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Pitbull that bit child released to owner; Friday Harbor will discuss possible dangerous dog law

Pierce Kleine ... bitten by a pit bull while going to the San Juan Island Library to see Santa Claus.  - With permission of Shawn Kleine
Pierce Kleine ... bitten by a pit bull while going to the San Juan Island Library to see Santa Claus.
— image credit: With permission of Shawn Kleine

A pitbull has been released to its owner after a 10-day quarantine at the Friday Harbor Animal Shelter, after it bit a 3-year-old going to the San Juan Island Library to see Santa Claus.

Sheriff Bill Cumming said the county prosecutor is considering a civil infraction under town ordinance. In addition, the dog's owner has been told "he's extremely vulnerable in terms of liability."

At the shelter, the dog was observed for signs of illness and behavioral problems, shelter manager Leslie Byron said. "It was fine. It didn't show any aggression toward anyone." The dog was released Dec. 27, she said.

The incident occurred Dec. 17 in the library parking lot. Photos of the child show what appears to be a large bite mark on his left back; no stitches were required.

Amber Kleine said her children — ages 3 and 1 — were with their babysitter walking from the parking lot to the library when they passed a man walking his pitbull. The dog was reportedly on a leash.

As they passed, the dog allegedly bit the older boy, Pierce, on his back shoulder blade. She said that as far as she knew, her son did not try to pet the dog.

"The dog latched onto his sweatshirt and was shaking him," said Amber, who was not at the scene. "Pierce was wearing a thick sweatshirt and a T-shirt and the dog bit right through it."

A report was filed with the Sheriff's Department and the dog was quarantined in the Animal Shelter. The boy was treated at Inter Island Medical Center and released.

Under county and state law, a dog can be designated a "potentially dangerous" dog if, when unprovoked, it bites a human or domestic animal on public or private property. A "potentially dangerous" dog can be labeled a "dangerous" dog if it takes an aggressive posture toward someone. Each level comes with mandated controls, in some cases signage indicating the dog is dangerous. A dangerous dog that takes an aggressive posture toward someone can be ordered euthanized.

Cumming said about 10 dogs have been declared dangerous since the county's law was adopted in 2003. He did not know the breeds of those dogs.

The county's law mirrors state law. Friday Harbor Town Attorney Adina Cunningham said the town is updating its law so that it mirrors the county and state's; the Town Council will discuss the issue Jan. 6.

Current town law is antiquated. It states that any dog "displaying the tendencies and symptoms" of a vicious dog can be considered a public nuisance. It is unlawful to "keep or maintain" a public-nuisance dog within the town limits. The law also sets fees for licensing, but licensing is now done through the Animal Protection Society.

The town didn't adopt the county's law because the county law includes language related to attacks on livestock, which are not kept within the town limits. However, Town Administrator King Fitch said state law applies on the local level.

Pierce's father, Shawn Kleine, wrote a letter to the editor in the Dec. 29 Journal, calling for pitbulls to be outlawed within town limits or at least kept away from highly populated areas like libraries and schools.

“Sadly, pitbulls have been bred to be aggressive and non-submissive and often they show dominance toward humans and other animals. Most attacks by these dogs are so vicious that they cannot be separated from their victims. I have witnessed this myself here on this island on three different occasions,” he wrote.

“Not all of these dogs are dangerous but I would say that 90 percent of pitbulls that I have personally witnessed in this community are. Knowing this, I feel that 90 percent of these owners are irresponsible as well. Why own an animal that is hard to control and is known to be very aggressive toward other animals and other people?”

Pitbulls – the term used to describe several breeds such as the American bulldog, American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, and Staffordshire bull terrier — have long been controversial animals, mostly because of their strength and history. They are descended from large shepherd dogs that originated in ancient Greece, but by the Middle Ages had evolved through breeding into dogs that were athletic, game and strong — prized for bear-baiting and bull-baiting; that is, fighting a larger, chained animal in a pit.

“Terriers in general have a higher tendency towards dog aggression, and American pit bull terriers constitute the majority of dogs used for illegal dog fighting in the United States,” a heavily referenced Wikipedia article reports. “In addition, law enforcement organizations report these dogs are used for other nefarious purposes, such as guarding illegal narcotics operations, use against the police, and as weapons.”

Even advocates say that pitbulls, because of their strength and nature, are not a pet for everybody.

Chad Zetrouer is a pit bull advocate and trainer who maintains a website, factsaboutpitbulls.com. He describes the pitbull as a strong and very muscular dog, very energetic, “a great match if you are the type of person who is always up for an adventure.”

“But if you think that you can push your dog into obedience or if you expect him to hang onto everything you say, then a Pit Bull is not for you,” he writes. “If you want a dog that is easily approachable and is welcomed by everyone, than a Pit Bull is not for you.”

Jessica Ray, former Friday Harbor Animal Shelter director who owns Downtown Dog, calls her pitbull, Angel, the “ambassador of the breed” because she’s so gentle. But she warns that not anybody can own a pitbull.

“Pitbulls are an energetic breed. Like any dog with a high prey drive, when they play or go for something, it's damaging because they're a powerful well-built animal,” she said.

Elli Gull of Friday Harbor owns four American bulldogs. She said statistics regarding pit bull bites are skewed because a pit bull bite is more likely to get attention.

“When a pit bull does bite, it’s more serious. They tend to hold on instead of letting go. They were bred to hunt and kill animals. They have a high prey drive. When they’re around small animals, it’s their instinct to chase that thing.”

Veterinarian Michelle Loftus, owner of the Animal Inn, said pit bulls have triggers we don't understand.

“It's something when a Chihuahua is triggered, but when pit bull is triggered, with all that muscle, it’s going to cause more damage. We know that kids on swings can set off herding breeds.”

Loftus said pet owners must understand their dogs and be cautious of “the potential of damage that can occur.”

“There are great pit bulls around, but they could still be set off by those triggers. (A dog) has got to have the right socialization and have the right training.”

Cumming said pitbulls – and actually, most dogs – can react when in a “tense or chaotic moment”; the Dec. 17 attack occurred in a parking lot where there were excited children.

His advice to dog owners: “Make sure your dog is not put in a situation confusing to them."

His advice to parents: "All parents should always caution their children how to behave around any animal -- not to instill fear, but to instill respect. Don't approach a dog you don't know. Always inquire of the owner, ‘May I pet your dog?’ A dog will bite if provoked or fearful.”

STATE LAW: Revised Code of Washington, Chapter 16.08 RCW, Dogs.

COUNTY LAW: San Juan County Code, Title 6, Animals.

TOWN LAW: Friday Harbor Municipal Code, Title 6, Animals.

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