Cape City Council to discuss pit bulls

Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Anita Nocera won't walk her two miniature pinschers in her south side Cape Girardeau neighborhood anymore -- not after a pit bull, running loose, attacked and badly injured one of her dogs last year.

Nocera, who lives at 520 S. Hanover, said pit bulls are increasingly terrorizing the city's south side.

She wants the Cape Girardeau City Council to impose tough restrictions on pit bulls similar to those implemented this summer in Sikeston, Mo., where owners of such dogs have to register their pets with the city and keep them in secure pens or muzzled and on short leashes when outside.

Mayor Jay Knudtson said the city council will discuss the issue and look at police department statistics on dog bites.

"I don't think the way to deal with this is through emotion," he said.

From June 2001 to August 2003, the police department received 95 reports of individuals being bitten by animals. Eighty-two of those involved dogs.

Nineteen of the dog attacks involved pit bulls, the most of any single breed, police said.

In the past five years, Baughn said, 16 dogs have been declared vicious by animal control officers. Seven of those dogs were pit bulls and one was a pit bull/Rottweiler mix.

Police chief Steve Strong said there have been no life-threatening or crippling dog attacks on people in Cape Girardeau. The most serious injury was a facial bite by a basset hound, he said.

Strong said police officers have seen instances where pit bulls have been used by drug dealers as guard dogs. But "it is not something we run into every day," he said.

'Something has to be done'

Sue Lambert wants the dogs banned from Cape Girardeau entirely. Lambert, who lives at 1106 N. Frederick on the city's east side, worries that a neighbor's tied-up pit bull will break loose and bite children in the area.

"Something has to be done to control the situation," said Lambert.

Nocera said pit bulls are a danger to people, not just other dogs. "Someone is going to get killed," said Nocera, who was bitten when she rescued her male dog, Rocky, during a pit bull attack in March 2002 near her home.

Nocera said the attack almost killed Rocky and injured him so severely that she can't breed him.

Lambert and Nocera complain that city officials so far have ignored the problem which they blame on irresponsible pet owners, drug dealers who use them as guard dogs and residents who use the animals for illegal dog fights.

But Aaron Baughn, Cape Girardeau's animal control supervisor, said the city doesn't need new restrictions on pit bulls.

"We don't have enough problems out of them to say they need to be across-the-board banned or restricted," he said.

Baughn said the city already has the power to declare an animal vicious and impose strict restrictions that include keeping it penned up and requiring the animal be muzzled and on a short leash when taken outside of the enclosure.

Baughn said the real problem is that many pit bull owners care little about the animal and view it as "a disposable piece of property" that can easily be replaced by another pit bull. "It is not a house pet," he said.

Baughn said there are a lot of pit bulls in the south and northeast sections of the city. Many of them are chained up outside near streets and alleys that get a lot of pedestrian use, he said.

'Gotten a bad rap'

Pit bulls are instinctive fighters, he said. They were bred to fight other pit bulls and other animals, he said. "You have a head that is built like a pair of pliers," Baughn said.

But the animal control officer said pit bulls have "gotten a bad rap" over the years from news accounts of dog attacks.

Pit bulls typically don't attack people, he said. "I am a lot more comfortable personally in attempting to detain most pit bulls safely than a lot of other breeds," Baughn said.

Nocera disagrees. "In my opinion, they are worse than a gun," she said.

"I'm scared for my kids," said Nocera who has two daughters. "I am very scared with all the dogs running loose."

Nocera's husband, Chuck, said pit bulls are fierce fighters with strong jaws and teeth that can be lethal weapons. "The more you scream, the more they attack," he said.

The Humane Society of Southeast Missouri takes in over 5,000 animals a year. Many of them are pit bulls, said Tiffany Deimund, who runs the Cape Girardeau shelter.

Deimund said pit bulls are a "status symbols" in many low-income neighborhoods.

They are the most frequently stolen dog in Cape Girardeau and nationwide, police said.

Deimund said pit bulls picked up by the city's animal control officers often aren't claimed by the owners. Those detained for being aggressive and not claimed by the owners are euthanized, she said.

The shelter can't afford the liability of adopting out a dog that might injure someone, she said.

Blames national media

Pit bull owner Melanie Arnold of Cape Girardeau said it's wrong to label pit bulls as neighborhood bullies.

Arnold blames the national news media for portraying the pit bull -- which typically weighs no more than 80 pounds full grown -- as the "dreaded hound from hell."

But Arnold, who has had pit bulls as pets for more than two decades, said the problem is really with irresponsible pet owners and amateur breeders.

"You have so many backyard breeders," she said. "They don't stop and look at temperament. They just want a tough dog."

Arnold said drug dealers who want dogs to guard their drug houses don't care if it is a pit bull or another breed. "The criminal element, if they have to, will put a spike collar on a poodle," she said.

Terry Kitchen of Cape Girardeau loves pit bulls. "I have had pit bulls ever since I was in fourth grade. I never have had any problem," he said.

Kitchen's current pet is a 9-year-old pit bull named Tiger.

"The one I have right now is a big baby," Kitchen said. "The only thing he wants to bite is his food plate."

335-6611, extension 123

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