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Pit bulls and our children: Beware the tipping point

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, January 21, 2014    

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Writing, for me, is a form of agitation. And, I agitate because I believe in Jamaica and I feel so strongly that everyone deserves the right "to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," regardless of the circumstances through which they enter the world. I believe, as a nation, we can do much better in furtherance of those rights than we have done so far. When I stop believing, I will stop agitating.

Take this issue of pit bulls, a vicious American cross-breed, now regularly attacking and killing people all over the country, including children. The dogs are banned in the United Kingdom, Canada, and numerous United States jurisdictions. Trinidad and Tobago also banned the breed last year under the Dangerous Dog Act.

Daggerin' notwithstanding, our Roger Clarke, along with his ministry, is dealing with the issue with nothing except manifest impotence. The national security minister is quiet and the police is confused.

Since animal importation in Jamaica is tightly controlled — only allowed from Great Britain and Ireland; must be certified by the Veterinary Services Division of the Ministry of Agriculture; and can only enter the country through the port of Kingston — it came as surprise when pit bulls began killing people.

In July 2011, 62-year-old Valerie Stephenson, of St Catherine, was killed by a pit bull as she walked in the community. Four months earlier, in Westmoreland, eight-month-old Oshawn Obermann was mauled by a pit bull owned by his parents. He survived with major injuries. In December 2012, two-year-old Ronica Gregory, of St Catherine, was killed by a pit bull and her sister seriously injured. Ronica's case stood out because so many people, including managing director of the Jamaica Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Pamela Lawson, came out fighting on the dog's behalf.

Also in 2012, a woman and her 14-month-old son were attacked by a pit bull in Spanish Town. January 2, 2014, a three-year-old lost an eye after he was mauled by a pit bull in St Ann, and on January 4, 2014, a 59-year-old mechanic was mauled by three pit bulls in St Mary.

The police, January 7, issued a release warning the public against purchasing pit bulls — "though the purchase of the dogs is not illegal, if done with the necessary permits" — and to "take extreme caution at premises where these dogs are kept".

What permits? What is this source/channel that allows for legal purchase? Is this a secret to which only a few are privy?

Nearly six years ago, in his contribution to the 2008/2009 Sectoral Debate, Dr St Aubyn Bartlett, a veterinarian and then government backbencher, called for urgent laws to deal with the illegal importation.

"The situation is now totally out of control as these dangerous dogs are now seen in every community," Bartlett said, adding that the dogs have a propensity to attack children.

The Jamaica Veterinary Medical Association, supposedly, was helping to draft legislation to deal with the problem.

Dr Osbil Watson, director of Veterinary Services in the Ministry of Agriculture said then that "a series of public relations exercises would have to be conducted to sensitise Jamaicans about the need to comply with a proposal that owners register their dogs. The ordinary man would not understand why he has to register his dog."

Who is the "ordinary man"? Prevailing wisdom suggests pit bulls are being smuggled into Jamaica on private boats. I understand, too, that in well-to-do neighbourhoods, people profile with pit bulls the same way Paris Hylton and Hollywood do with chihuahuas and poodles. And, in one incident in Half- Way-Tree, in 2013, the pit bull that attacked a passerby was being handled by a security guard.

Are the responsible ministries not aware? Or, is it simply that the 'right' child has not been mauled yet?

I called the Ministry of Agriculture last week to clarify with Watson if it is legal to own pit bulls in Jamaica as the police said. I also wanted to understand how far along is the process to address this issue, and for him to share with the public his roles, responsibilities and major accomplishments as director of veterinary services. Regrettably, he was on a phone call.

I learned, from my days as a reporter, that while there are a few hard-working civil servants, many of them just go to work to eat their lunch-and sometimes they make phone calls. I wanted to get a sense of where Watson falls.

Bartlett is right. Pitbulls are dangerous. A 20-year study by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that pit bulls were responsible for nearly a third of all fatal dog attacks recorded, and children are most frequently attacked. The Orlando Sentinel editorial, May 24, 2013, noted that 13 of 14 (93 per cent) Americans killed by dogs in the first five months of the year were killed by pit bulls or pit mixes.

"The threat from pit bulls comes from the combination of their inclination to attack without warning... and the type of injuries that pit bulls inflict. Most dogs bite and retreat, but pit bulls have a hold-and-shake bite style, and tenaciously refuse to stop an attack once begun. Often a pit bull releases its grip only when dead..." the editorial said.

For Jamaica, this is an urgent public safety issue (Ministry of National Security), an animal control issue (Ministry of Agriculture), a public health issue (Ministry of Health), and a child welfare issue (Ministry of Youth and Culture).

"Whether to ban pit bulls is a human health and safety issue that should be steered by health and safety officials. Public safety is not the profession of animal advocates," said the Sentinel.

Close your eyes for a minute, honourable ministers, and visualise your child or grandchild being mauled by a dog. Or, imagine yourself, as a two-year old, caught between the jaws of a killer dog.

Isn't it enough that we must contend with gunmen, knife wielders, road hogs, rapists and paedophiles?

Must we throw killer dogs into the mix too?

I say, beware the tipping point. It may not be what you expect.

Gvirtue@usa.net

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