ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly
Nov. 25, 2004


Pit Bulls: menacing or misunderstood?

On the cover: Roxy, the customer-friendly pit bull belonging to Clothing dock owner, Susan Paul.
Inset of impounded pit bull at the Humboldt Animal Shelter.
Photos by Helen Sanderson



Pit bull: The name alone conjures up images of muscled, ferocious dogs whose encounters are consistently splashed on the pages of newspapers. One look at the dog's blocky skull, deep chest, and chiseled hind legs can send people slithering away for safety. Pit bull enthusiasts say that the dogs are happy, sometimes goofy tail-waggers that have been given a bad rap by the press, and when the dog does lash out, it's the result of abusive ownership, not an inherently brutal breed.

Even animal control workers and dog experts say that pit bulls are not as nasty as many people think.

"Pit bulls are generally very sweet, loving dogs," said Andrea Hale, Humboldt County Animal Control officer. "The problem is that when they go bad, they're really bad."

There have been at least six pit bull attacks against people in Humboldt County since late August. None of them were life-threatening, but they could have been. That is why more media attention is paid to pit bulls in the first place: because they can kill.

`Ungodly screeching'

It was 15 years ago this month that a toddler was mauled to death by a pit bull in Southern Humboldt. On Nov. 13, 1989, Garrett East, just 22 months old, was killed when he walked into the path of a family pit bull chained to a pickup truck outside of their Ruby Valley home near Redway.

Marc Lee Antonsen, the dog's owner and boyfriend of Garrett's mother, was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the boy's death. While awaiting trial, Antonsen's legal troubles continued; in May 1990 he was busted for growing marijuana on his property. He later pleaded guilty to the manslaughter charge.

Pernel Thyseldew, who lived near Antonsen at the time, said neighbors were wary of the dog, and that it had nearly broken its chain when lunging for an elderly man who passed by the place. It was that same day, an ill-fated mid-November afternoon, that Thyseldew heard an "ungodly screeching," ran to the scene, and saw the medium-sized dog thrashing an overall-clad toddler around, an image he said he would never forget. The entire incident, he recalls, probably lasted a minute.

"The dog had him by the trachea and was shaking him like a rag doll," Thyseldew told the Journal last month. "I ran to [the closest house] and called for help, but 911 was already called and someone was hauling the kid off to the hospital.

"A lady I know was an ER nurse at the hospital, and she said they worked on [Garrett] for 10 or 15 minutes but they knew it was hopeless. He was basically dead on arrival."

Not long after the boy was taken to the hospital, a California Highway Patrolman arrived at Antonsen's house and shot the dog, ending its life.

[Chief Mendosa]It is not unusual to find pit bulls in connection with illegal activities, said Arcata Police Chief Randy Mendosa. [photo at left]

"I have met many nice friendly pit bull terriers. However, I've also met a large proportion of pit bulls that have been trained by people to be aggressive, to guard facilities such as marijuana grows. That's a common utilization of pit bulls. In fact, last year we had a pit bull that was guarding an indoor grow that was shot by the people attempting to do an in-home invasion."

While Garrett East's death was gruesome, what is more disturbing is that the attack was preventable. The pit bull was reportedly trained to be a guard dog and had a history of violence. It had bitten Garrett before and killed another dog, yet the family kept it.

Arcata toddler bitten

A little girl in Arcata, close to the same age Garrett was when he died, was bitten by a family pit bull in late August. Earlier this month, the Journal visited the house where the incident took place. The child's caregiver, a woman in her 40s, answered the door with the 2-year-old girl trailing happily behind her. Clearly visible was the characteristic dog-bite-shaped scar, a red crescent on her left cheek where the dog had bitten her.

The woman said that the pit bull in the side yard, which at that moment barked relentlessly from the confines of a chain-linked fence, belonged to her son-in-law, and that it had bitten the child. She explained that the little girl was feeding the animal when it snapped at her.

"She was holding the bowl out," the woman said, mimicking the movement with her hands. "And then she took it away."

Kathleen Kistler, who retired as executive director of the Sequoia Humane Society last week, said that it is not unusual for dogs to bite when their food is fiddled with: It's called resource guarding and lots of dogs do it, regardless of breed.

"It's the number one situation where people get bitten with animals, whether it's food or a toy," Kistler said.

Of the 18 dogs that were at the Humboldt County Animal Shelter in the first week of November, three were unadoptable. One of them, a pit bull-cross breed, exhibited this behavior, also known as "food aggressiveness," and was killed.

The family of the little girl who was bitten decided not to put their dog down. The woman who was minding her explained that the matter was "taken care of in the family," despite the fact that the Arcata Police were initially involved. She declined to comment further and did not give her name.

All of the other attacks that happened here in recent months involved adults. A woman from Garberville was mauled by two pit bulls in late August after she entered a neighbor's yard where the pets were kept. Officer Hale responded to the scene.

"[She] had severe, deep bites, on her arms. It happened right out in front of the house and it was dark out," Hale said. The woman's wounds required surgery.

The dogs' owner decided to have Animal Control put the animals down because of the severity of the mauling, Hale said. When they were quarantined at the Humboldt County Animal Shelter for the next 10 days, Hale said that the pit bulls were well behaved.

"That's the difference between how they act when they're protecting their territory and when they're not on their property. [The dogs] were not trustworthy, especially when you see them acting nice here; they cannot be good 100 percent of the time."

[Lt. Steve Knight ]In Manila, two female pit bulls went on a biting spree in early September after they escaped from the yard where they were held. The three victims were men, one of whom was mowing his lawn, another was working on his car and the third man was walking outside of the Manila Market. They were all bitten in the leg and none of them sought medical attention.

Humboldt County Sheriff's Lt. Steve Knight, [photo at left] manager of the new county animal shelter in McKinleyville, said that deputies cornered the animals in a neighbor's yard with shotguns drawn while Animal Control snared the dogs on long poles attached with cable leashes. The owner of the dogs, Knight said, was distressed over the situation and cried when he chose to have the dogs euthanized.

"The guy felt awful about it, but at the same time, those dogs were a liability," Knight said.

Whether a pet lives or dies is not always up to the owner. In cases where a dog is labeled as vicious, based upon the severity of injury it inflicts and also the frequency of attacks, Animal Control can decide to euthanize the animal.

If a dog attacks people or other dogs but does not cause much damage, it may be labeled as potentially dangerous. In that case, the owners will then be required to keep it within a 6-foot-high fence that is cemented at the bottom so the pet cannot dig its way out. Additionally, licensing fees for the animal double, from $30 to $60 a year; the dog must be kept muzzled in public; "beware of dog" signs with a illustration of a barking dog must be kept on the property; and the owner can even be ordered to pay higher liability insurance for their pet.

If a dog has a history of aggressive behavior, Animal Control does not make it easy for the owner to keep their dog.

[two dogs behind cyclone fencing]
Pit bulls awaiting authanasia at the Humboldt County Animal shelter for biting three people in Manila in September.

Troubled history

Knight has been working for Animal Control since July when the county took over the sheltering of animals from the Sequoia Humane Society.

"In the short time that I've been doing this, pit bulls have been one of the primary animals for biting humans," Knight said.

Additionally, they're difficult to find homes for. From January to December to 2003, 96 pit bulls or pit crosses were taken into the Sequoia Humane Society in Eureka. Thirty-eight of them were put down for viciousness, 37 were returned to their owner or adopted, 10 were euthanized for severe mange and the remaining 10 were also put down for various reasons.

Since Sequoia Humane broke ties with the county and now operates a no-kill adoption center, they rarely take in put bulls.

"We hardly accept them anymore because they're difficult to adopt out," said Molly Cook, kennel manager for the Sequoia Humane Society. "It's too hard for people to find rental places if they have a pit bull."

And when they do accept pit bulls the dogs must be "ambassadors of the breed," according to Kistler. In other words, only well-behaved pit bulls are allowed in. The shelter requires information about the dog's parents be provided, it goes through a thorough temperament test, and it has no history of fighting.

Indisputably, pit bulls, also known as Staffordshire terriers, American Staffordshire terriers and American pit bull terriers, are tenacious, athletic and determined. Match these qualities with an owner who encourages aggressiveness, and account for their incredibly strong jaw -- often called a "lock jaw" for its ability to clamp onto something with its teeth and not let go -- and a pit bull can become a lethal menace that makes the front page.

Nationally, 4.7 million dogs bite people every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but the statistics are not breed specific.

A tally that does identify breeds' misdeeds is the number of humans killed by dogs. The CDC has kept a death tally, with the most recent report stretching from 1979-1998.

Pit bulls top that list. During the course of the survey, 66 people were reported killed by pit bulls or pit bull crossbreeds. Rottweilers ranked second, killing 39 people, and German shepherds were responsible for 17 deaths. More than 25 breeds were involved in killing humans, including a cocker spaniel, which killed one person, and Labrador retrievers, which killed five people. Most victims were children.

Since the survey has resumed there have been a number of human fatalities, including the mauling of a 6-week-old infant by a Pomeranian -- a breed whose average weight is 4 pounds.

"Every dog is a potential biter, and humans need to realize that," Kistler said. "They are not that far away from a wild animal who has to kill for its food -- those instincts are still there."

[puppy sleeping, wrapped in sweatshirt]
Pinky, a pit bull puppy, takes a nap on the Arcata Plaza.

Bred to kill

A trainer at Best Friend Training Dog Obedience School in Eureka explained how pit bulls came to have killer instincts.

Pit bulls can be traced back to England in the 1800s, when dog fighting became a popular spectator sport. The breed was the product of a cross between bull dogs -- used for baiting bulls -- and terriers, a somewhat larger, family oriented dog, creating a mix that was loyal to humans and vicious with other animals. These dogs were pitted against each other for gambling, which was later outlawed.

The "sport" eventually came to the United States in the late 1800s, and the Staffordshire terrier was bred selectively for fight-to-the-death instincts.

"The dogs were provoked in a ring until one of them killed the other. Dogs don't normally work that way," said Scott Nelson of Best Friend school. "They have an instinct called ritualized aggression. When one dog gives up in a fight, it exposes its throat and genitals, basically saying `I give up, you're the winner.'

"At that point, the other dog's adrenaline level would instinctively drop, and the fight would end."

Nelson described how handlers provoked the dogs to continue fighting, essentially overcoming their instinct to call an end to a fight. The dogs who won the most were bred to create a line of fighting dogs.

"The next thing that happened was a mutation: The [pit bull's] bottom teeth became wider so the top teeth could lock together with the top ones. Then they could grind their teeth and hit an artery. So basically, this type of dog could just get one good bite in and win," Nelson said.

To further perfect a four-legged fighting machine, the dogs were selected for jaw strength, allowing them to lock onto an opponent's neck.

Randall Herzon, a trainer with another area dog obedience school, Kritter Kountry, said that pound for pound pit bulls have the strongest jaws around. Specifically, the dog can exert 3,500 pounds of pressure with its mandibles.

Compare that to the next strongest domesticated canine, a St. Bernard, which can muster 1,700 pounds of pressure, or a German shepherd, 1,500 pounds of pressure. The only dog stronger than a pit bull is a wolf-hybrid, which can exert 5,000 pounds of pressure.

"A pit bull would destroy a German shepherd or a Rottweiler. They would win every time because of their jaw," Herzon said.

The pit bull's low center of gravity and shorter stature helps the dog spring for the neck of a taller dog, like a shepherd, he added.

Eventually, dog fighting rings were shut down in the United States and the original line of Staffordshire terriers were bred with the feistier American breed, creating an American Staffordshire terrier, also called the American pit bull terrier.

For this reason, it's hard to know whether or not a particular pit bull has aggressive tendencies. Nelson, whose dog training company has had a number of pit bull clients, said that you never really know what your dog is capable of until you've seen it in a fight.

"A pit bull can still turn out to be a really great pet, but you have to be aware of the possibility that it can be aggressive. The best thing is to get your dog trained and watch out for potential problems," Nelson said.

The Humane Society's Cook agrees. Before pit bulls can be adopted from the shelter, the new owner must prepay to put the dog through obedience school.

"Pit bull owners need to be prepared to train that dog and stay constant with their training to raise that dog special," Cook said. "If they're raised incorrectly they can become a problem. The potential of dogs that can lock the jaws on you can become really deadly.

"But they can be the best dogs if they're raised right; sweet and smart. I raised one from a 2-day-old puppy. It was a wonderful dog."

Hosting dog fighting rings is a felony, but that doesn't stop it from continuing. Nelson thinks that it happens in Humboldt County because every so often a dog comes to the obedience school with scars and a bad disposition. Animal Control also believes that underground fighting rings are organized locally, usually in connection with gangs or drug-dealers, but officials are not sure where.

[Ronda the dog, smiling]
Ronda, an 11-year-old pit bull, was once the resident dog of Marino's, an Arcata bar that burned in 2001.

Doggy in the window

Tom King, a postal carrier in Arcata, said that he knows of four pit bulls on his downtown route. Do they scare him?

"Not at all. They're all sweethearts. Especially Roxy, the dog at the Clothing Dock," King said.

According to the American Veterinary Society of America, postal workers are the third highest demographic to be bitten by dogs, following children and elderly people.

Knight added that most postal workers he knows are more distrustful of smaller "toy" dogs, like poodles.

At the Clothing Dock, a trendy consignment store in Arcata, owner Susan Paul [in photo below with Roxy] sorts through a basket of sweaters and knit tops, while "talking dog," the term she uses for gabbing about her tan-colored pit bull-cross, Roxy, who lounges on the floor nearby.

"I love to talk dog, I can talk about Roxy all day," Paul said.

[Susan petting Roxy]

Roxy, who Paul says is also 1/32 Rhodesian Ridgeback, got the dog three years ago when she was just a pup, the runt of the litter. A man was selling the dogs outside of Winco in Eureka.

She's now 50 pounds, which is about the average weight for a pit bull. If she's not prancing around the store with her red kong -- a cone-shaped dog toy made of thick rubber -- or soaking up attention from a customer, the dog is dozing beside the mannequins in the window that faces K Street.

"I don't know how many times people have come in and sung `How much is that doggy in the window?' to me," Paul said, bobbing her head with the song's chorus.

"There's a few customers that are afraid of her, and they'll peek their heads and ask if she's around, so I'll just tie her up in the back, and that's fine. But for the most part, everyone loves her; some people come here just to visit her. They bring their kids. A lot of times a girl will come to shop and her boyfriend will play with Roxy," Paul said.

By far the toughest situation Paul has gotten into since she's had Roxy was finding a place to live. When she decided to move from Eureka to Arcata a year and a half ago, finding a rental was nearly impossible. As soon as a landlord would hear the words pit bull, negotiations would end.

"I practically begged these people to just meet my dog but they wouldn't have it. They just said no pit bulls, period.

Many insurance companies, like Nationwide and Allstate, will not write homeowners insurance policies for people with pit bulls, and other breeds of dogs that are deemed a risk.

"Our guidelines started tightening when Diane Whipple was killed in San Francisco," said Harmony McCoy, an agent with Allstate Insurance, referring to the notorious 2001 savage mauling of a woman by two Presa Canario dogs.

The blacklisted breeds include pit bulls, Rottweilers, Akitas, boxers, chows, Doberman pinschers, Presa Canarios and wolf-hybrids.

Instead of disqualifying certain breeds, State Farm Insurance has a different approach. Agents will meet the homeowner's dog and then make a decision on their premium. An owner whose dog has a history of violence does not get a policy.

"If someone has a pit bull, I don't say, `Whoa, that's not OK,'" said Gale King, a State Farm agent from Arcata. "If they haven't been trained to be a guard dog or an attack dog, then usually they're fine."

[Bubba standing in yard]
Bubba, a 75-pound pit bull cross and brother of Roxy, is a mild-mannered 3-year-old.


[book cover: Fido: Friend or foe? Activity book]

Children are bitten by dogs more often than any other group of people. A majority of those bites are inflicted upon the face and neck of the child, whose height can be close to that of a dog. In May, State Farm Insurance agents and the Sequoia Humane Society visit area schools for Dog Bite Prevention Week to teach kids how to be safe around animals.

Here are some basic tips for children:

  • Don't bother dogs while they are sleeping or eating.
  • Always ask the owner's permission before petting a dog.
  • Never tease a dog.
  • Don't bother a mother dog when she's caring for her pups.
  • Always approach dogs slowly and carefully.
  • When meeting a new dog, let it come to you and smell you.
  • Do not reach through a fence to pet a dog.
  • Never put your hands between two dogs.
  • Stay away from stray dogs.
  • If a dog approaches you, remain calm. Don't scream. Don't run. Stand still.
  • Always protect your face and neck.
  • If a dog knocks you to the ground, curl into a ball.
  • If attacked, try to give the dog a book or backpack to chew on.
  • Never try to help a hurt dog; get an adult to help.


Dec. 26, 2002: GOOD NEWS: Making amends to a pit bull

June 1996: FUNNY BUSINESS: Attack of the killer dog



Comments? Write a letter!

North Coast Journal banner

© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.