Balto. Co. considers reining in animals Stricter law proposed as complaints increase about aggressive dogs

December 07, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Damon Richardson sees his three pit bulls, Mustufa, Shaolyn and Chump, as pampered pets and protectors.

Neighbor Judith Berger has a different view. She says the dogs are dangerous, aggressive animals that have terrorized the suburban community of Lochearn.

The long-simmering backyard dispute has split the northwest Baltimore County neighborhood -- and is the kind of frustrating standoff the county wants to prevent with a tough new animal control law.

Faced with increasing complaints about pit bulls and Rottweilers, the county wants to allow quicker removal of threatening animals and give authorities tighter control over them. Fines would increase and animal control officers no longer would have to wait until a dog is running loose or has bitten someone.

"We are frustrated," says David Grange, county animal control supervisor. "People just demand we do something."

Baltimore County's proposed law, which does not specify breeds, is similar to moves by localities nationwide to restrict pit bulls and Rottweilers.

For example, a Prince George's County law that took effect in May prohibits the acquisition of pit bulls, and requires a $50 license for each dog; it carries a $1,000 penalty for a violation. In Ohio, Georgia and California, owners of dogs that killed children have faced felony charges -- including murder and failure to confine a vicious dog.

Statistics from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta say pure or mixed-breed pit bulls and Rottweilers were responsible for slightly more than half the 199 dog-bite-related fatalities in the United States from 1979 to 1996. The number of dog-bite incidents requiring medical attention has been climbing nationally, from 585,000 in 1986 to 800,000 in 1994, according to the center.

Baltimore County has seen its share of the problem.

Two years ago, officials seized 47 pit bulls allegedly bred for fighting at an Essex home that featured a blood-stained pen in the basement -- and destroyed all of them. Dog bite reports are increasing, from 500 in 1995 to 556 this year. And 300 pit bulls and Rottweilers have been brought to the county shelter in the last fiscal year -- a six-fold increase since 1994.

Still, without a change in the law, county animal wardens have little discretion to battle the problem, officials say. The county can do nothing about a dog that behaves in a threatening manner, they say.

"Unless somebody's been attacked, the animal control officer has no power to take an animal away," says Dr. Michelle Leverett, county health officer. The revised law, due for introduction in the County Council this month, "will allow us to act more quickly."

Berger, president of the Lochearn Improvement Association, hopes the county will move quickly in her neighborhood.

She complains about Richardson, a back-fence neighbor who keeps the three pit bulls in his fenced yard. One escaped in April and bit a neighbor on the leg; police were called again in July when another got out.

In the July 14 incident, police Sgt. John McGee faced the snarling pit bull. "I got my baton out, and my Mace and just slowly backed up," he recalls, noting that there were other people nearby. "He just snapped [his jaws] and went away." All three dogs were picked up by animal control, but were returned to the owner.

Berger criticizes the county for being too lenient, though the animal hearing board found Richardson guilty of violating several dog ordinances. The $325 in fines were suspended, but could be reinstated if he fails to confine the dogs.

"The crux of the problem is that these dogs haven't any place in society," Berger says.

Richardson admits the dogs have gotten out and once bit a neighbor. But he says he cares for them properly and has done everything the county has told him to do -- including installing a higher fence between his yard and Berger's.

Last week, he invited a reporter into his home to see the dogs.

Mustufa, a black, muscular 1-year-old male, his tan sister Shaolyn, and Chump, their brown, 7-year-old mother, excitedly swarmed around their affectionate owner as they were brought inside. They eagerly explored the small brick bungalow's rooms.

"There's the 'dangerous' animals," Richardson scoffed.

He said his dogs provide "all-around protection" for his home in the 3800 block of Sylvan Drive, and are not dangerous. "Every time something happens with a dog, the police come to my house."

The county's proposed law would redefine "dangerous animals" to allow removal of any that "exhibits aggressive or dangerous behavior and is not adequately confined or restrained," pending a hearing within 25 days, a draft says. Failure to follow county officials' orders to restrain an animal could also result in an animal's removal to the county shelter.

Another section would require owners of an animal judged "dangerous" to notify the county if it is not restrained or escapes, when it is sold and to whom, and to disclose the animal's "dangerous" status to any purchaser or shelter.

The maximum civil fine for violating the law would double from $250 to $500.

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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