By Marci Shatzman, Sun Sentinel
Patti Shipp was walking her Chihuahua Mazel about 4:30 p.m. on May 17 in her West Boca community of Boca Gardens when a pit bull appeared out of nowhere and attacked, tearing out her dog's intestines and killing it. The photos are horrifying, and Shipp can't discuss it without dissolving into tears. "There was so much blood everywhere," she said.
Shortly after 7 p.m. on June 15, Boca Raton police responded to a 911 call about pit bulls running loose in the 2200 block of Northwest Third Avenue. When neighbors pointed out the house and officers approached, the dogs charged them, and one officer fired a shot, hitting one dog below the eye.
No matter what the breed, dangerous dogs are a legal classification in Florida and Palm Beach County. Palm Beach County Animal Care & Control handles these issues for 38 cities, including Boca Raton and the unincorporated suburbs including West Boca. Police may be the first-responders but "once the call goes out to 911, if it's not an emergency the cities rely on us," said Capt. David Walesky, Animal Control operations manager. They also handle all the follow-up.
Animal Control only lists 70 dangerous dogs countywide and four with a Boca Raton address. The number of dangerous dogs is so low because "most owners put them down to appease community outrage," he said. The determination is made by two officers in a special investigations unit at Animal Care & Control based on the severity of the wounds, the history of the owner and the vaccination status.
The law doesn't "mandate destruction of the animal," Walesky said. But while they're allowed to live, those dogs are confined to quarters. "You can't take a [legally] dangerous dog to a dog park or anyplace else people congregate, only to the vet or a boarding facility," he said.
Legalities aside, that doesn't mean those are all the dangerous dogs in Boca, as the recent incidents demonstrated. And city and county officials want to alert dog owners that they are wholly responsible for preventing their dogs from running loose and attacking or killing people or pets. "Animals must be confined to your property and dogs and livestock can't run at-large," Walesky said. "Even if the owner is not home and the dog gets out, it's still their responsibility to take the proper precautions."
If a pet or person is attacked by a dog, "the people involved need to gather as much information as possible for us to do our job," he said. Witnesses are particularly important, he noted. And if the owner sends the dog out of the county, if it ever returns it can still be cited.
In July 2009, the county plugged a hole in what Walesky considered "the biggest weakness in the state statute," which required more than one killing of a domesticated animal off the owner's property.
If a pet is attacked, the county will make sure the owner "can afford and pursues care," Walesky said. If not, the animal is euthanized in their facility at 7100 Belvedere Road in western West Palm Beach, where they shelter 30,000 animals a year.
"We're the shelter of last resort," he said. "We would not normally take possession of an injured dog for investigation purposes. We are usually unable to provide the level of medical care needed for seriously injured dogs and we routinely do not treat owned animals, as we are a stray facility."
"There are times that we will take possession of dogs while a Dangerous Dog investigation is being conducted, but they typically will involve the more serious of circumstances such as a severe bite to a human or a fatal animal attack," he added.
In the Shipp case, "we have concluded our investigation and have moved forward with a 'dangerous dog' classification," Walesky said. "The owner is responsible for impound fees, investigation fees, daily board fees, all medical fees, etc. It does add up and will be quite costly to redeem this dog," which will be euthanized on Friday if it isn't picked up.
As of June 18, the dog shot by police was recovering in the Coral Springs Animal Hospital, according to the Boca Raton Police Services Department.
Jorge Camejo, the city's community development director, said he can't remember a similar incident, and that dog attacks are not widespread. "For the most part, the laws are in place and overall I can't say it's rampant," he said. "Residents, for the most part, care for their animals and protect the animals and their neighbors."
To report a dog as dangerous, call 561-233-1225.