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Spate of pit bull attacks puts the spotlight on the polarizing breed

The attack came so quickly that Luigi D’Orazio barely knew what was happening.

On the pleasant summer afternoon of Aug. 11, the 86-year-old man was walking his neighbor’s dog, Maggie, – a small Cockapoo – along Wallace Road on Grand Island.

Suddenly, a pit bull bashed its way through a screen window of a home on Wallace, bolted across a lawn and attacked the much smaller dog.

“The pit bull brushed right past me and started chewing on Maggie. He tore a hole into her side … he was mauling her,” D’Orazio recalled. “He was going for her throat. I tried kicking the pit bull. I couldn’t get him to stop.”

A neighbor, Joseph Marino, rushed to D’Orazio’s assistance, and the two men finally were able to pull the pit bull away. Maggie lost two ribs and a kidney and nearly died. She was in a veterinary clinic for 10 days. The medical bills, including emergency surgery, cost Maggie’s owner, Daisy M. Moore, $2,885.

“Some people say, ‘It’s just a dog attacking another dog,’ but for me, this is a nightmare,” Moore said. “I’m a 73-year-old widow. I live alone. Maggie is like my family.”

The attack on Maggie was one in a recent series of pit bull attacks, here and across the country.

Pit bulls have been responsible for about one-fifth of the 5,588 dog bites reported in Erie County over the past four years, according to the county Health Department.

And across the country, pit bull attacks killed 203 people over a 10-year period from 2005 to 2014, according to a national organization called dogsbite.com. That is nearly two-thirds of the 326 dog-attack deaths reported during that period, more than those by all other dog breeds and varieties combined.

To be sure, many people consider the powerfully built pit bull to be a sweet and loving pet.

“They are loving, very loyal dogs, very welcoming to people who visit my home, very welcoming to small dogs and to kittens I bring home,” said Amy Lewis, who owns pit bulls and is executive director of the Niagara County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Lewis has two female pit bulls and has raised them since they were puppies. She believes that many of the pit bulls that attack people or smaller animals have been abused or trained for illegal dog-fighting.

Nonetheless, many communities are taking steps to restrict pit bull ownership.

More than 700 communities in the United States have adopted laws declaring pit bulls “dangerous” or “vicious” dogs. Some – including Denver and Pawtucket, R.I. – have banned pit bull ownership altogether.

Just over the border in the Canadian province of Ontario, residents are forbidden from buying, importing or breeding pit bulls. When the dogs are taken out in public, they must wear leashes or muzzles.

Local SPCA officials said some of the major insurance companies won’t sell homeowners’ insurance to pit bull owners, and others require pit bull owners to pay much higher premiums than those who own other dogs.

Local pit bull attacks

The attack on Maggie on Grand Island was one of at least five recent incidents in Western New York involving pit bulls.

• In Newfane on Oct. 4, a pit bull attacked its new owner, biting the man on the arm, leg, back and stomach and then biting the man’s wife on the stomach. The dog was taken to the Niagara County SPCA, where it is being evaluated.

• In Lockport on Sept. 26, a Pomeranian was attacked and killed by a neighbor’s pit bull. Police said the pit bull was being walked by a boy who could not stop the pit bull. The pit bull was returned to the Niagara County SPCA, from which it had been adopted a short time earlier.

• At Buffalo’s Broadway Market on Aug. 29, a pit bull attacked a veterinarian, an Erie County SPCA worker and a third individual. Authorities said the dog bit people during a clinic where dogs were being given vaccines to protect them from parvovirus.

• At Delaware Park on July 10, Avi Israel, 63, was attacked and bitten by an unleashed pit bull. Israel said the pit bull initially attacked his beagle, and then bit Israel on the hands and arms when he pushed the pit bull away from his dog.

• At a farm in Hartland in Niagara County last October, two pit bulls killed four alpacas on Ridge Road. Deputies killed one dog, and the owner of the two dogs later euthanized the other.

Merritt Clifton runs a not-for-profit organization called Animals 24-7 in the state of Washington.

He has studied and categorized hundreds of dog attacks in recent decades and believes many of the attacks occur after well-meaning people adopt pit bulls without getting sufficient information about the dogs’ breeding, training or temperament.

In his view, pit bulls are dangerous, unpredictable animals that shouldn’t be owned “by anyone.”

“Pit bulls that have been adopted from shelters have been responsible for many of these attacks,” he said.

Pit bull supporters

Pit bulls have supporters, including Barbara Frazier, animal behavior supervisor at the Erie County SPCA.

Frazier oversees the tests and behavior training that are given to dogs before they are put up for adoption at the Erie County facility.

Pit bulls receive an unfair reputation because criminals use them in illegal dog fights, because of their size and strength, and because of incidents of violence that have been spotlighted in the news media, Frazier said.

“Every dog is an individual. Every pit bull-type dog is an individual,” said Frazier, who has been working with dogs for more than 25 years. “Every dog has its breaking point, whether it’s a Cockapoo or any other breed. To make a blanket statement that all pit bull-type dogs are inherently unsafe is very unfair. In our facility, we don’t see any more problems with pit bull-type dogs than any other dog.”

In Frazier’s view, most of the violent incidents involving pit bulls can be blamed on the way they were treated by owners.

Frazier said she uses the phrase “pit bull-type dogs” because pit bulls are not an actual breed of dog. Most of the dogs commonly called “pit bulls” are actually mixed-breed terriers that share many of the same characteristics – including thick, strong bodies, big heads and powerful jaws, she said.

Dr. Richard H. Porsky, a canine behavior expert from Los Angeles, also says that pit bulls are not inherently dangerous.

“The majority of pit bull-type dogs make good family pets,” he said. “The majority of pit bull dogs are not aggressive by nature,” he said.

But he also advised that owning a pit bull, especially one that has shown aggressive tendencies, requires “a higher level of owner commitment and responsibility.”

Impartial observers

Niagara SPCA’s Lewis and Peter J. Tripi, who supervises rabies and animal bite investigations for the Erie County Health Department, fall somewhere in the middle of the pit bull debate.

In his 25 years with the Health Department, Tripi has observed all kinds of dog behavior when the department offers free rabies shots and clinics – such as the clinic at Broadway Market in August, where a pit bull attacked three people.

“I am not anti-pit bull in any way. I have seen many pit bulls that are very docile and friendly,” Tripi said. “But I have also seen many pit bull owners come up to our staffers at these clinics, and say, ‘My dog is not good around other animals.’ We have to tell them, if they cannot control their dog, they have to leave.”

Tripi was asked if he would ever be willing to own a pit bull and have one around his wife and children. At first, he declined to comment.

Then, he said: “I’m not saying I would never own a pit bull, but only if I was able to do a lot of research on the animal, especially to find out what was the temperament of the dog’s parents.

“Pit bulls are often large, very strong dogs, and when they bite someone, they do some damage,” Tripi said. “Someone who gets bitten by a pit bull is more likely to seek medical attention than someone bitten by a little Chihuahua,” Tripi said. “Our statistics on dog bites are based on those people who seek medical attention. A bigger, stronger dog is a bigger liability for its owner than a smaller dog.”

Liability worries

While pit bulls can be dangerous for neighbors, they can also cause legal problems for owners.

In Los Angeles County, Calif., Alex Donald Jackson, 31, was sentenced to 15 years in prison earlier this month after a jury found him guilty of second-degree murder even though it was his dog that did the killing.

Four of his dogs jumped over a fence and killed Pamela Devitt, a 63-year-old retiree who was out for a walk in 2013. Devitt bled to death after Jackson’s pit bulls bit her at least 150 times, police said. One of her arms was severed.

Prosecutors presented evidence that Jackson knew his dogs were dangerous because of previous incidents that had frightened neighbors.

In New York State, there are no breed-specific laws. But a group of lawmakers in June proposed “Frankie Flora’s Law,” which would make all dog owners legally responsible if their dogs seriously injure people or pets. Current state laws only hold owners of vicious dogs responsible if it can be proven that the owner already was aware that the dog had a history of violence.

The proposed law is named after Frankie Flora, now 11, of Westchester County, who was nearly mauled to death at age 5 when a pit bull attacked him without warning.

“The attack lasted 20 minutes. The dog tore off my son’s right cheek. He lost part of his hearing. He needed five blood transfusions. One doctor told me they didn’t know if he would make it,” his mother, Maria Flora, told The Buffalo News. “We’re hoping this law would make people more responsible dog owners. Before someone adopts a dog, they need to know more about the dog and their responsibilities.”

Flora said her son suffered from nightmares and extreme fear of dogs for about 18 months.

“He’s doing much better now,” she said. “Now, he’s begging me to get him a dog.”

Finding homes

Many pit bulls end up at animal shelters, after being picked up as strays or voluntarily given up by their owners.

But their aggressive reputations make it difficult to find them homes, Lewis said.

The Niagara SPCA last week had 27 dogs available for adoption. Twenty of those dogs – more than two-thirds – were pit bulls. Typically, 80 percent of the dogs waiting for adoption at her shelter are pit bulls, she said.

When a News reporter visited the Erie County SPCA shelter Oct. 7, nine of the 15 adoptable dogs were pit bulls.

“It can take us anywhere up to a couple of weeks to a year to find a home for a pit bull,” Lewis said. “With other breeds, the time is much shorter.”

Both Lewis and Frazier said their SPCAs warn prospective adopters if a pit bull – or any other dog – has any problem traits, such as an inability to tolerate other dogs or rambunctious small children.

Lewis said she loves pit bulls – especially the two she has at home – but added that she also realizes some pit bulls can be dangerous, because of their size, strength, training or breeding. She said the criminals who use pit bulls for fighting are by far the dogs’ worst enemies.

“There are some dogs out there that are bred and trained to fight, and any advocate of pit bulls who denies that is not being honest,” Lewis said. “When any dog is turned in to our facility, we do everything we can to learn about the history of the animal – how it was treated, was it abused, was it used for fighting. Unfortunately, we sometimes have no history to work with. We don’t want to adopt out any animal that shouldn’t be adopted.”

Seeking compensation

Daisy Moore, the Grand Island woman whose small dog was nearly killed in August, said no one should be allowed to own a pit bull unless they are fully able to control the animal and pay for any damage the animal might cause.

She is upset that Richard Wolf, 26, who owns the dog that attacked her Maggie, has not paid any of the nearly $2,900 veterinary expenses resulting from the attack.

As a retiree with no pension, she had a tough time paying thousands of dollars to a veterinarian.

Wolf has been cited by a Grand Island dog control officer for failing to control his pit bull, Roscoe, on the day of the attack. Wolf, who does seasonal work painting lines on parking lots, told The News he feels badly about Maggie’s injuries but cannot afford to pay for her treatment.

Wolf said a friend gave him Roscoe about six years ago, and he believes Roscoe may have been abused before he got him. He said he was shocked when Roscoe forced his way through a window screen to attack Maggie. Authorities have allowed Wolf to keep Roscoe since the attack.

“Roscoe is like part of our family,” said Wolf, who has a young child at home. “For the most part, he’s been a good dog.”

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com