Vicious dog laws depend on responsible owners, control officers say

CINCINNATI – There are laws designed to protect Tri-State residents from dog attacks, and there are dog owners who flout them.

That's the everyday frustration of police and animal control officers who have to pick up the pieces after a brutal attack like the one in Westwood Wednesday .

Zainabou Drame, 6, is in critical condition after two dogs described as pit bulls attacked her while she was playing outside with her brother in the 2900 block of Aquadale Lane at about 6:15 p.m.

She was taken to Cincinnati Children's Hospital with massive facial injuries.

READ MORE: 911 call: 'There's a pit bull eating a baby'
RELATED: Do you know pit bull rules? Ordinances vary

Pit bulls were banned in Cincinnati for about nine years until city council revoked the ban in May 2012. Cincinnati, like most municipalities, requires that dogs involved in attacks against people or other pets be registered as vicious or dangerous.

Officials in the city manager's office were still trying to determine late Thursday whether the dogs who mauled the girl were registered as vicious or dangerous.

State and local laws are on the books that require vicious or dangerous dogs to have microchips implanted under their skin to track them. In Cincinnati, dogs deemed vicious – defined as having been involved in an attack and also bred as fighting dogs – have to have a microchip and a tattoo.

Additional laws require leashes, enclosures rather than chains and warning signs and annual registration.

On paper, it all sounds good. In reality, meat-headed owners will do what meat-headed owners will do, according to animal control officers in Ohio and Kentucky.

"Ordinances are only as good as the people who own the animals and how responsible they're going to be," said Dan Evans, director of the Kenton County Animal Shelter and supervisor of the county's animal control. "You can have the best ordinances on the books, but they depend on the capability of the owners to follow them."

The problem with many dog owners is forgetting to treat them like canines and not people, he said.

"They're not human beings. They have teeth," Evans said. "They don't speak to tell us when they're angry. Dogs can bite. I don't care if it's a pit bull or a beagle. If they have teeth, they have the potential of biting."

Butler County animal control officers have already responded to 65 dog bites through May, according to Dep. Kurt Merbs, animal control supervisor.

"It's been crazy bad this year, more so than any other year," the seven-year veteran said. "In Middletown alone, it's pretty much a dog bite once or twice a week. Warm weather makes it worse.

Merbs said Butler County, which does not have a pit bull ban, has done everything it can to prevent dog attacks, including a lot of lectures and some citations of dog owners with rickety enclosures.

They have the usual array of leash laws and recommendations to spay or neuter pets.

"Prevention is one of the hardest things because you can't prevent things all of the time," he said. "We go out and talk to people all day long, but we have no power to make people fix their fences."

Merbs attributes the rise in bites to a rise in abandoned dogs.

"We're seeing a lot of people having trouble taking care of them or leaving them behind or turning them loose," he said. "We're having a lot of them where the dog just had littered or was in heat. It's all signs that owners should be recognizing."

The officers were hesitant to wade into the debate about whether pit bulls should be banned, an issue that is sure to be rekindled with the attack on Zainabou.

But at least one pit bull advocate wants to head off any momentum toward new bans as misguided.

"Local councils and lawmakers are finding out the bans don't work. It takes a lot of taxpayer money to confiscate them and more to deem a dog a pit bull," said Tracy Padgett, president of ABC's of Bullies, a non-profit organization created to cultivate an understanding of American Pit Bull Terriers and other breeds.

Owners careless enough to allow vicious dogs to be in contact with others are probably not going to pay attention to the law, she said.

"Statistics have shown that having breed-specific legislation doesn't help  no matter what they do," Padgett said.

She favors laws that target owners of dogs that have been involved in violent attacks, she said, and for laws that generally make owners accountable for their dogs' actions.

Long term, "I think education is key. It's unfortunate a lot of people just don't know about discounted spay or neuter clinics. Whether it be getting programs into the schools to talk to children or high schoolers, we need to some how, some way talk about being responsible dog owners," she said.

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