dogs will be lunging at Carter and bark. He’ll just look at them and keep walking. I think the [media] is quick to report [delinquent] pits, more than other dogs. Pit bulls originate from Britain, and they were used as nannies, to babysit royalty.”
“Look at the Little Rascals,” says Kayt Dowling, who happens to be walking by with her pit pup Millie. “Petey the dog was a pit bull. Kids loved him. And don’t trust statistics. I know stats that say absolutely the opposite to what you may have read. I don’t worry about Millie getting jealous of any future child of mine because that is a personality trait where I think some dogs have more tendencies towards that than others. I’ve seen [jealousy] more in smaller dogs.”
“The pit bull most of the time wants its environment to be safe,” says Dr. James Spiers, a Coronado vet. “I think that there are many large-breed dogs that are of equal concern if you have a small child. The most important factor for a pit bull is predictability. Ironically, the accusation you often hear thrown at pit bulls is unpredictability. It is probably not valid. People’s fear often comes from the fact that pits are powerful animals. But I don’t think pit bulls are any more of a danger than any other large-breed dog like a German shepherd or a mastiff or a Doberman pinscher or a husky or a Malamute. I myself have been the most scared with other breeds.”
Bloody tail wagging
It is amazing that Stephanie O’Brien will go within 50 feet of a pit bull, let alone do what she does for a living: train pits with aggression problems. Fourteen years ago she was on the way to being killed by one.
“I was involved as a trainer at a kennel for aggressive dogs. One of the pit bulls there really liked me. ‘Whopper.’ He weighed 100 pounds. Same weight as me. He had been ‘rescued,’ had had two owners. I didn’t understand aggression then. He was so friendly. I thought if a dog loves you, he’ll never hurt you. Ninety-eight percent of owners believe that.
“So I’d take him everywhere. He slept in my office. He’d sit with me when I worked. I’d squish my face in his and kiss him.
“So, one day I was going to take him out for a walk. I led him down the kennel aisle at the facility, past the cages of all the other animals boarded there, towards the exit.
“We got to the last dog. He didn’t like that last dog. They lunged at each other. He pulled me right along. They were having what we call a fence-fight, nose-to-nose through the bars. I knew not to get between the two of them, so I pulled him on the leash. ‘Come on, Whopper!’
“Then I made the big mistake of turning my back on him. I was pulling on his leash. And then I felt the leash go slack. Just a moment. No sound. And then it felt like wham! A freight train hit me. He grabbed me by the leg and threw me to the ground.
“It took me ten seconds to realize: Whopper’s attacking me! He had his jaws around my left leg. I had no clue what was happening. He locked on. He was shaking the crap out of me. There was no barking. That’s been bred out of them. They’re like MMA fighters. Silent. I was in shock. I was thinking, What must I do? Punch him on the head? Gouge his eyes? Stick a pencil in his ear? I could just hear myself yelling ‘Stop! Get the dog off!’ Because the pain was incredible. I stopped myself from trying to make him let go because I knew he would just attack elsewhere, maybe somewhere terrible, like my face.
“The owner’s son froze. He was a huge kid, maybe 250 pounds. I yelled at him to pull on the leash, to choke him. He tried. But the dog wouldn’t let go. So, the kid grabbed a big new broom from nearby and started smashing the dog in the head. Three, four big blows. Blood spurted. Whopper finally keeled over, his jaws still in my leg. We thought he was dead. They got him off me. I hobbled to a bench. I could see my leg was shredded.
“But then — and this is what still freaks me out the most — Whopper started waking up. He was coughing up blood. He sat up. The other guys got two leashes and held him firm from either side. And what did Whopper do? He wagged his tail at me. Wagged his tail at me! He had just snapped out of that fight-or-flight trance. It was as though nothing had happened.
“I got a full septic infection from the bites, spent a week and a half in hospital. The pain was incredible. The medical bills were $60,000, and the legal bills — I had to sue. It was a six-year lawsuit — came to $30,000. I couldn’t walk for a few months. I couldn’t work. If you project my case nationally, just look at lost productivity — with 4.5 million Americans being bitten by dogs every year — it is a huge cost to the economy.
“In retrospect, I’m glad it was me it happened to, because now if anyone wants to challenge my view [on this breed of dog] I have very personal evidence.”
These days, O’Brien specializes in training aggressive dogs at K-9 Behavior Services, which is L.A.-based, but also does dog boot-camps and dog-aggression training throughout San Diego County.
“Why do people seek pit bulls?” she asks. “Many adopters of pit bulls don’t understand aggression. This is an overbred breed. No real regulations cover them. There’s a lot of under-the-radar breeding, a lot of dumping, and a lot of bleeding-heart people feeling an overwhelming need to rescue this ‘misunderstood’ breed. You see it on Craigslist. But make no mistake: these dogs are bred to fight. When they are aroused, they are not thinking of anything else. They can’t think on the fly like some other breeds. They have been bred to grab and not stop. This separates them from all other species. They look for a fight. They take pleasure in fighting. You don’t have to force them to. Game-bred pit bulls never purposely go for humans, only other animals. But in inexperienced hands, or bad hands, these dogs can be absolutely dangerous.
“I returned to training aggressive dogs because I grew up with horses, and you know the saying: right after you get thrown, you should get straight back on again so you don’t let the fear settle in. But I definitely had [post-traumatic stress] anxiety.
“It opened my eyes. Most people are in denial. People who are out to ‘save’ pit bulls, the majority have never seen this side that I experienced. Also, aggressive people sometimes just like to pick aggressive dogs. Whopper had dog- and people-aggression. But in his mind then it was, like, I just want to kill that other dog. That caged dog enraged him but he couldn’t get to it. I was the nearest target for his aggression. It’s what we call ‘displaced aggression.’ He was 11 months old, but he had already displayed tendencies. The girl who owned him got him as a pup. Even then he was very territorial. When her boyfriend sat on her bed, Whopper tried to attack him.”
But what about the story that pits loved kids, were “royal nannies” back in Britain?
“Don’t use them as ‘nannies’ for your kids. They are too unpredictable. Yes, the British would let their Staffordshire bull terriers hang out with their kids a long time ago, but we’re talking 15–25-pound dogs, not today’s 100-pound American pit bull.”
And yet, she acknowledges, Americans have a thing about pit bulls. “It’s an American breed now. There’s something about pits that fits the American psyche. People like drama, especially when nothing else is going on in their lives. You feel good because you get attention. But even with guns, you have to have training in most states. Not with pit bulls. They think mascot, Little Rascals, they forget what the breed was bred for. The pit bull doesn’t forget. We get clients calling in, saying, ‘I want you to certify my pit bull as a service dog.’ But it usually comes out that they only want the certification because they know landlords cannot deny a service dog in the apartments they rent out. Pit bulls are fighting dogs. It’s in their genes. Any pit bull dumped in a shelter that shows any aggression should be euthanized. It sounds hard, but the consequences can be terrible. We tell our pit bull–owning clients, ‘If you have no time for your dog, to feed him, exercise him, shelter him, give him a decent-sized secure yard, train him, interact with him, you have no business getting involved with these dogs.’
“My experience could have ruined my life. Even without the pain and suffering. I couldn’t work for six months. Paying the bills destroyed my credit. There was no workman’s comp. I had to sell the horse I loved. My dad had to help me. If I’d been walking a dachshund that day the outcome would have been so different. I may come through as hard, but when I see a kid’s face disfigured, or dogs’ lives ruined, I know I have to do something. If I prevent one person from getting mauled, or worse, I’m happy that I’m speaking out.”
It’s six at night on a back street in the South Bay. Baltazar Macías stands outside the clinic where he’s a registered veterinary technician. He’s been working here 18 years.
“All of a sudden,” he says, “pit bulls have started showing up. I would say about 30-something years ago, pit bulls were unknown to me. In vet school, we’d study German shepherds, cocker spaniels, chihuahuas, but no pit bulls. I just didn’t know them.
“I had the first pit bull in my home town, Mexicali. His name was Caligula. We found him wandering, sick. He had been dumped at a trucking station. He had a viral infection. We rescued him, we took him in, cured him, and we kept him. He hated cats with a passion. He didn’t like dogs that much. In those days, people did not know pit bulls. But later on, the sleazy elements acquired them. This was the mid ’80s. That’s when it really turned ugly. Clandestine dog fights and all that. Basically, the pit bulls turned into a status symbol. ‘I’m a mean guy, I have a pit bull.’ So, then came indiscriminate breeding, poor quality, bad sanitation, no socialization [of the dog], very inadequate owners….
“We get quite a few coming into the clinic. Of course owners say ‘My dog doesn’t bite.’ But I always put them in a muzzle. The fact is, all these dogs really should be working. Work is what they were bred for! If you have a sheep ranch, you would be using border collies. That’s when they’re happy, running themselves to exhaustion herding sheep up hill and down dale. But if one kills a sheep, you shoot him, because he’ll go on killing.”
With urban pit bulls, he says, that’s what happens too much, but people want to turn a blind eye. Even in pragmatic Mexico.
“About ten years ago in Mexicali, there was a pit bull called ‘Tiburon,’ ‘Shark.’ He lived in a junkyard. His job was to guard it. One night, this guy jumped the fence to get in the junkyard. Pit bull killed him. So, when the people got there in the morning to open the junkyard, there was a dead corpse [and the dog was] eating it. So the dog was impounded by the animal control [department]. Nobody wanted him. They wanted to put him to sleep.
“Except there were people petitioning to save the dog. Their argument: it wasn’t the dog’s fault. That was his job. But what the hell is that? To kill people? He got put to sleep, thank God. Dogs don’t have human rights. Even though over here, on this side of the border, some people think they do. The problem is the alienation in American life. And you start to see this in Northern Mexico now, too. This extreme relationship people develop with their pets. Especially of ‘misunderstood’ breeds. This is what I hear: ‘My dog cannot do anything wrong.’ ‘He doesn’t know how to bite.’ ‘He’s not going to hurt you.’ Alienation, isolation, it happens everywhere. This strange life of people just not socializing with other people, but instead investing everything in their mutts. Loneliness has consequences. I see it in the clinic all the time.”
So, what would Macías do?
“When bull-baiting was outlawed in England, in the 1830s, people were concerned about the bulldog going extinct. So they bred the aggressiveness out of the bulldog. They were that good, even back then. And a gentle breed of bulldog thrives now. That could be done again, but this time to the pit bull.
“And for those who really want an aggressive dog, there need to be rules to protect the rest of us. Because [death by dog] is a horrifying way to die. If you have an aggressive dog, you must meet certain conditions: good dog-specific liability insurance, a good fence, a dog that is certified socialized, proof that you know how to handle the dog.
“But is this likely? This libertarian society is strange. Very strange. I think it’s going to be very hard to get legislation passed to adequately protect [people].
“The scariest situation for me isn’t when a gangbanger comes in with his pit, because he’ll be able to handle the dog. It’s when, say, a 14-year-old girl comes in being dragged by a pit bull that she cannot control. That’s a scenario for a problem. The dog is very nice to the little girl, but he has a job. He is a guard-dog. He sees me, a mean old ugly guy coming up to him and he says, Hey, that guy’s nasty. I’m going to get him.
“The ideal is not to have the socio-economic conditions that create this attraction to aggressive pits. People feeling they need protection.”
Nature or nurture? Macías believes nurture goes a long way. “My pit in Mexicali was such a nice dog that people would break into my yard, take the dog for breeding and bring him back. The last time, though, they took him for fighting. But he wasn’t a fighter. He was a lover. So they brought him back. He died of old age at about 12 years.”
Marines ban pit bulls
Should San Diego ban pits? At least one segment of society says yes. On August 11, 2009, the U.S. Marine Corps’ deputy commandant of installations and logistics, Maj. Gen. Edward Usher III, issued a ban on pit bulls, Rottweilers, and wolf hybrids from all government-owned family housing and public-private venture privatized housing for Marines and their families in installations worldwide, including Camp Pendleton and Miramar.
“These specific breeds present an unreasonable risk to the health and safety of our residents and are therefore prohibited,” said Col. Richard P. Flateau Jr. The new policy was initiated at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina after a pit bull fatally attacked a three-year-old boy there in 2008.
So, if the military deems pit bulls too dangerous for their community, what about the rest of us? On the positive side, the National Center for Health Statistics reckons that your chance of being fatally struck by a bolt of lightning is nearly eight times higher than your chance of being killed by dog bite.
Requiem for Mr. Whiskers
Our Mr. Whiskers is long buried. The neighbor’s landlady realized she could be liable for injuries caused by the dog of a tenant and gave the pit bull owner a choice: get rid of the pit and stay or keep it and move. She moved.