Pets

Why do pit bulls attack? The answer is complicated.

Pit bulls make headlines when they attack humans because the injuries they inflict are typically severe and sometimes fatal.

Two pit bulls attacked a 76-year-old woman in Gulfport on Wednesday when she opened the fence and went into owner Emily Craft's yard. The woman, who many in the neighborhood describe as "the can lady," died from her wounds.

That wasn't the first time one authorities were called about Craft's dogs.

Craft was arrested Wednesday morning after the mauling on an outstanding warrant on charges of having a dog at large and having a vicious animal after an incident last summer where her dogs got into a neighbor's yard.

This incident, as well as a Nov. 2016 pit bull attack involving a teenager in Biloxi and the death of a Neshoba County woman in September, has again raised the debate on the Mississippi Gulf Coast about the breed considered aggressive by many.

Jaxon Ronsonet, 15, saved his 5-year-old brother's life when a neighbor's pit bull attacked the young boy. Jaxon picked up his brother and set him on top a trash can, sacrificing himself to the dog's jaws. The teen had his leg amputated soon after the attack.

When news of the attack broke, some people posted comments on social media blaming the children, saying they must have provoked the dog in some way or that the dog must have a history of abuse.

Controversial breed

Pit bulls and Rottweilers accounted for more than half of the dog bite-related fatalities across the United States for more than a 20-year period, according to a 2000 study by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a similar study in 2000 with nearly the same results, but the agency was criticized for using media accounts of dog attacks, among other sources, to compile its data.

A 2011 study published in the Annals of Surgery analyzed dog-bite injuries over 15-years in San Antonio, and found attacks by pit bulls produce " higher hospital charges, and a higher risk of death than ... attacks by other breeds of dogs," and that "strict regulation of pit bulls may substantially reduce the U.S. mortality rates related to dog bites."

Although some pit bull advocates do not dispute the statistics, they say pit bull attacks are solely the result of irresponsible owners, especially those who abuse the dogs or train them to fight.

Know the history

Laura Mioton of Hancock County has been raising pit bulls to show for more than 20 years. None of her pit bulls has ever attacked a human, she said. She credits this to responsible pet ownership.

"If you're going to get a pet, get it from a young age so you know its history," she said. She is careful not to let strangers try to pet her dogs, she said, and always keeps them on a leash.

Todd Holland of Biloxi agrees. He has raised five pit bulls from puppies at his home.

"They're real loyal dogs," he said. "We love the breed. "We've always had that mentality it's all about how you raise your dogs, no matter what breed they are, and we train them to be good."

So there was little concern, he said, when their son, Wyatt, was born almost seven years ago. His wife, Tammie, was "kind of standoffish" about it at first, but they have had no problems.

"We cautiously watched (Wyatt) a lot when he was outside playing with the dogs, but over the years they've just been really protective of him," Holland said. "They love him. I've never seen them get aggressive at all."

There are several reasons pit bulls attack, Mioton said. She blames shelters that are becoming overpopulated with the breed and the no-kill movement that has been placing aggressive dogs back into homes.

Colleen Lynn, founder of DogsBite.org, said people often adopt dogs from rescue groups that have little or no information on the history of the dogs.

"They put a cute little ad on Facebook of a dog with a tag, 'My name is Tommy. I'm a love bug. Come and adopt me,'" Lynn said. "They're just being really really dishonest with people."

Mioton and Lynn agreed its irresponsible for people to discount an animal's genetics.

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A woman was attacked and killed by two pit bulls after opening the gate to this yard on Deidra Court, Gulfport police said Wednesday. Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove identified her as Georgia Morgan, 75, of Gulfport, on Thursday. John Fitzhugh jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

It's about breeding

The pit bull was used for hundreds of years for bear-baiting, a blood sport in which trained attack dogs were thrown into a pit and forced to fight a bear. The sport was popular in England until the 1800s.

Hog-baiting, a slight variation of the sport, still exists illegally in the United States.

Organized dogfighting fell on the heels of this and still happens today. It is particularly popular in big cities and the Deep South. But in the last few decades, many Americans have begun to view their pets as family members.

Holland agrees, but he adds, "I've managed to make sure with our dogs, that our son has the best handling with them and shows them respect, because they are animals, they're not humans."

A study in the 2007 American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology pointed out pit bulls are a particular problem because they usually don't give warning signs before attacking.

"They tend not to make threatening gestures, such as snarling or baring of teeth, prior to attacking and so there may be no warning of impending aggressive behavior," the study said. "Pit bulls also take multiple bites and have greater jaw pressures than most other dogs, reaching 1,800 pounds per square inch."

They also attack continuously, as compared to other breeds that may just bite once. Combining all of those features with aggressive personalities and large sizes makes them "highly dangerous to children," the study said.

"We accept that we don't have to train a pointing dog to point," Lynn said. "We accept that we don't have to train a retrieving dog to retrieve. "Why do we refuse to accept that we don't have to train a fighting dog to fight?"

'Caged aggression'

"A lot of people tend to forget that animals can snap at any minute," Bay St. Louis Animal Control Officer Dorty Necaise said. "I understand you had the dog for seven years, raised it as a puppy and you think it's your child. Well, guess what? It snapped — and mauled the neighbor's children. I've seen it happen several times."

Holland said he's seen many pit bulls in his 18 years as a surveyor. Pit bulls he has encountered running free tend not to be aggressive, he said.

"If I see a dog on a chain or in a small confined area I don't go around them," he said. "They are really aggressive."

He describes this as "caged aggression."

"Think about if you were locked up in a kennel, you'd have a little aggression when that door opened up."

The dog that attacked Jaxon and his little brother had reportedly just been released from a kennel.

Recent cases of dog attacks in the South:

Tips on avoiding dog bites

Do:

  • Avoid eye contact with an unknown dog or face it directly. Stand sideways to it.

  • Remain motionless (e.g., "be still like a tree") when approached by an unfamiliar dog.

  • Put your purse, bag, or jacket between you and the dog for added protection.

  • If a dog knocks you down, curl into a ball with your head tucked and your hands over your ears and neck. Immediately let an adult know about stray dogs or dogs that are behaving strangely.

Don't:

  • Approach an unfamiliar dog.

  • Run from a dog.

  • Panic or make loud noises.

  • Disturb a dog that is sleeping, eating, or caring for puppies.

  • Pet a dog without allowing it to see and sniff you first.

  • Encourage your dog to play aggressively.

  • Let small children play with a dog unsupervised.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Sun Herald in 2016.

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