Our Views: Let's ensure another vicious dog attack doesn't leave heartache

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February 20, 2015

This editorial has been updated to delete inaccurate information.

In July 2013, a Janesville man shot his neighbors' two “pit-bull type” dogs when he felt threatened after the dogs cornered him in his garage.

On Jan. 31, two pit bulls brutally attacked a miniature donkey in a fenced town of Turtle pasture almost two miles from their Beloit home. The donkey suffered so many facial wounds that it couldn't eat or drink and died despite a veterinarian's care.

For years, school children visited and fed the donkey, owned by Anne Hannewall and her husband, Robert.

Rock County sheriff's officials say the dogs' owner was cited previously for letting them run loose. This time, deputies arrested her for the damage they caused, letting them run loose, not having them tagged and lacking proof of rabies.

Anne Hannewall told The Gazette the dogs' owner doesn't have the resources to justify a lawsuit. Making matters worse, Hannewall said, the dogs were returned to their owner because authorities supposedly can't kill them after a single attack.

Yet in 2005, Janesville police killed three pit bulls that had terrorized Ravine Street. An officer wounded one when it rushed her. Officers used Tasers to subdue it, and the owner agreed it should be killed. Neil Mahan, then police chief, ordered the other two killed.

“I was not going to have those dogs released back into the Janesville community to terrorize that neighborhood again or any other neighborhood,” Mahan said.

As The Gazette reported, state statutes allow authorities to destroy an animal that “poses an imminent threat to public health or safety.” Those words remain on the books. That raises questions about why the dogs in the donkey attack were returned to their owner. What if a child had been attacked? What if it's a child the next time?

Readers will see pit bulls as the common thread in these stories. Brett Frazier of the Humane Society of Southern Wisconsin in Janesville offered perspective on this latest case.

“We of course believe that dogs should be judged by their actions and not their breed,” Frazier wrote by email. “This story would be equally tragic if the dogs were any other breed or breed mix. There are a lot of misperceptions about American Pit Bull Terriers (and other breeds), and what we have found is that it's the people who have the greatest impact on whether a dog will be dangerous and aggressive or not. Of course, leash laws requiring a dog to be under the owner's control are also important.”

Some readers would still argue against pit bulls. The Centers for Disease Control reported in 2000 that 20 years of data show pit bulls involved in more deadly attacks than any other breed. The CDC cautioned, however, that this might be because pit bulls are so common. It doesn't help their reputation that they're often groomed for illegal fighting or trained to be aggressively protective. When these powerful animals get loose, tragedy can result.

If an animal is dangerously aggressive—a situation the humane society sees on a regular basis—the danger must be eliminated, Frazier said. Public safety is the goal. Legislators should consider whether statutes should be clearer and more direct.

Local governments also can consider limits. Some municipalities have banned pit bulls, but others opt for a broader “dangerous dog” blanket. Critics argue the latter is less effective at preventing attacks.

“We all want the same thing—for our pets and our families to be safe,” Frazier wrote. “I would sincerely hope that all people who have heard this story remember that it's our responsibility as people to train and control our pets so things like this don't happen.”

No one can argue with that.

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