The 4-year-old boy was pulled from his mother’s arms last month by four pit bulls, dragged under a fence and fatally mauled. About a week later, a young woman was said to commit “suicide by dog” after entering a yard holding a pit bull with puppies.
Then this month, another terrifying incident: A 60-pound pit bull tore from its leash, knocking over a 67-year-old man walking his small Havanese mix in Washington Township, leaving both man and dog with bite injuries.
The savage attacks have reignited a roiling debate over efforts in some communities to regulate or even ban the breed. Meanwhile, a bill in Lansing that would strike down local pit bull laws across the state awaits a vote by the legislature. Scientists, animal lovers and experts can be found on both sides of the debate, in Michigan and across the nation.
After the death of 4-year-old Xavier Strickland of Detroit, Detroit’s City Council announced it is reviewing its vicious dog ordinance. Detroit is not considering a ban on pit bulls ‒ a breed that is wildly popular in the city. But at least two dozen other Michigan municipalities have “breed-specific legislation” or rules that ban or restrict pit bull ownership, according to a list maintained by a group that advocates for victims of serious and fatal dog attacks, Dogsbite.org.
Michigan already has a state law against vicious dogs, but some victims of pit bull attacks and their supporters want Michigan to ban pit bulls specifically.
In a debate that can sometimes echo the back-and-forth over gun control, those who love or rescue pit bulls, argue that it’s not the breed that is dangerous, it’s the people who raise them. Among pit bull defenders, what’s needed are stronger laws aimed at malicious owners.
Count state Sen. Dave Robertson, R-Grand Blanc, among those who believe that pit bulls are unfairly shouldering the blame for bad owners.
Robertson said he sponsored Senate Bill 239, which would prevent local goverments from banning specific dog breeds to shift the focus to dog owners. The bill was pushed by pit bull rescuers and animal rights groups months before the recent maulings. It passed the Senate in October and awaits a vote in the House.
“I want to put the onus where it properly belongs,” Robertson said, “on the human being who is responsible for the animal and how it is socialized or not socialized.” He said that instead of banning specific breeds, cities are better off passing laws that ensure owners take the right steps to house, register and control their pets.
Victims’ groups consider bans on pit bulls a common sense solution and bills like Robertson’s a threat to public safety.
“It is a matter of who we value more – dogs or people,” said Mia Johnson, a founding member of National Pit Bull Victim Awareness.
Fence, neuter, ban
Michigan’s vicious dog law says that if a dog fits the legal definition of “vicious” it can be killed or confined to the premises of the owner, who could also face costs for damages.
Across Michigan, about two dozen local breed-specific ordinances go further. They use a variety of restrictions to specifically take the bite out of pit bulls.
These laws often restrict or ban the American Pit Bull Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier and American Staffordshire Terrier, as defined by the American Kennel Club or United Kennel Club – or any mixed breed commonly identified as a pit bull.
The towns of Buena Vista and Morenci, for example, consider all pit bulls to fit the definition of “vicious.” In Saginaw, pit bulls are among five dogs deemed “dangerous.” Ypsilanti requires pit bull owners to spay or neuter their dog. And in Dearborn Heights, owners must get the dog injected with an identification microchip and provide two color photos to the city clerk.
At least 14 local laws in Michigan ban the pit bull – or any mix thereof – altogether.
In communities where pit bulls are banned, it is typically up to the owner to remove the animal or show their pet isn’t truly a pit bull, a requirement that some owners say is difficult (and expensive) to prove.
In southwest Michigan, Hartford, population 2,688, avoids pit bull problems by banning pit bulls, said Yemi Akinwale, the city manager.
In Grosse Pointe Woods, which also has a ban, Mayor Robert Novitke said the decision to regulate dog breeds should be left under local control. While Novitke opposes Robertson’s ban on bans, the city council in Grosse Pointe Woods is set to review its pit bull ban after a resident with a pit bull inquired about the law.
“I think you have the general welfare of the community to take into account and we know our communities better than the state of Michigan,” Novitke said of his support for local control of the issue.
Dispute over effectiveness of bans
Experts are split on the wisdom and effectiveness of breed-specific legislation.
National Pit Bull Victim Awareness is a coalition of more than 50 groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, that backs regulations specific to pit bulls.
“We are not talking about the right to own or not own these dogs,” Johnson said. “We are concerned with measures that increase public safety, much as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) has done about drunk driving.”
A 2011 legal analysis by a group at the Michigan State University College of Law, noted that breed specific laws are controversial because many people consider pets more like family than property. The analysis said, however, that such laws are usually upheld in court if they provide “clear breed definitions, clear descriptions of regulated conduct” and offer pet owners “an opportunity for a hearing.”
Those who oppose breed-specific laws have some powerful organizations on their side.
The American Bar Association is against such laws, as are the National Animal Control Officers Association, National Veterinary Medicine Association and the Michigan Humane Society.
The White House also opposes these laws, saying they are largely ineffective and pointing out the Centers for Disease Control “noted that the types of people who look to exploit dogs aren't deterred by breed regulations - when their communities establish a ban, these people just seek out new, unregulated breeds.”
In past generations, German shepherds, doberman pinschers and rottweilers have all had a turn at having the worst reputations, though arguably, no other dog has been blamed for as many deaths as pit bulls.
The American Veterinary Medical Association has tracked bites by breed and reported that in cases of very severe injuries or deaths, pit bull-type dogs are more frequently involved, the data showed.
The veterinary association, however, also concludes that breed-specific laws do not work, and are in any event difficult to enforce.
Bad dog or bad owner
The pit bull may well be the only dog with organizations formed both to ban it and save it.
Pit bull detractors, including victims’ rights groups, say that aggression is to pit bulls what hunting is to hounds – instinctual and inbred.
By some estimates, pit bull maulings occur at a rate of about 20 deaths per year nationwide: the group Dogsbite.org estimates that pit bulls were responsible for 203 deaths in the nation from 2005 to 2014. In 2014 alone, Dogsbite collected data on 42 fatalities, and the group says pit bulls contributed to 64 percent (27) of those deaths.
But some experts say such statistics don’t always tell the whole story.
Maria Iliopoulou, a veterinarian and researcher at Michigan State University, said five to seven factors related to environment and nurturing can determine whether a dog will be dangerous, not just breed.
“Dogs are individuals,” she said. The pit bull’s reputation for violence results from people who want a strong dog for nefarious intentions or owners who do not properly socialize their pets. “It’s a human problem, not an animal problem,” Iliopoulou said.
Melissa Miller, director for Detroit Animal Control, says people shouldn’t necessarily trust statistics on bites and maulings. The numbers could be skewed because bigger dogs are stronger and their bites may require medical attention more often whereas a nip by a Yorkie may not be reported, she said. Miller said she believes pit bulls get a bad rap.
She estimates there are about 143,000 dogs in Detroit and the number of pit bulls is high. On any given day, she said, Animal Control houses about 200 dogs and about half look like pit bulls or mixes. Of those, several that are not thriving are euthanized daily to make space for more.
The trouble with pit bull bans, she said, is that pit bulls look like at least a dozen other breeds and can be hard to identify - even for trained animal control officers. Those claims are echoed by the Michigan Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The most dangerous dog in the world is any large, male, unneutered dog that spends most of its life chained up, Miller said.
According to PETA, pit bulls are abused more than any other dog in America. The group supports spaying and neutering all pit bulls and wants breeding to be banned for as long as pit bulls are overrepresented in shelters. Tens of thousands of pit bulls are euthanized each year because they outnumber all other breeds, according to PETA.
Actually, experts say, there’s no such dog as a pit bull. The term refers to dogs from three breeds – the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier – or any dog that is a mix of one of them.
The dog commonly known as a pit bull has over the past generation become one of the most popular guard dogs in big cities, the pooch of choice for dog fighters and wanna-be tough guys who use it to promote a certain image.
Never mind that pit bulls were once used in ads to sell Buster Brown shoes and the RCA Victrola, or that The Little Rascals, Helen Keller and President Theodore Roosevelt had them as pets. The dog in the 1983 movie, “Flashdance?” Pit bull. Three-legged dog on “Parks and Rec” – pit bull.
The pit bull is descended from English bulldogs was used in the middle ages in Rome to bait and fight bulls. When bull baiting was outlawed in the 1800s in Europe as too horrific for public entertainment, the dog was crossed with a terrier to create a more agile dog. The offshoot was used to fight other dogs in pits – hence the name. Less aggressive dogs were often killed. While the dogs with gameness, or a fight-to-the-death temperament, were bred to make more fighters.
And it continues.
On Jan. 9, police arrested 11 people and removed five pit bulls from a house in Pontiac where dog fighting was suspected. Some of those arrested had traveled as far as three hours to the home.
Defending pit bulls
Walking into the small building that houses the Michigan Pit Bull Education Project in White Lake Charter Township recently was like wading into a puddle of puppies. The five blue-eyed, grey puppies that Terry Hodskins, the founder of the group, was caring for wiggled in unison, grabbing at shoe strings.
The pups were homeless, the result of an unexpected pregnancy. The former owners did not get their two dogs fixed because nobody expected them to ever be able to mate, Hodskins said.
The pups’ mom is a pit bull. Somehow, the dad is a Chihuahua.
“I’ve had people say we should call them chit bulls. Or chihua pits,” Hodskins joked.
Hodskins owns five pit bulls and has rescued at least 500 over the past decade. When pit bulls are left at the Oakland County shelter, they ‒ and other large, strong dogs such as rottweilers ‒ are considered not adoptable. So the shelter calls Hodskins to find pit bulls a home.
Hodskins has spent years trying to show people that pit bulls are unfairly stigmatized. It took her a long time to voice this comparison out loud, but she stands by it. To her mind, pit bulls are discriminated against just as African-American men are ‒ by people and officials who do not care to get to know the truth about them.
“If pit bulls are banned, will neglect end?” she asks. “Hell no. (Neglectful owners) are just going to go to another breed.”
Fresh out of the hospital from a bout with cancer, Marilena Gahman had to go to court in Waterford last summer wearing a hospital mask and gloves to answer a citation. The city was trying to force her to get rid of her two dogs ‒ a 62-pound female named Naya and a 73-pound male named Second Chance. A neighbor had told cops the dogs were pit bulls. Waterford’s ordinance says dogs that are predominantly pit bull are banned.
She argued the dogs weren’t pit bulls and was told to go to a veterinarian suggested by the city to prove it. The vet agreed that the female dog wasn’t a pit bull, but said the male looked like one and had to go. It took six months, a DNA test and about $500 for Gahman to prove that Second Chance, who she found wandering the streets, was a legal Waterford resident. Though he had an American Staffordshire terrier as a grandparent, he was not “predominantly pit bull.”
Help me, Ma
Days before Christmas, the judge in crime-scarred Detroit cried from the bench as she listened to Xavier Strickland’s mother describe the boy’s final moments.
The child screamed, “Help me, Ma,” as Lucille Strickland, hysterical, screamed for help, she testified. After the boy died, some 90 bite marks were identified on his body.
The dogs’ owner, Geneke Lyons, 41, was charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter and possessing dangerous animals causing death.
Lyons is expected to go on trial in May.
And few people doubt that his pit bulls will be on trial right along with him.