Breeders keep dogs sought for ferocity at home

Demand is strong for Canary Island dogs

March 04, 2001|By Alfred Lubrano | Alfred Lubrano,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - Callers across America constantly phone the small house in Palmyra, N.J., eager to buy the services of a killer.

Stirred and impressed by the 120-pound exotic dog that tore out a woman's throat in San Francisco last month, some people desire a canine assassin of their own.

So they ring up Doug Logan, a Baptist minister and breeder of the rare Presa Canario, and ask him for a puppy with a potential for mayhem - price no object.

"I must tell you the truth in Christ," says Logan, a gentle 30-year-old with an honest love for the rare kind of dog. "My phone is ringing off the hook with crackpots calling, looking for a killer to use for evil purposes. I'm not selling."

Virtually unheard of before the mauling death of Diane Whipple, a former Pennsylvania State University athlete, on Jan. 26, Presa Canarios - or Canary Island dogs - are very much the animals of the moment. And as it turns out, there may be more mixed-breed Presas living in the eastern Pennsylvania-New Jersey area than anywhere else in America.

`Worms come out'

Often, canine experts say, dogs in the news (or popularized in movies, like Dalmatians) instantly become must-have breeds. People are intrigued by the novelty of a little-known type. Others want fearsome animals to protect their families; many Presa owners are police officers who work odd hours and like knowing a big dog is home with their children. Then there are the nefarious few who look for power dogs to guard their marijuana fields, or fight other dogs for sport, or project a macho image to help them sell drugs on city streets.

"When it rains, all the worms come out," says Steve Walker, owner of Hooligans Kennels in Fairfax, Va., and along with Logan, among just eight breeders of pure-bred Presas in the United States. "With bad news like this, all the wormy people want the dog - something tough that's going to kill."

The San Francisco attack also has reignited a long-running debate about the wisdom of keeping large, powerful dogs in homes, especially around children.

The Presa Canario, bred to guard farms and cattle, is both devoted and fearless. And although the Presa's staunchest supporters contend that it is the people who own the dogs - not the dogs themselves - who are responsible for problems, even they say the breed can be fierce, independent and aggressive.

350 purebred Presas

Although there are just 350 purebred Presas in the United States, there are 10 times that many mixed-breed Presas in the country - most of them in and around New Jersey, says Tracy Hennings, president of the official Presa Canario Club of America, of which Logan is vice president.

No one can explain the Jersey connection, except to say that two of the three original importers of Presas to the United States are from North Jersey. The importers introduced the breed to the United States from Spain's Canary Islands around 10 years ago, Hennings said.

Presas have remained below radar. At the Pennsylvania SPCA, Presas are known as "Canary dogs," says George Stem, director of animal control and investigations. Since 1995, the organization has had dealings with 29 Canary dogs - compared with 18,000 dogs it handled last year alone. And those few Presas were turned in to the SPCA for age- or medical-related problems, not viciousness, Stem says. There are no recorded instances of Presa bites in this area, Stem adds.

Powerful, with square heads, large chests, small, almond eyes, wide, blunt muzzles and average male weights of 120 pounds, Presas remind people of mastiffs, logically enough, since breeders say there is mastiff and bulldog - along with an indigenous Canary Island herding dog - in the Presa's centuries-old pedigree. Not officially recognized by the American Kennel Club, Presas are so rare that John Snyder, a dog expert with the Humane Society of the United States, said he had never heard of the breed before the California attack. Scarcity drives up the price: Presas can cost between $1,400 and $3,000.

Are some dogs naturally aggressive, and should they be avoided? Experts worry that unscrupulous owners of pit bulls, Rottweilers and other dogs used for fighting will now breed their animals to Presas, creating a new strain of unmanageable monsters.

Presa people, touchy and sensitive about bad publicity for their dog of choice, have been doing damage control since the San Francisco attack. Their conclusion: Blame the humans for mistreatment, because Presas by nature are generally gentle, loyal guard dogs.

According to reports, the dog that killed Whipple (a male named Bane) was apparently owned at one time by white-supremacist California prison inmates looking to breed killer dogs. The convicts - one of whom, Paul John Schneider, is jailed for murder - gave Bane and a female named Hera to a rural California woman.

She allegedly allowed the dogs, a mix of English mastiff and Presa, to run wild without human contact or training. Bane and Hera spent their days killing chickens and cats.

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