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Originally published Sunday, September 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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When pit bulls attack ...

The mauling by pit bulls of a 71-year-old woman in SeaTac raises the issue of whether "fighting" dog breeds should be allowed in urban areas.

The mauling by pit bulls of a 71-year-old woman in SeaTac raises the issue of whether "fighting" dog breeds should be allowed in urban areas.

Pit-bull owners argue vehemently otherwise — that it is the errant owners who are the problem, not the dogs. When a savage attack happens — and the victim, Huong Le, had her arm and wrist crushed and both ears ripped off — other dog owners will blame the owner. In the SeaTac case, both pit bulls were males, and the owner had not neutered them. That was his fault. He had not kept the dogs in his yard or on leash, which was also his fault. Therefore, don't blame the dogs.

For a pit-bull owner, this may sound reasonable. For the public, it does not. The person confronted by a mean dog is not worrying about the cause of the dog's bad attitude. His concern is not fairness to the dog. His concern is the dog.

Human safety and civil streets require restrictions on dangerous dogs. Such restrictions exist already — in SeaTac and in most places. The pertinent question is whether restrictions should be based on a dog's behavior only, or also on its breed.

Current restrictions tend to focus on behavior only. Consider Seattle's law. It does not ban pit bulls, as Denver's law does, or mandate pit bulls be neutered, as San Francisco's law does. It generally bans dangerous dogs. But in order to be a dangerous dog, an animal has first to act dangerously and be known to the authorities.

The SeaTac pit bulls had been complained about, but the animal-control people had not come out to investigate. The son of the dog owner didn't think his dad's animals were threatening. "I just don't understand why they'd go and attack," he said. "They've never attacked anybody."

Until they did. And when pit bulls decide to attack, they can kill.

Breed-based laws also have problems. It's not always clear whether a dog is a pit bull or something close to it. Denver, which bans American pit bull terriers and two kinds of Staffordshire terrier, has confiscated some 1,000 dogs — sometimes with an impassioned argument from the owner.

The owner has an argument, but ultimately the victims, and would-be victims, have a stronger one.

The control of pit bulls is a question to be resolved in favor of public safety and not in favor of the breed or the breeders.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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