When Dogs and Government Bite

COMMENT

May 29, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

There's an inborn, almost irresistible human impulse that attracts us to dogs and draws us to reach out and pet them.

Even if you're not a "dog person," the initial instinct is there, so strong is this atavistic link between man and canine companion dating back to prehistory.

We may later learn caution and discrimination and even develop a dislike or fear of this wolf's progeny. Individual experience and upbringing will overcome childish instinct, or perhaps reinforce it. But there is no denying that this bond lies within our prehistoric genetic memory.

So it is doubly tragic when a dog viciously and unaccountably turns on a child, maiming the youngster without provocation and destroying the innate trust between human and animal.

Five-year-old Brent Nicholson endured the furious, relentless attack of a dog that was released from his neighbor's house in Street in northern Harford County earlier this month. Doctors spent three hours patching together the boy's torn flesh and muscle on the scalp, face, neck and arms.

Hundreds of stitches were required to close the wounds; his parents must closely protect him from any bumps and scratches over the new few months, to allow the skin to mend properly.

Later, Brent will face the ordeal of plastic surgery to further repair the damage. Already, he has endured, as best a child can, the curious stares of people who are brutishly fascinated by his ++ tormenting injuries. The physicians say his wounds will heal, though there will undoubtedly be scars on his body and on his psyche. At least the first-grader will not have to undergo a painful series of rabies shots, as tests on the dead dog did not reveal that dreaded disease.

The exact circumstances that led to the hellish attack by this latter-day Cerberus may never be determined. Reports from police and the family say the mixed-breed dog was let out of the house when someone opened the door, ran to the child, who became frightened, and then began savagely biting him.

We likely won't know all the answers. But animal control records confirm that Brent had been attacked a year earlier by another dog from the same household, the mother of the dog that assaulted him this month. Bites from that earlier encounter required nine stitches to close the wounds.

The official upshot in this latest instance was that the dog's owner was fined $20 for not having a county license; the dog's rabies prevention shot had also expired, but only by five days.

That seems like such an inadequate bureaucratic reaction, an almost banal and pro forma fine, for what was a horrible frenzy of violence against a helpless child.

The county's sanction did not result from the lack of current rabies vaccination -- an essential part of preventing harm to man and canine -- nor the past behavior of the attacking dog or the history of other dogs in the same household.

I'd wager that a majority of dogs in Harford County are not legally licensed, despite assiduous official efforts.

According to the Inspections, Licenses and Permits department, some 8,300 dogs have current licenses. The annual fee is $5 for spayed/neutered dogs, $10 for others, renewable each July.

That doesn't mean unlicensed animals are poorly cared for or uncontrolled. They may be kept on a leash, or confined to a yard, even have undertaken obedience training. They may have a collar and an identification tag.

The main purpose of licensing, the county says, is to assure that the animals have up-to-date rabies shots, as state law requires.

But many unlicensed dogs get rabies shots and other vaccination records up to date, even getting regular heartworm medication. (Visit a vet's office and you'll get a list of a half-dozen canine maladies that can be prevented by vaccines and medicines; Lyme disease vaccine is the latest recommended shot.)

For adult dogs, however, the rabies shot is given every three years, while the license is renewed annually. The health concern doesn't seem to coincide with the county law. Even the Motor Vehicle Administration only requires new auto license tags every two years.

The dog license remains essentially a revenue-raising measure, another example of government taxing anything it can see, smell or hear.

The license tag isn't even necessary to assure the return of a lost dog. If the pet is caught running loose, or found injured, an ordinary ID tag on the collar will usually result in the owner being notified.

The point can be made that we'd all be better off if dog owners spent their money on vaccinations, and on keeping their canine companions healthy and safe, instead of paying the county license fee. Eliminating the license fee won't necessarily result in that shift of human funds, I know, but it would cut out one more government nuisance.

And in cases where dogs are not currently vaccinated or humans are attacked, owners should be hit with meaningful fines.

The county's animal control division provides an important function, but it shouldn't have to be financed by user fees any more than other public health activities should have to pay their own way.

And all pet owners should remember that the most effective animal control is to be a responsible master.

That's something a dog license can't guarantee.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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