Pit bull furor
PIT BULLS are at the center of a controversy over the control of vicious or dangerous dogs.
A pit bull comment by Sonoma Mayor Pro Tem Joanne Sanders at the Aug. 15 City Council meeting has fired the passions of dog lovers who defend the breed and loosed a barrage of angry emails and phone calls to Sanders and the Index-Tribune.
Sanders' brief comments at the start of the meeting expressed her horror at the fatal mauling of a pregnant Pacifica woman by the family's pet pit bull, and included a suggestion that the council "revisit" a 2005 discussion on possible policies to control vicious dogs.
Two days later a Press Democrat article claimed Sanders said she supports banning pit bulls within Sonoma city limits and the next day she appeared on KQED radio's "Forum" program, during which she fleshed out her position, explaining that she had directed city staff to "bring forward all the options in the city tool box" to control vicious dogs, including stricter licensing, registration and even the required neutering of some dogs.
But in a Sunday Index-Tribune interview, Sanders insisted, "I never said anything about Sonoma pushing a ban through. I just wanted to have staff inventory what the city is doing. It may not get any traction, but that's what government does."
In response to Sanders' request, Sonoma Police Chief Bret Sackett prepared a report for City Manager Linda Kelly detailing the current state of animal control regulations in the city and options for future action.
Sackett noted that Sonoma has 31 registered pit bulls, although only 19 are currently licensed. And while precise statistics on dog attacks are still being compiled by Sonoma County Animal Control, Sackett said that neither his staff, nor personnel at Animal Control, can recall an incident involving a pit bull attacking a person or another animal in Sonoma.
The majority of attacks he has been informed of by Animal Control, Sackett said, involved mostly small bites from small dogs.
Jennefer Scarlet, of the San Francisco S.P.C.A., reported on KQED that, "Chihuahuas are very high on the bite list."
But dog bite statistics, some experts have noted, are notoriously inaccurate because countless bites go unreported, especially if medical treatment isn't required.
Sonoma's current dog regulations require that all dogs over four months old must be licensed, vaccinated and under the owner's control, with a six-foot limit on leash length.
In addition, Sonoma has a somewhat ambiguous "dangerous and vicious" dog ordinance that allows action to be taken against a dog and its owner if the dog is determined to be dangerous and/or vicious. Making that determination can be an arbitrary action, but if the dog bites someone, the ordinance can be immediately invoked.
Dog bites are investigated by Sonoma County Animal Control, and in the county's jurisdiction the determination in a dog attack case must be made by a court and can be appealed. The city's enforcement process is somewhat less clear, but if a dog is determined to be dangerous, the owner can be required to keep it behind a six-foot fence, carry a liability policy and keep it muzzled when outside on a leash.
The California Food and Agriculture Code prohibits bans on animal breeds, but the state's Health and Safety Code allows jurisdictions to impose mandatory spay and neuter policies for the purpose of population control.
Sonoma County has such a policy, although indications are it is not strictly enforced. San Francisco has a similar policy and Scarlet reported that "The spay/neuter policy has limited the number of pit bulls and pit bull type dogs turned into the shelter."
Virtually all dog experts who have publicly weighed in on the subject of pit bulls since the Pacifica tragedy agree that animal behavior is hard to predict and that attack behavior is not breed-specific. Pit bulls, breed lovers insist, are only dangerous when they've been trained to be. Pit bull opponents point out that few dogs on the planet have the jaw strength and relentless determination to bite down once engaged.
For Sonoma, consideration of the need for stricter control of dangerous or vicious dogs is not likely to result in a dramatic change in current law. The most likely outcome, suggested Sackett, is possible introduction of a spay/neuter requirement, which even most pit bull owners publicly support.