Pit bulls have area neighborhood nervous

Dog trainer Michelle Dunlap, owner of Gainesville Canine Academy, scratches the belly of Phoenix, a pit bull she has been working with for 1 1/2 years.

DAVID MASSEY/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, January 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 31, 2004 at 11:36 p.m.
A Gainesville subdivision feels it's under attack. Folks don't feel safe walking outside. They call the police for help. They call city commissioners. They point fingers at neighbors.
It's not burglars or drug dealers that have Springtree residents on edge. It's dogs. Specifically, pit bulls in their neighborhood off of NW 34th Street.
And their plight has triggered a discussion here that mirrors one occurring throughout the country and around the world - what can be done about dangerous dogs? Are more restrictions needed, or maybe outright banning of some breeds?
"It's scary," Springtree resident Neil Beckerman said of the dog situation. "These are snarling, growling, aggressive dogs. That's different from just woof, woof."
Florida law prohibits breed-specific bans, though Miami-Dade County enacted an ordinance before the law and that has been grandfathered in.
The Gainesville City Commission's Public Safety Committee has been discussing dangerous dog problems. Those talks have included limiting the number of dogs people can own or the size of dogs.
It's a dilemma that governments are dealing with elsewhere, and it is a tricky business.
St. Paul, Minn., for instance, bans wolf-dog hybrids. The ban was enacted after several cases in which the creatures attacked people and other animals. But owners of some confiscated hybrids say their dogs are in fact a different breed - malamutes - and should not be euthanized.
Recent attacks by pit bulls on schoolchildren in New Mexico have prompted one state legislator there to pledge to introduce legislation specifically banning the breeding of pit bulls. Gov. Bill Richardson has called for greater limits on dangerous dogs, but not breed-specific restrictions.
Meanwhile, several European counties ban a variety of dogs, including the well-known pit bull and the lesser known - at least in the United States - tosa inu and fila brasileiro breeds. The tosa inu originates from Japan and the fila brasileiro from Brazil.
Many dog trainers and others who work with dogs say breed-specific legislation is not a solution to dealing with attacking dogs. Some breeds of smaller dogs can be aggressive, while pit bulls can be loyal, loving pets.
"Gainesville is so unique in that the pit bull is Gainesville's Labrador. I'd venture to say there are as many pit bulls and pit bull mixes here than any other breed, and in a very good way," said Michelle Dunlap, owner of Gainesville Canine Academy. "It's all how you accessorize. When you see a pit bull with his ears (not cropped), you know you have a pretty good owner. When you see a girl pit bull with flowery paraphernalia, you know there's a great owner. They are not there for the toughness."
Many of the laws regarding dogs and other animals in Florida originate in state statutes.
Floridians cannot have as pets potentially dangerous animals such as bears or big cats - no lions, tigers, jaguars or leopards. People can have them for a specific use - rescue facilities or animal entertainment, for instance - but they must be permitted and adhere to restrictions on the acreage, fencing and other requirements, said Karen Parker of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"You can't just have big, carnivorous cats in your house," Parker said. "Animal welfare and public safety are the driving concerns behind this."
Restrictions also exist on venomous snakes, exotic reptiles such as Komodo dragons and native wildlife such as alligators.
The state also has restrictions on wolf-dog hybrids if the animal's dog bloodlines amount to 25 percent or less.
Florida does not allow counties to ban specific breeds of dogs, but Alachua County and many other counties have regulations that deal with aggressive and dangerous dogs.
Alachua County designates problem dogs into two categories - aggressive and dangerous.
A dog can be declared aggressive by Alachua County Animal Services after one attack on a person or another pet that occurs off the dog owner's property. Aggressive dogs must be kept in an enclosure or on a leash. Warning signs must be posted at its home.
A dog can be designated dangerous after after one attack on a person or two on another animal. Restrictions include neutering and confinement of the dog.
Alachua County ordinances have been the focus of the Gainesville City Commission's Public Safety Committee, which includes Commissioners Tony Domenech and Ed Braddy.
Dog attacks on other animals or people occur frequently.
County commissioners created the aggressive dog designation in March after a Newberry woman's Jack Russell terrier was killed by marauding dogs.
Last year, roaming mixed breed dogs killed six cats and injured another dog in the Florida Park neighborhood in northwest Gainesville.
A Springtree resident shot a pit bull as it was attacking a person about two years ago.
Dog issues have continued at Springtree, sparking a review of dog policies by the Public Safety Committee.
"I have a neighbor who has two little children. She has a six-foot wood fence. She told me recently she looked out the window and there was a pit bull playing with her children. The dog had dug under to the yard. She said this happened on more than one occasion," Springtree resident Kathy Meiss said. "There have been other families with little children who have been approached by dogs that have gotten loose."
The committee has discussed ways to try to prevent dog problems, including potentially limiting the number of dogs that can be owned by city residents. Another possibility is limiting the size of dogs.
Neither suggestion got much of an endorsement from Domenech or Braddy.
Instead, they appear more likely to work toward greater enforcement of existing laws.
"We probably have sufficient tools to deal with everything I've been hearing about in the past several months," Domenech said. "If that's true, the question then becomes, has it not been enforced or have we just not gotten the information out?"
Alachua County Animal Services got a budget boost from the County Commission for 2005 and recently hired a new director, Ray Sim.
Sim said additional officers will be hired to try to improve service. That will include getting officers to respond more quickly to potentially dangerous situations with dogs.
"I do not doubt that we have not been as responsive as we could have been or would like to be," Sim said. "I think there is a lot that can be done if we can properly enforce."
Cindy Swirko can be reached at (352) 374-5024 or swirkoc@gvillesun.com.

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