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Death of boy prompts call for BSL

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA

Death of boy prompts call for BSL
By Nick Mays

THE TRAGIC fatal dog mauling of a 12-year-old boy while he was home alone with his family's two dogs prompted San Francisco city officials to promise action to control dangerous dogs – a move which could see the inevitable introduction of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL).

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom convened a working group to devise new rules to regulate potentially dangerous dogs. The group is due to report back with recommendations due this week.

The city's Animal Care & Control Agency put together two workshops entitled ‘Pit Bulls - Fact & Fiction,'’ geared to help the dogs' owners understand their pets' behaviour. And, the Animal Control and Welfare Commission began discussions late last week on new pit bull rules.

Four years ago, when college lacrosse coach Diane Whipple was killed by her neighbours' two Presa Canario dogs, reaction by City Hall officials was more muted. One animal control commissioner called for a muzzle law, but that idea simply petered out. Debate flared about off-leash dog rules in city parks and continues even now, with no resolution put forward. In the Whipple case, government reaction was focused in the courts, where prosecutors went after the dogs' owners.

But the death two weeks ago of 12 year-old Nicholas Faibish had a last- straw effect. "This is not the first time that something like this has happened,'' Mayor Newsom said. "It does beg the question, on top of the Diane Whipple tragedy: What is the city doing? Are we going to continue to allow headlines to be created because of our neglect?"

The boy’s mother said she had been so concerned about one of the dogs that she shut her son in the basement to protect him. Maureen Faibish said she ordered Nicholas to stay in the basement while she did errands on June 3, the day he was attacked by one or both of the dogs. She said she was worried about the male dog, Rex, who was acting very possessively because the female, Ella, was in heat. "I put him down there, with a shovel on the door," Faibish told the San Francisco Chronicle. "And I told him: `Stay down there until I come back.' Typical Nicky, he wouldn't listen to me."

Obligation

Nicholas apparently found a way to open the basement door and was attacked by one or both of the dogs. Faibish said she felt compelled to call the local media to defend herself against widespread public outrage directed at families with children who own pit bulls. "My kids got along great with (the dogs)," she told one newspaper. "We were never seeing any kind of violent tendencies."

Faibish found her son's body in a bedroom. He was covered in blood from several wounds, including a major head injury. As yet, no charges have been filed, although Faibish could technically be prosecuted for child neglect.

Ella was shot dead by a police officer called to the scene on the day of the attack. Rex was taken to a shelter, but Faibish said she wanted him put down.

"I think of Rex as someone who murdered my child," she said.

Mayor Newsome added: "I know the role of government is not necessarily to mandate personal choices, except we do have an obligation to protect and preserve public safety. ... What lessons haven't we learned from the Diane Whipple tragedy?"

Meanwhile, anti-BSL activists attended the first of the city’s dog control forums last Wednesday night to inform the public about the facts and the myths of the canine breed.

"We're hopefully alleviating some of the anxiety that people are feeling about dogs, particularly about pit bulls,'' said Donna Duford, an animal behaviourist with the San Francisco Animal Care & Control agency who says pit bulls, as a breed, shouldn't be feared.

Duford joined Donna Reynolds, founder of the advocacy group BAD RAP (Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit Bulls) to present the workshop.

Duford said that the pit bull breed shouldn't be feared, but that individual animals may exhibit cause for alarm. She outlined some common-sense warning signs and precautions people should take to avoid the potential for problems with pit bulls and other dogs.

For example, she said, children and dogs should never be left alone, and people should never approach strange dogs until their owners say it's OK. Stay away from dogs that snarl, growl, snap or have a stiff body.

Proper training of pit bulls, and the people who care for them, is a must, and spaying or neutering the animal is highly recommended to make them less aggressive.

Reynolds said a properly bred pit bull should "never be aggressive toward people.'' Red flags of a potentially problematic pit bull, she said, are that they don't like to be touched, they're overly territorial, they're hard to calm down or they're overly fearful, easily stressed or aloof. Anyone of these traits, she said, is enough for people to get a professional assessment of their dog's behaviour.

"There's been a lot of fear and paranoia,'' said Reynolds, who owns two pit bulls herself. "We're devastated about what happened, and want to make sure people have the right information to prevent something like this from happening again.''

Among the suggestions already raised are the usual BSL requirements including the mandatory neutering and spaying of pit bulls, requiring them to be muzzled when in public, banning the sale and breeding of pit bulls in San Francisco and mandating the owners partake in special training before they can obtain a license to keep them.