By Michael Barrett, Gaston Gazette
Forty-four domestic pets that have been deemed “dangerous” by Animal Control are now living within Gaston County’s borders (see list).
Twelve pit bull mixes are on that list, representing the most of any single breed. But there are also other types that many people might find surprising, such as two Chihuahua mixes, a Jack Russell terrier, a Dachshund and a Cocker Spaniel.
And along with the 43 dogs, there’s even a domestic short-haired cat.
Across the region, animal control policies for both preventing and responding to domestic pet attacks have come under scrutiny of late. The owner of two pit bulls that killed a 5-year-old girl in Waxhaw two weeks ago has been charged with involuntary manslaughter.
The dogs were shot and killed by police, but Waxhaw leaders have since discussed strengthening animal control ordinances or even banning pit bulls entirely there. In light of the fatal attack, city leaders in Shelby have also pondered a pit bull ban.
Just last week, a 7-year-old boy in Lincoln County was also bitten in the head and face by a pit bull. The child is recovering from his injuries, while a hearing will soon be held to determine if the dog should be labeled as dangerous and allowed back in the hands of its owner.
The reasons that Gaston County’s 44 dangerous pets were given that designation run the gamut. Most, if not all, stemmed from the animal in question biting someone.
Just as varied are the restrictions that have been placed on those owners for being allowed to continue owning a “dangerous” animal. Some must muzzle their pets whenever they’re brought outside, while others may only have to keep the dog on a leash.
Regardless, there have been no serious discussions among Gaston County civic leaders this month to strengthen animal control oversight. And Animal Control administrator Reggie Horton believes the current system is addressing human safety as well as it can be.
“Things such as dog bites are going to happen,” said Horton. “It’s difficult to be able to legislate in a way that there are never any accidents. But I certainly feel like the laws we have in place are effective and are being aggressively enforced.”
‘Dangerous’ pets bring baggage
Gaston County Animal Control received 1,117 calls about dangerous domestic or wild animals in 2010. As a result, 33 hearings were held to consider whether pets should be declared dangerous, and six animals were designated as such.
In 2009, there were 1,485 calls to Animal Control, followed by 38 hearings, and 12 animals being declared dangerous.
“Not every call ends up being an actual dangerous animal,” said Horton. “Sometimes we get called about an animal that’s trying to bite, but hasn’t bitten.”
In each circumstance, Horton alone oversees each dangerous animal hearing and makes a decision based on the facts of the case. The pet owner may appeal his decision to the Animal Control Task Force Advisory Board. Many decide not to get the animal back, due to cost issues, which leads to it being euthanized.
Animals can be declared “vicious” and be euthanized without question if they kill or inflict life-threatening injury upon a person, Horton said. Attacks that involve less serious injuries may simply prompt a dangerous animal hearing.
Owners that want to reclaim a pet that has been deemed dangerous must comply with restrictions, all of which are based on the circumstances of the complaint, Horton said. For example, if a dog attacked someone after digging its way under or leaping over a backyard fence, the owner might be required to confine the animal within a covered fence with a concrete or electrified wire base.
Other requirements might include neutering a male dog, or having a micro chip embedded under its skin for identification purposes.
“We also do quarterly inspections of all of the animals that have been declared dangerous, to ensure compliance,” said Horton.
Pet owners that don’t comply are subject to fines that start at $500 and go up sharply. An owner with a dangerous animal that injures another animal or a human again may be fined from $1,000 to $2,500.
Breed specific ban?
Of the 18 animals deemed dangerous in Gaston County in the last two years, nine were pit bull mixes. And a Centers for Disease Control study of fatal dog bites from 1979 to 1996 found pit bulls or pit bull crossbreeds responsible for 60 percent of fatalities in which the breed was known.
But Horton is not an advocate of breed-specific bans like those that some cities and counties across the country have enacted.
“So much about a pit bull has to do with how it’s raised,” he said. “I think the age old consideration from animal control’s standpoint is that if it has teeth, it can bite. And any time a larger dog is involved in an attack, the likelihood of human injury is stronger.”
The lone cat on the list of dangerous pets in Gaston County was one that had bitten several people who had visited its owner’s home. The owner was told that when guests come by, the cat must be placed in a different room, Horton said.
Instead of targeting breeds such as pit bulls, Horton said it makes more sense to consider the actions of the animal and its owner after a complaint or an attack.
“I favor having ordinances, as we do, that allow Animal Control to address the situation that has transpired, not basing it only on the breed,” he said. “I think that’s the smartest and fairest way to go about it.”