Jun 09, 2002 Elgin: Working to prevent dog attacks

By Tom O'Konowitz Daily Herald Staff Writer

Posted by SueN

Wendy Simental finds herself living in fear these days.

Not for herself, but for her daughter, Esmeralda.

Two weeks ago, the 3-year-old was playing just a few blocks from her home when she was tackled and bitten on the face and neck by a stray pit bull.

Because of that vicious attack, Simental now says she is hesitant to let her daughter play outside their Elgin house - or even in her own back yard.

"There's too many dogs that are always running loose without a leash, and my daughter walks outside and gets attacked for no reason," said Simental, who lives on the city's east side.

"If you saw that dog going after her throat, you wouldn't want your kids playing outside anymore either."

Such violent assaults by pit bulls and other dogs, which started occurring in Elgin's neighborhoods about two years ago, remain common despite ongoing efforts by police to stop them. In fact, such violent incidents appear to be on the rise locally, increasing with the popularity of illegal dog fighting.

The city's animal control officer and police have tried to crack down on the owners of dangerous dogs by issuing tickets and fines. They have even arrested a few people they believed were training pit bulls and other dogs to fight.

Still, little has proven effective. Authorities say they are now taking a second look at their approach because they've had such a difficult time curbing the problem.

And for some, it couldn't happen soon enough.

"Personally, I think they need to ban those kind of dogs," Elgin resident Evaughn Thornton said shortly after her puppy, Patches, was killed by a pit bull on the city's east side last month.

"To me, they're vicious dogs. They breed them to be like that."

A growing problem

Thornton, who lives on Ann Street, said she was horrified the afternoon of May 4 when an out-of-control pit bull named Tyson rushed into her back yard and mauled her puppy to death.

Thornton said she and her neighbors had been seeing problems with vicious dogs increase before her dog was attacked.

Incident reports from the Elgin police department back her up.

Police officials said they do not keep statistics specifically about pit bulls, but Elgin police Lt. Michael Turner acknowledged his officers are receiving more reports of pit bulls and certain other breeds of dogs involved in violent activities.

For example, calls on loose pit bulls on the city's streets come into the police many times during the course of a week.

And in the first five months of this year, Elgin police have reported at least one pit bull attack once a month.

According to reports, some of the recent attacks have proven costly:

  • May 5, the morning after Thornton's puppy was mauled to death on Ann Street, a seemingly enraged pit bull was loose in its owner's yard on Maroon Drive. It ultimately was shot to death by a police officer after the dog lunged at the officer. The owner was not ticketed.
  • A mail carrier, who was doing his rounds in downtown Elgin April 5, suffered minor injuries when he was bitten on the hand by a young pit bull that had been let loose on Brook Street. Police let the dog leave with its owner and no citations were issued.
  • One Elgin resident told police he's having trouble selling his house because his neighbor's numerous pit bulls charge the backyard fence every time someone walks near it.
  • Esmeralda, the 3-year-old, suffered cuts and bruises when the loose pit bull charged her as she walked out of her aunt's house on Dwight Avenue May 25. The impact knocked her over, her glasses were broken, and the dog bit her face and neck numerous times. Police could not find the owner of the dog, so it was taken to the Anderson Animal Shelter in South Elgin to be observed and possibly destroyed because of its violent demeanor.

Elgin's number of dangerous and violent pit bulls, like the one that attacked Esmeralda, still pales in comparison to the number in larger urban areas like Chicago, where the problem of dog fighting and attacks is considered to be at epidemic proportions.

But Wendy Simental said she hopes authorities are successful in their current effort to make the city's streets safer for children and other animals.

"I'm scared. I'm mad. I think the police should go to every door in Elgin and make sure all these dogs have tags and their shots," she said. "Your dog is like a gun - if your dog bites someone it should be killed and you should go to jail."

Not easy to stop

While some dogs certainly can become lethal weapons, police and animal experts note that not all pit bulls are bad or inherently mean. Many make great family pets, they say.

But those dogs that are abused or neglected by their owners can become extremely dangerous and prone to random violence.

Turner, head of the major investigations unit for Elgin police, said the increasing violence by pit bulls suggests some dog owners aren't properly caring for their pets, or, even worse, may be training them to take part in underground dog-fighting rings.

Tracking down and prosecuting those involved, however, has been difficult. Elgin police haven't been able to make any major arrests since they first saw a suspected dog fight in early 2000.

In that dog fight, two men were taken into custody after neighbors told police they saw an organized dog fight in their back yard on Ann Street.

The men were charged with felony animal cruelty, but prosecutors dropped the case after they could not come up with enough evidence to prove it.

Typically, dog fighting has been limited to urban centers like Chicago because they are popular among gangs and often centered around street gambling, police said. In the past few years, though, the illegal "sport" has made its way into smaller cities farther away from large cities.

"There is training and breeding going on in Elgin, but there's no hard evidence to prove it," Turner said. "We just can't put a handle on exactly where it's occurring."

Melanie Sobel, director of program services for Chicago Animal Care and Control, said it's tough to root out dog fighting because it is a completely underground industry that combines money, gambling and secrecy on the part of those involved.

"A lot of people just aren't aware of dog fighting, but it's an epidemic and it's well hidden," Sobel said. "It's gotten a lot worse, but it's hard to prosecute because you have to catch them in the act."

Aurora also has had a difficult time breaking up dog-fighting rings. Many people are afraid to call police when they see a dog fight, and even when they do, those involved can easily cover their tracks before police arrive.

"We have a lot of calls of people fighting the dogs, but usually by the time we get there they're gone, and some people don't want to get involved because they think there will be repercussions," said Linda Nass, animal control manager for Aurora.

"(Recently) there was a report of a dog fight, but when we got there we just saw a circle of people standing there, but the dogs were gone so we had no evidence."

Nass estimated Aurora receives about one call a month about suspected dog fighting, but police there have not actually witnessed or broken up any of the illegal events.

She said in the course of the past year, "several" pit bulls have been impounded with injuries that were consistent with dog fighting, but typically police have been unable to find their owners - so the dogs are put to sleep.

Elgin's Turner said it's difficult to cite people who mistreat their pit bulls or train them to attack because the owners are familiar with the municipal ordinances and manipulate them.

For example, those people who own more than the maximum three dogs allowed under Elgin ordinance simply keep the extras hidden inside the house, police said.

And Elgin's three-bite rule, which allows a dog to show violent behavior up to three times before it must be impounded, makes it more difficult to rid the streets of dogs that show violent behavior.

Dogs that attack in Elgin can be shot by police if they pose an immediate threat, but the animals frequently are brought under control or run away by the time police arrive.

Elgin Acting Police Chief James Lamkin said because of the increased dog control problems he is working with a team in his department to rewrite the city's ordinances concerning all dangerous dogs - not just pit bulls.

He declined to say what specific changes might be made, noting the city council has not yet been presented with a proposal, but he said the new ordinance certainly would be more stringent.

"Our goal is really to make sure things are safe - dog owners have a responsibility to their neighbors and others," Lamkin said. "People may say it's a pit bull problem, but it's specific to how the dog is trained - it goes more to the owner."

Regulations vary widely

Other communities have gone much further than Elgin has in writing and enforcing dangerous dog laws, and some communities are targeting the dog owners as much as the animals.

Aurora requires dogs involved in a single violent incident to be restrained on the owner's private property at all times and then impounded if a second case occurs.

Another tough law is on the books in Akron, Ohio, where all pit bulls must be licensed with the city, tattooed with a serial number and issued a special collar. Those dogs deemed dangerous must be kept indoors, in a locked cage or muzzled if on a leash outside.

Those violating the ordinance are subject to criminal convictions, steep fines and jail time. Akron pit bulls that bite, attack or are otherwise violent will be put to death or ordered out of the city.

In Cincinnati, the city declared an outright ban on pit bulls for 13 years. The ban was lifted, however, in 1999 and replaced with strict guidelines for any breed of dog that shows violent behavior. Cincinnati's law requires owners of dogs deemed "vicious" to secure $50,000 in liability insurance and confine the dog.

Animal experts say it's unfair for municipalities to write laws like Cincinnati's original ordinance that target specific breeds of animals. They say it's unfair because it is the bad care by owners who cause the problems - not the animals themselves.

A recent case is the ultimate example of punishing owners of violent dogs: In March, a Los Angeles jury convicted Marjorie Knoller of second-degree murder after her two dogs attacked and killed a neighbor. She and her husband, Robert Noel, also were convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Diane Whipple.

Whipple was walking toward her San Francisco home when the couple's dogs fatally mauled her. Witnesses testified both dogs had shown vicious tendencies before and the owners did little to deal with the problem.

Alternative solutions

While Elgin's current vicious-animal laws may not be strong enough to completely eliminate the problem, animal experts say there are many other approaches that can be taken.

Deanna Davies, executive director of the Anderson Animal Shelter in South Elgin, said she is not sure of the best solution - though she'd be willing to work with police in finding one.

"The animal control officers of Elgin can't deal with it by themselves; it takes a community to deal with these problems," Davies said. "This is a gambling ring that involves dogs. It's hard to get in there and stop it, so we need to go to other communities dealing with the problem and see what they're doing."

Davies said pit bulls are growing in popularity in the Fox Valley and her shelter sees quite a few. The vast majority, she says, are from good families; but several in the past year had to be destroyed because they showed signs they were fighting - and that's too many.

Sobel said the key to stopping dog fights and other forms of animal abuse will be for people to show vigilance and call police when they see something suspicious.

"We need to educate people about dog fighting and what to look for," said Sobel, who noted Chicago also is training all new police officers how to spot problem pit bulls. The city has a team of officers specifically charged with finding abused dogs and dog-fighting rings and making arrests.

Utility company workers and city code officers who visit Chicago homes soon will be taught how to notice questionable environments that may facilitate dog fights.

Some telltale signs of dog abuse or fight-training are houses with lots of cages, treadmills in the backyard, excessive barking inside and weekend parties that draw lots of people who bring their own dogs with them.

Injured dogs also should be reported to police, she said.

While Chicago is more actively working to fight the problems, it has a ways to go, too.

It's an uphill battle because Chicago's gang culture is becoming more entrenched in dog-fighting rings and winning dogs are looked on as status symbols in many neighborhoods.

A recent music video by rapper DMX features pit bulls and a dog-fighting ring - making the idea of it even more mainstream, Sobel said.

When DMX was arrested in 1999 on drug and weapon charges, police in New Jersey also seized 14 pit bulls from his house.

The Humane Society of the United States denounced his song "What's My Name" for glamorizing dog fights, but the video still gets airplay on MTV.

"There's a professional level and there's a street level where gangs and kids do it to gamble," Sobel said. "You have kids getting involved with it now and they could end up being the ones hurt themselves."

Attacks: Dog fights popular among gangs for gambling