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Rise in dog bites sparks concerns

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Walking his dog in a Waynesville neighborhood one summer evening several weeks ago, fear was the farthest thing from Dan Elliott’s mind. So when a pit bull came charging after Elliott and his 80-pound Australian Shepherd mix, sinking his teeth into the dog’s hindquarters, Elliott was shocked. It took a full minute for the owner to unlock his pit bull’s jaws from Elliott’s dog.

Turns out, what happened to Elliott’s dog wasn’t an isolated incident. Haywood County Animal Control Senior Field Officer Keith Adams revealed that during the first part of June, 12 dog-bite incidents were investigated in the area — and county ordinances currently in place might not be doing enough to prevent these from occurring.

Elliott’s dog survived the attack, though he is still walking with a severe limp even after expensive surgery. Animal control officers, whom Elliott praised as being “very professional and quick to act,” could do little to prosecute the owner or seize the animal, however.

Though the pit bull was roaming the streets without a leash — which is illegal in the town limits of Waynesville — animal control can only issue a warning if it is the first time the animal has been reported to them (though there are exceptions in certain cases, such as if the animal had been violent). The second time an animal is reported in an area off-leash, the owner is issued a $50 fine. The flipside of the punishments is that they can only be enforced if the owner can be located, which is not always easy to do.

Haywood County dermatologist Dr. Rufus Thomas experienced the difficulty of enforcing leash laws firsthand when his 18-year-old cat was attacked and killed by a pit bull on his porch. Though the two pit bulls on Thomas’ street were kept in a pen, they often escaped under the loose watch of their owner. By the time Thomas had finished attending to his cat, the pit bulls had returned to their pen. That meant the animal control officers could not levy fines on the owner, since they had not physically witnessed the dogs roaming.


Muzzling the problem

Another problem presented by the county regulations is that it is much harder to levy punishment when an animal attacks another animal. An animal that bites a person is automatically quarantined for 10 days, after which they may be retrieved at the owners’ expense, according to Adams. Though no criminal charges are filed, the owner of the animal that is deemed vicious receives a civil penalty in the form of a $100 fine.

Turning a vicious animal back over to the original owner hasn’t always had a good outcome in the past. Adams remembers a specific incident where an animal that had bitten a child was turned back over to its owners after the 10-day quarantine. Less than two months later, the animal bit someone else — at which point it was shot and killed by the owner. The practice of “dispatching” an animal (a term for destroying or killing it) is not illegal if it is the owner’s decision. But, Adams said, it is an unfair end to an animal whose behavior is often the result of others’ mistreatment.

Both Thomas and Elliott agree that the owners of large and potentially dangerous animals need to be held to a greater level of responsibility.

“It’s an owner issue. I’m not mad at the dog, I’m mad at the owner. The problem with dogs like that is that if you’re a bad owner and make a pit bull mean, those types of dogs have the capability to kill someone,” Elliott said.

Greg Sessoms, Elliott’s roommate, echoed this sentiment.

“I don’t know if some of the owners of these dogs are exercising the level of responsibility they should given the potential danger of those animals. There’s a higher level of responsibility if you’re going to own an animal like that,” Sessoms said.

Sessoms suggested that requiring owners to register their animals — and even outlawing the possession of certain breeds within town limits — might prevent these sorts of attacks from occurring.

In the end, however, Adams is convinced that the true solution for preventing dog attacks falls with the owner.

“Animals can be raised right if you give them love, attention, and socialize them with other animals and people. But if you’re not going to treat the animal fairly and show it love and attention, and instead yell and scream and beat it, it’s going to turn on you,” Adams said.