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Pit bulls, Labradors top city dog bite list

But experts say many mixed breeds classified as pit bulls.
Claire Osborn

A pit bull, a cocker spaniel, a poodle, a Rottweiler and a Chihuahua stared innocently from their cages at the Town Lake Animal Center, where they'd been sentenced to isolation.

The charge? Biting.

If the dogs showed no signs of rabies after 10 days, they would be released to their owners.

Austin animal control officers documented 744 dog bites for the nine months ending June 30, putting the city on a pace to easily surpass the 821 bites recorded the previous fiscal year.

Topping the list are pit bulls, with 181 reported bites. Second were Labrador retrievers, with 92, followed by German shepherds (48), short-haired Chihuahuas (43), Rottweilers (35) and chow chows (32). Pit bulls and Labradors have been first and second on the list for the past five years.

A bite can include anything from a scratch to a wound where blood was drawn, said Dorinda Pulliam, the shelter's executive director.

"Most of the bites we have are just a nip in the leg or a bite on the arm," said Chris Robles, manager of the animal control officers for Austin and Travis County.

Though pit bulls have a reputation for being aggressive, it's unfair to declare a breed innately dangerous, Pulliam said.

"Pit bulls are some of the friendliest dogs we have in shelters," she said.

And the way dogs are classified seems to be working against pit bulls. Because so many dogs are mixes, animal control officers have to guess at a dog's dominant breed. They usually pick pit bull when a dog is short with an elongated square head, Pulliam said.

Labradors, meanwhile, may have a high number of bite reports because of their popularity: 6,540 were registered in Austin in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2005.

German shepherds were a distant second at 2,088, and pit bulls were third with 1,820 — though many dogs aren't registered.

The last known fatal dog attack in Austin was in April 1984, when a 6-year-old boy climbed over a fence to retrieve a ball and was killed by a St. Bernard, Robles said.

In November 2005, six pit bull-Rottweiler mixes killed 76-year-old Lillian Stiles of Thorndale as she rode a lawn mower in her yard.

Their owner, Jose Hernandez, 52, of Thorndale, was indicted for criminally negligent homicide.

More common are dog owners who suffer minor bites while trying to separate pets fighting on hike-and-bike trails or meter readers and postal workers bitten on the job, according to animal control officers.

April Moore, one of Austin's 15 animal control officers, recalled an April 2005 attack in which a meter reader was attacked by three pit bulls who had escaped from a South Austin yard. The man lost the tip of his ear in the attack, she said.

Gratia Winship, who lives in Northeast Austin, said a pit bull attacked her and her dog in June in the parking lot of her neighborhood convenience store at Manor Road and Loyola Lane.

"Suddenly, I see a motion, and here is this pit bull flying at us," she said.

Neither Winship nor the two men who came running to her rescue were able to separate the pit bull from her dog, a mutt named Fawn. A police officer finally stopped the attack by shooting the pit bull with a Taser stun gun, according to a police report.

Winship said she was bitten on the hand and her dog required more than $1,000 in surgery. The pit bull was later caught and euthanized; the owner was never located.

"I am so traumatized by this, I want to move," Winship said.

Debra Avellano, one of Winship's neighbors, said people carry sticks when they walk in the neighborhood to ward off loose dogs.

"I've got a piece of skin missing from when a dog bit me two years ago," Avellano said.

Animal control officers handle 13 to 18 calls per day and need more help, said Robles, the animal control manager.

"We have 15 animal control officers that handle more than 2,000 square miles," he said.

Robles estimates the city needs 10 more officers. Three positions were cut about five years ago because of city budget concerns, he said.

The city doesn't plan to add animal control officers but wants to help control the animal population by increasing funding for spay and neuter programs, said Assistant City Manager Mike McDonald.

The city also wants to include more money in the upcoming budget for microchipping, which allows dogs to be identified through computer chips implanted under their skin so they can be returned to their owners more quickly, McDonald said.

Dangerous dogs

Under city ordinance, a dog can be declared dangerous if it makes an unprovoked attack away from its owner's property.

Owners of dangerous dogs must carry $100,000 in liability insurance and pay an annual $50 fee. If a dog declared to be dangerous bites someone, it can be destroyed, and the owner can be fined up to $10,000.