Courtney Smith was sitting on her neighbor's front steps last fall when, her parents say, the resident's dog hurdled its fence, knocked her down and bit the 7-year-old Glen Burnie girl's face.
"His tooth went through her bottom lip," said Amy Smith, Courtney's mother. "His whole jaw went on her face."
Courtney had plastic surgery to repair her face. The dog, her parents said yesterday, was quarantined for 10 days and is now confined to a cage.
They said the county needs stricter penalties and higher fines to encourage animal owners to act more responsibly and that proposed "dangerous animals" legislation is the answer.
The bill, aired at a County Council hearing Monday night, provides extensive definitions of animals that could be "dangerous" or "potentially dangerous." It also outlines strict animal-control requirements and proposes higher fines for violations that involve dangerous animals.
The proposed legislation will be discussed again at the council's June 18 meeting and could come up for a final vote that night.
County Animal Control Administrator Tahira S. Thomas told the council the bill is necessary to strengthen the current code, which has changed little in more than 20 years. She said existing legislation is vaguely worded, is difficult to enforce and carries low fines.
"People should not have to be fearful walking outside their homes ... always being concerned that an animal may attack them," said Thomas.
"By us responding promptly and efficiently, it makes a difference," she said yesterday. "And it restores the safety that people need to feel in their community."
The bill was introduced last month by council Chairwoman Shirley Murphy at the request of County Executive Janet S. Owens. Murphy called the legislation "long overdue," but said yesterday she is concerned that the bill would allow animal owners to bypass the Animal Control Commission when they are cited and appeal to the county Board of Appeals, which has a heavy caseload.
The proposed legislation follows several high-profile dog attacks in the county.
A 2-year-old in Brooklyn Heights almost died after her family's pit bull bit her neck last month, and another 2-year-old's hand was injured when the child was attacked by a neighbor's Rottweiler in Glen Burnie in October.
Under the bill, an animal would be deemed dangerous if it poses public safety threats such as attacking or inflicting severe injury to a person; killing or severely harming a domestic animal; chasing or approaching a person in a "menacing fashion" without provocation; or engaging in or showing evidence of dog fighting.
Pamela Loeb, a member of Prince George's County animal control commission who testified Monday, said yesterday she thinks the bill's definition of a dangerous animal would allow people to abuse the law. She worried that an owner of a barking dog that hadn't attacked anyone could be fined after annoyed neighbors reported it.
If the proposed legislation passes, animal control could order the owner of a dangerous animal to follow conditions that include requiring the animal to be spayed or neutered, implanting the animal with a microchip bearing owner information or requiring owners to take out liability insurance.
Animal owners who violate an animal-control order are now fined $100 for the first offense, $250 for the second and $500 for each subsequent offense. The bill proposes fines of $250 for the first violation and $500 for subsequent violations.
Ted Smith, Courtney's father, said those stricter conditions and higher fines could act as a deterrent to owners and might prevent dog attacks. He said the current law does not provide the county with enough enforcement control and has too many loopholes.
"The municipal codes don't stand for anything," he said. "It's like there might as well not be a law - there's very few constrictions concerning a pet owner."