Bad dogs: Nature vs. nurture

When a dog attacks, who should be held responsible?

  • Pit bull terrier
Pit bull terrier
January 04, 2012|By Leonor Vivanco, RedEye

A horrific dog attack that left a jogger critically injured this week has brought to light a familiar debate over laws governing animals and their owners.

Joseph Finley, 62, was mauled by two pit bulls Monday while he was running on a path in Rainbow Beach Park. A bystander came to beat the dogs off with a bat, and police fatally shot the animals when officers arrived to the scene. Finley remained in critical condition Wednesday night at Stroger Hospital.

The incident has reignited conflict between Chicago dog owners who take care of their pets and residents who fear attacks such as these are evidence that certain breeds—currently, pit bulls—are so dangerous they should be banned, regardless of their upbringing or care.

Gregory Finley, a brother of the victim, told the Tribune on Tuesday that dog owners who leave their pets unattended must be held accountable. "These two dogs almost killed my brother," he said.

In the comments section of the story online, some readers called for an all-out ban on pit bulls.

"If pit bulls didn't exist, neither would attacks on people," one comment read. "Beagles don't attack, for instance, and are there not irresponsible beagle owners?"

The owner of the two pit bulls was issued tickets for failing to restrain them ($300-$10,000 fine) and not having dog licenses ($30-$200 fine). He has a court hearing in March.

"Clearly, everybody is outraged and horrified by this incident," said Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd), whose ward in the South Loop and West Loop has a number of dogs and dog-friendly areas. He said his office this week has fielded calls, emails and texts from residents asking about stronger laws and urging a ban on pit bulls. "Whenever an incident occurs, we don't want to have a knee-jerk reaction. We want to have something that is comprehensive, well thought-out and increases public safety."

Fioretti plans to introduce a resolution at the City Council meeting Jan. 18 to explore ways to make pet owners more responsible for their pets. He wants the city to look at the laws in place and how they're enforced. He also said he wants the council to examine how other cities and states handle the issue and discuss ways to strengthen Chicago's rules.

"Is banning breeds the answer? I think this City Council has looked at it in the past and they said no," Fioretti said.

City officials years ago passed an ordinance that places restrictions on animals deemed dangerous based on their behavior. The ordinance penalizes owners and does not single out breeds. There is a crowd-sourced online petition currently circulating against the very idea of a ban on pit bulls in the city.

Any breed-specific legislation does not get at the root of the problem, said Robyn Barbiers, president of the Anti-Cruelty Society. The focus instead should be on strong, enforceable leash laws and neutering, she said. Neutering is believed to help reduce aggression in dogs.

Barbiers cited statistics from a study published in 2000 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association that showed 24 percent of 227 human dog bite-related fatalities over a 20-year period involved unrestrained dogs off the owner's property.

"It is a valid concern to be worried about dog bites," Barbiers said. But a number of breeds can be involved in bites, not just pit bulls. "Don't ban the breed," she said. "Ban the behavior."

Pit bulls get a bad rap, said Rochelle Michalek, executive director of PAWS (Pets Are Worth Saving) Chicago. Stories about dogfighting and attacks have fueled the stigma, but PAWS is trying to change the perception.

"By nature, these are not vicious dogs," Michalek said. "They actually make great pets. It's how they're brought up and the environment they're brought up in that has turned these dogs into behavioral challenges or given them their reputation."

lvivanco@tribune.com | @lvivanco

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