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The Failure to Screen Unfit Dog Owners

I picked up the San Francisco Chronicle a few years back and read that Diane Whipple, a 33-year-old San Francisco woman, was mauled to death in the hallway, just outside her apartment, in the upscale building where she lived. As the attack began, one of the dogs was leashed and the other was standing in the doorway of his owner's apartment. But with a combined weight of 233 pounds, they simply dragged their owner behind them down the hallway until they got to where the victim stood, and then ignored her attempts to restrain them as they slaughtered Diane. The male dog was so large that one of the animal control officers who responded to the scene would later report that the noose on the come along (the control pole carried by the ACO) would barely fit over the dog's head.

The animals continued the attack for five minutes. One tore at Diane's clothes while the other delivered deep wounds to her body. According to the Chronicle, "Police and paramedics found the woman lying in blood, with bloody handprints covering the walls. Bits of clothing littered the floor, and a blood-soaked green nylon leash was lying nearby." The onslaught was so ferocious that the coroner reported that chunks of the victim were missing, and said it was easier to say where she wasn't bitten than where she was.

That night on the news, we heard reports that, even before the attack, the people of the neighborhood feared the dogs, nicknaming them the "dogs of death." In fact, one of the dogs was named Bane, which is defined as: "Killer, slayer, or a source of death, harm or ruin." The dogs were known to have killed sheep, chickens, and cats and one of them had bitten the victim in an earlier incident. One veterinarian reported that he had warned the owners that the dogs were dangerous, calling them "ticking time bombs."

My wife observed, "The owners of the dogs must be devastated. Think how bad you'd feel if you ignored the warnings about your dogs and then they killed somebody like that."

But I knew that population better than she did, and I told her, "I guarantee you that those people don't feel bad about it at all. I can't tell you the exact details of how they have the thing rationalized. But I'm sure they view themselves as being altogether innocent and believe that the woman killed by their dogs is the one responsible for all this."

I spoke with great certainty because I knew it was a pretty good bet. When you're dealing with a profoundly obstinate dog owner, you almost always encounter that perspective: "I'm the real victim here, and the one who is complaining about the behavior of my dog is the one who is victimizing me."

It doesn't matter how outlandish or farfetched they have to get. One way or another the irresponsible owner is going to turn it around to some absurd scenario in which, by insisting that they take responsibility for their dog, you are supposedly victimizing them. I knew the dog owners would feel that way, but I never dreamed they'd come right out and say it in public in a case as high profile as the mauling of Diane Whipple. But they did!

The next day the dog owners released a statement implying that the dog attack might have been provoked by the victim who may have triggered aggressive behavior in the animals by wearing perfume or taking steroids, and went on to say that Diane had enough time to escape into her apartment but supposedly failed to do so. The implication being that it was her fault she was attacked. It's the old you didn't run away fast enough so it's your fault my dogs killed you defense. At one point, one of the dog owners seemed to be trying to paint herself as a heroic figure because she risked her life trying to drag her dogs off Diane, even though Diane had supposedly brought the attack on herself and was, therefore, getting what she deserved. I guess that's the nature of irresponsible people. They feel that they are not responsible for what occurs, regardless of how integrally involved with the event they may be.

The city put down one of the dogs almost immediately, but held the other in custody while the authorities tried to determine whether she participated in biting the victim to death or merely ripped the clothing from her body as she fought for her life. In the meantime, the dog owners, who were still walking free some months after the attack, filed legal papers demanding that the surviving dog be returned to them. They said she was their "pal," and they wanted to return her to their one bedroom apartment where they intended to once again keep her as a pet.

The day after the death of Ms. Whipple, an Oakland resident hesitated before leaving the safety of her fenced-in front yard after seeing that her neighbor's very large Cane Corso was loose out front. The dog's owner was nearby, however, so after speaking with him and receiving his assurance that the animal was not aggressive, she stepped out of her yard, only to find that the dog leapt upward, lunging for her throat the instant she came out of the gate. She instinctively raised her hand to block his thrust and he ripped her arm open clear through, delivering a wound severe enough to require reconstructive surgery. The victim reported that she spent eight hours in the emergency room and four days in the hospital, and then came home traumatized and desperate to convalesce, only to lie awake most of that night, as she does every night, unable to sleep because of the noise from her neighbor's barking dogs.

Not long after that, a wandering Pit Bull went on a rampage at a South Bay middle school. The dog bit two boys on an athletic field before charging into a classroom to lay open a third. The police shot the little warrior on campus after a brief experiment in which they determined that pepper spray sure does piss off Pit Bulls.

Within a day or two of the middle school attack, another local dog being walked on the lead bit off a piece of a woman's face, and a family of three was attacked by a Rottweiler on a San Francisco street, and everyone bitten. That same afternoon I found myself walking slowly backwards, speaking to a Doberman Pinscher in soothing tones. It's terrifying to face down an animal who could hope to score no more than two or three points on a standard intelligence scale, and know that whether or not you walk with a limp for the rest of your life depends on what he decides to do. I could go on forever telling dog attack stories. There are plenty of them. They occur in San Francisco at a rate of about one a day, while in Oakland, for reasons that are painfully apparent, people have taken to referring to dogs as "fuzzy guns."

There is a viewpoint that dogs are chaotic, unpredictable creatures that might just willy-nilly do any damn thing. But it's not true. Dogs reflect the behavior and psychological state of their owners. Chaotic people raise chaotic dogs. Undisciplined people have undisciplined dogs. Vicious people engender viciousness in their dogs, and malicious and irresponsible people bring up barking dogs. Not surprisingly, well behaved, affectionate, fun-loving people, raise up well-behaved, affectionate, fun-loving dogs.

The problem is that so many stupid, malevolent and irresponsible people own dogs that, in the collective consciousness of society, we are increasingly coming to view dogs as stupid, vicious creatures. And the public distrust of the species seems to grow perceptibly with each passing decade.

A recent public opinion poll shows that 72% of the people in the bay area believe that all dogs should be kept on a leash, and in the wake of the Diane Whipple tragedy, a proposal was introduced to require that all big dogs be muzzled while in public. The proposal was ultimately voted down. But if we continue on in this direction, the day may come when we will be looking at legislation requiring that all dogs be muzzled and on the lead at all times, when off the property of their owner.

But beyond the increasing restraints being placed on dogs and their owners in public places, there's a whole other problem of where it is we're going to take our dogs in the future. Every day there are fewer places where they are welcome.

Following Diane's death, one of her friends said, "Many things in life happen, and there's just no explanation." A news commentator said it happened "for no apparent reason." And a journalist described the problem as being that the dogs "went insane." But in the end there is no escaping the conclusion that it happened because unfit people were allowed to acquire dogs they could not control.

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