Vicious dog laws lose their teeth

SANDUSKY Taylor Street resident Deb Rogers fought back tears as she described the brutal pit bull at
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

SANDUSKY

Taylor Street resident Deb Rogers fought back tears as she described the brutal pit bull attack on her 10-year-old baby, Chloe.

Chloe is Roger's Yorkshire terrier. The small dog was tethered May 1 to Rogers' back patio when it was mauled by a neighbor's pit bull. Chloe lost her right eye and suffered skull punctures and two cracked ribs. Chloe now bumps into objects she can no longer see.

"She was crying and she was shaking," Rogers said. "She was just shaking so bad and blood was dripping everywhere."

This apparent unprovoked attack reinvigorates the debate about vicious dog laws and whether pit bulls are naturally vicious. Two things are certain -- pit bull ownership in Erie County is on the rise and the laws are difficult to enforce.

In 2006, there were 188 pit bulls registered with the Erie County dog warden. Since January, 151 have been registered.

"Those are the ones that are registered so they're generally good owners," said Erie County Dog Warden Barb Knapp, adding that the breed's popularity is due to their power and vicious reputation. "There's a lot out there that aren't tagged."

Vicious dog ordinances in Ohio municipalities vary as to the degree of enforcement on the breed and the court system has not clarified how far cities can go to ban dogs most often associated with attacking animals and young children.

In the 2006 case of Toledo v. Tellings, a Toledo man challenged a local ordinance that classifies the pit bull as a vicious breed.

The case was appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which put a stay on Ohio's pit bull and vicious dog ordinances, which experts say means laws classifying the breeds as vicious still apply.

But, as a result of the U.S. Sixth District Court of Appeals in Toledo's ruling on this case, Sandusky laws classifying the pit bull as a vicious dog have been amended on the grounds that they are unconstitutional because they label the breed as vicious instead of addressing the actions of individual dogs.

"That's what the court was saying," said Sandusky Law Director Don Icsman. "You can't just label them because they were born a certain breed. It's about the actions of a dog, not what it is when it's born."

The pit bull that attacked Chloe was a 9-month-old female named Peaches who belonged to Roger's neighbor, Michelle Burdue-Rothgate.

Burdue-Rothgate's husband Craig opened the kennel that May 1 afternoon to feed Peaches when she darted across the unfenced yard and attacked Chloe.

Peaches was put to sleep the next day.

The only charges Knapp said she could charge Burdue-Rothgate with were for having a dog at large and for not having a dog license, both misdemeanors.

Burdue-Rothgate was found guilty Monday in Sandusky Municipal Court for both. She was not penalized, but agreed to pay for Chloe's $1,632 veterinarian bill.

Icsman said enforcing dog-related ordinances has been a challenge for Sandusky since budget cuts forced the city to do away with its animal control officer.

"The police are overworked as well," he said. "They're trying to do the enforcement of this along with the dog warden and Erie County."

Lucas County Dog Warden Tom Skeldon, regarded as a local expert on pit bulls, says this is an example of why pit bulls generally do not make good pets.

"I'm sure there are some that have become good pets, but as a rule that isn't the kind of breed I would suggest people get as a pet," Skeldon said.

Pit bulls were originally bred in the mid-1800s to help butchers take down and kill livestock by locking its strong jaws around an animal's head and dragging it to the ground. They have since been used in dog fighting.

That's why Skeldon says a pit bull's inherited tendency towards violence can surface at any time without warning no matter how it's raised.

"You can't make a leopard change his spots," he said.

Still, Rogers' recent experience has not soured her on the pit bull breed.

Her son Brian, 26, owns a pit bull that he has raised since it was a puppy.

"He's a big baby," Rogers said. "The family is real comfortable with it."