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Originally published September 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 7, 2008 at 1:34 PM

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Pit bulls on the loose? You may be on your own

Some people who've had encounters with aggressive dogs, like the pit bulls who attacked a 71-year-old SeaTac woman on Monday, say they've called animal-control officers to no avail. Animal control says its officers are spread too thin to respond to every call of pit bulls running loose.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Information

Families and Dogs Against Fighting Breeds: Read the local group's initiative to restrict fighting-dog breeds at seattletimes.com

How to help

People wishing to send flowers or cards to Huong Le, the 71-year-old victim of Monday's pit-bull attack in SeaTac, can send them to 3055 S. 150th St., SeaTac, WA 98188. People wishing to make donations to offset her medical expenses can do so at any Bank of America branch through the Huong Le Medical Fund.

Breeds, bites

Top five breeds licensed in Seattle (as of September 2007), with percentage of bite incidents and licensed dogs:

Pit bull

% of bite incidents: 22

% of all licensed dogs: 4

Labrador retriever

% of bite incidents: 12

% of all licensed dogs: 18

German shepherd

% of bite incidents: 5

% of all licensed dogs: 6

Golden retriever

% of bite incidents: 0

% of all licensed dogs: 6

Poodle

% of bite incidents: 0

% of all licensed dogs: 3

When their grandchildren come over to play, Jean and Ivan Zamora of Boulevard Park like to have snacks and sunscreen handy, keep a wading pool full of water and make sure their shotgun and pepper spray are within easy reach.

Several of their neighbors have pit bulls that get loose or are allowed to roam the neighborhood, and despite repeated calls to police and Animal Control — including desperate ones this summer when the Zamoras were attacked — nothing's ever been done about it.

"They [animal-control dispatchers] asked if we'd been bitten, and I told them 'no,' and they said 'Sorry, we're understaffed. We can't do anything unless there's been a bite,' " said Jean Zamora, a surgical nurse who's living in the Southwest Seattle neighborhood with her husband while their Alki home is remodeled.

"We had to fend that dog off with a lawn chair and a garden hoe," she said of their encounter with one of the neighborhood pit bulls in July.

"I have four grandchildren who are around all the time. The oldest is 6. All those dogs would have to do is run through and grab one in their jaws and they'd be dead," Zamora said. "We're not taking that chance."

Neighbors of a 71-year-old SeaTac woman who was mauled on Monday by two pit bulls expressed similar frustration.

Although King County Animal Care and Control said its officers had never been out to the neighborhood before Monday's attack, several neighbors said the agency had failed to respond to their earlier calls about the animals running loose or acting in a threatening manner.

One neighbor, Donna Rogers, said she called the agency and was told to contain the animals in her yard, which she did. No one from the agency ever showed up.

Nancy McKenney, a spokeswoman for Animal Care and Control, said the agency had received nearly 900 reports of vicious dogs and dog bites this year through July. About one-quarter of those reports involved bites.

Animal-control officers have to respond to calls of bites or attacks in progress, but there is no way, given the county's geographical area and the limited number of officers, that the agency can respond to every report of a loose animal. As of two years ago, King County's animal-control agency had 45 full-time employees who ran two shelters and oversaw all animal-related incidents in an area of more than 2,500 square miles.

Some people said that the problem has gotten so bad in their neighborhoods that the otherwise law-abiding citizens plan to take matters into their own hands.

One SeaTac man, who did not want to be named because he feared retribution, said he and his miniature-breed dog routinely encounter aggressive unleashed animals while on their morning walks.

"I'm shooting the next loose pit bull I see, no questions asked," he said. "I don't care whether it's legal or not."

Police say it is lawful to use a legally permitted gun to shoot an attacking animal.

"If a person feels they are being threatened by a pit bull, then by all means, they need to do whatever they need to do to protect themselves and others," said Seattle Police Department spokeswoman Renee Witt.

However, she and Sgt. John Urquhart, spokesman for the King County Sheriff's Office, both cautioned that it is not legal to shoot a dog simply because it's running loose.

A person who shoots a dog "wantonly" could face criminal charges, Urquhart said.

"Each situation is individual, but it makes a difference if it's growling at you from across the street, or from two feet away," Urquhart said.

The unneutered male dogs that attacked Huong Le were killed by two sheriff's deputies.

Monday's attack — which severed Le's ears and left her with a crushed arm and deep, gaping bite wounds from her head to her feet — came in the midst of efforts by some anti-pit-bull activists in Seattle and Spokane to ban pit bulls, pit-bull mixes and other so-called fighting breeds. A group that calls itself Families and Dogs Against Fighting Breeds has proposed an amendment to the Seattle Municipal Code that would ban the acquisition of new animals classified as fighting breeds.

Under the proposed amendment, fighting breeds would have to be spayed or neutered, microchipped and muzzled when outside their homes. In addition, the group proposes language that would make it unlawful for those convicted of certain criminal activity to own fighting-breed dogs.

Pit-bull supporters say the breed has been unfairly targeted and argue that owners, not dogs, should be held responsible for vicious behavior.

Michelle Ranous, who describes herself as a responsible pit-bull owner, says, "Breed bans don't work, nor are they even legal most of the time."

"What we need is responsible animal-control officers who take leash-law violations seriously," Ranous said.

Seattle officials said they have no immediate plans to enact any laws targeting the breed. However, Metropolitan King County Council President Julia Patterson, distressed by the attack in her home city of SeaTac, said Wednesday she will meet with council staff members to consider possible restrictions on pit bulls in areas under county jurisdiction.

"I don't think people should have to be afraid to walk down the street because a dog is in the neighborhood that has the jaw strength that makes it capable of hurting someone so badly. People I'm hearing from are afraid of pit bulls," said Patterson, who sponsored legislation last year to impose new penalties for animal cruelty and to reduce the number of cats and dogs put to death in county animal shelters.

King County does not separate bite statistics by breed. However, the Seattle Animal Shelter said pit bulls account for a disproportionate number of reported bites in Seattle. While pit bulls make up only 4 percent of licensed dogs, they make up 22 percent of reported bites, the shelter said.

In Seattle so far this year, there have been 130 reported dog bites, a big drop from previous years. But almost half of the bites are attributed to pit bulls, a doubling in the rate of pit-bull bites in previous years.

Of the pit bulls placed at the Seattle Animal Shelter in the past six years, more than half were euthanized. More than a quarter were claimed by their owners and one in seven was adopted, according to the shelter.

McKenney, the animal-control spokeswoman, said she sympathizes with people's frustration, but animal-cruelty cases and bites or attacks in progress are the agency's highest priorities.

People can get a faster response to reports of loose animals by providing detailed descriptions of the roaming dog's behavior and a description of where the dog lives if that is known. They can also get their neighbors involved in calling in reports.

"If everyone in a neighborhood calls every time the animal gets out, and that becomes a series or a pattern, that can elevate the priority and help the response," McKenney said.

The two pit bulls that were killed on Monday were owned by Travis Cunningham Sr. of South 152nd Street in SeaTac. After the attack, animal-control officers and police talked to Cunningham and confiscated his two remaining female pit bulls. Those dogs were at the animal shelter until Tuesday evening, when they were released to Cunningham, McKenney said.

Cunningham, who could face criminal charges for failing to contain or muzzle his dogs, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

McKenney said Cunningham told animal-control officers that he would find another place for his dogs to live.

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or seattletimes.com">cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times staff reporters Keith Ervin and Sanjay Bhatt contributed to this report.

Excerpts from seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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