Does Ironton need a new law to combat vicious dogs?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 3, 2005

Two months ago a West Virginia child died when she visited a neighbor's house and the neighbor's pit bull attacked her.

Ironton police officers and city dog warden responded to a call of a vicious pit bull lunging at passerby in May.

City officials said the dog was so mean they forced the owner to put the dog in the back of the dog warden's truck to be taken to the county dog pound.

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A neighboring community has given first reading to an ordinance to ban pit bulls and two other breeds of dogs.

An old subject is getting dusted off again and discussed, nearly two decades after it first got national media attention: What is a vicious dog and does Ironton need a pit bull ordinance?

Not Lassie

In May, Ironton police officers and dog warden George Wilson were called to a residence on South Ninth Street after neighbors complained that a dog owner, Selena Ellis, had tied her pit bull up in her yard so close to the sidewalk that the dog was able to lunge at people.

"That dog was huge," Wilson recalled. "And it was mean."

How mean was it? Wilson said it was so mean he and the police officers required Ellis to put the dog in the back of Wilson's truck so it could be taken to the Lawrence County Dog pound. Ellis complied, but allegedly not before she threatened to shoot Wilson and to turn the dog loose on him. She is scheduled to appear in Ironton Municipal Court July 14

in connection with the incident.

That and numerous other experiences with pit bulls have left an impression on Ironton Police Sgt. Joe Ross, who is working on a new vicious dog ordinance for the city. Ross said the ordinance may include an outright ban on pit bulls.

In the 1980s, the City of Ironton and many other municipalities responded to a rash of well publicized pit bull attacks by banning the breed outright in its dog ordinances. Many of the municipal ordinances were modeled after each other. Last September, the Ohio Supreme Court struck down one pit bill ordinance because it did not give pet owners an opportunity to appeal decisions that ruled their dog vicious.

While he is concerned about vicious dogs as a whole, Ross said he is particularly struck by the damage pit bulls can do.

"I'm not saying they're the only dogs to attack someone, but when they do, the amount of damage that can be done is substantial."

Ross is consulting with city solicitors and even other local municipalities to draft a new ordinance he plans to present to Ironton City Council in the near future.

Recently, the Flatwoods, Ky., city council gave first reading to an ordinance that would ban pit bulls, Doberman pinschers and Rottweilers from that city altogether.

Flatwoods Police Chief Buddy Gallion said last year his officers handled eight dog-bite calls. While one person was bitten by a mixed breed, the rest of the offending pooches, he said, were members of the three breeds.

"One of the people bitten was a local businessman and the dog that bit him we had already gotten two or three complaints on it," Gallion said.

Gallion stressed that if the ordinance passes, this does not at all mean he and his officers will go door to door collecting people's pets and killing them.

"My plan is not to go after people's pets if the pet owners are responsible and take care of their pets," Gallion said. "It give us some teeth when we have to go after people who don't look after their dogs."

Flatwoods proposed ordinance also bans the keeping of exotic pets such as bears, lions, tigers and extremely large snakes.

South Point's pit bull ban has been on the books since the late 1980s.

Ironton City Councilman Bill Nenni said he has not received any calls from residents complaining of vicious dogs. Nenni said he is willing to consider any ordinance on vicious dogs but thinks those that ban a specific breed outright could be problematic.

"I'd certainly be willing to look at any ordinance but, historically, those that ban a certain breed have not worked out well," Nenni said.

Not a vicious dog

Charles Evans, of Ironton, said the city may need a new vicious dog ordinance, but not one that bans any one breed of dog. Evans had a pit bull, Princess, for 10 years.

"She was the sweetest, gentlest dog," he said. "I've got picture of her on the sofa with my grand kids. She wouldn't hurt nobody."

Evans said it is the way people treat animals, not the breed that makes a dog vicious.

"You can take a hunting dog, a little old Beagle, and if you mistreat it, it will eat you up," he said. "Any dog can be mean if you don't take care of it."