Consider the Pit Bull
Seattle loves its dogs. But one group of breeds divides us.
It was morning in SeaTac, the municipality 15 miles south of Seattle that hugs Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Every few minutes the sky ripped open with the passenger planes—Boeing built, Seattleite packed—that arced and rumbled overhead. Along 150th Street, an arterial that cuts through a residential neighborhood, homes sat next to unkempt fields and empty lots. The sidewalk was little more than a wide gravel path running parallel to the blacktop.
Huong Le, 71, a live-in child caretaker, had just escorted one of the four kids in her charge to the school bus stop and was about to walk up the driveway when two white dogs appeared in her yard. She had never seen the animals before. They growled and barked and circled her. She stepped forward, but the dogs kept circling. Trapped in a yowling canine dervish, Le shouted at her tormentors, “Go home!”
They pounced. One sunk its teeth into her right leg and dragged her to the ground. The other dog bit into her right forearm, clamped down like a vice, and shook the arm until it broke. Then it went for her head. Le crawled toward the house, hoping to seek refuge in the space under the front porch stairs. A neighbor who’d heard the attack grabbed a pitchfork and tried to fight the dogs off. When he couldn’t, he dialed 911.
A King County sheriff’s deputy arrived minutes later and spotted what he thought looked like two white pit bulls under the steps, still mauling what he later described as “a small person.” As the deputy approached, one of the dogs looked up. Blood dripped from its mouth. The deputy pulled out his pistol, fired, and struck the dog on its right side. Both animals jumped off Le and ran to the driveway, turned, and trained their focus on the deputy. He fired another round, striking the uninjured dog in the chest, which caused it to run away. The other dog, the one with a bullet wound already in its side, faced the deputy, undeterred and ready to fight. Another shot. The dog dropped dead.
A sergeant arrived and pursued the dog still at large while the deputy attended to the septuagenarian lying in a gory heap under the stairs. Le could barely move her fractured right arm, and her limbs were covered in bloody punctures, as were her head and face. Her left ear was torn from her skull.
The sergeant, meanwhile, had caught up with the other dog, bleeding from the gunshot to its chest. It snarled, baring its fangs. Blood dripped from its white snout. He leveled his firearm and brought the dog down.
Later, while recovering at Harborview and then at home, Huong Le told investigators that she thought the dogs were going to kill her; that if help hadn’t arrived she would have died. She also said she had no idea where the two dogs came from.
Her neighbors did. Through interviews with residents, the sheriff’s department learned that the dogs had menaced the community for months. They were pit bulls, brothers Big Guy and Rim Shot. Their owner, 36-year-old Travis Cunningham, had two more penned in his backyard, Big Guy and Rim Shot’s mother and sister. A neighbor across the street from Cunningham told investigators that the dogs barked constantly and characterized the sound as “an ‘I’m going to get you’ type bark.” Another neighbor said that the dogs had once run into her yard and chased her cat. Still another neighbor, whose home faces Huong Le’s, told officers that six months earlier the pit bulls charged into her yard and she yelled, “Go home!” through her bedroom window. The words had an effect eerily similar to when Le shouted them. “The dogs ran up on my porch toward my voice and hit my door,” the neighbor said, according to court documents. “It sounded like they hit the door with their bodies not just their paws…they had a deep bark that was aggressive and angry.”
Finally, yet another resident told the investigators she had once spotted the dogs on her property, too. “They were just not as shy as most dogs; they seemed more assertive even though they were not aggressive towards me, but then, I did not give them a chance and I am glad I didn’t.”
The attack on Huong Le more than four years ago (September 8, 2008) could have happened yesterday—or the day before that, or tomorrow—argue anti–pit bull activists, because neither King County nor Seattle has comprehensive laws that target the dogs. The mauling helped spark a countywide pit bull debate, the reverberations of which can still be felt today. Weeks after Le was released from Harborview, her family issued a statement to the media, calling for a ban on pit bulls in Washington. In Seattle earlier that year a speech and acting coach named Ellen Taft proposed legislation to the city council that would, if not outright ban the dogs, make it nearly impossible to legally maintain them within city limits. Another woman, Colleen Lynn, a freelance web designer, launched a victims’ advocacy site, inspired in part by an attack she sustained while jogging in Beacon Hill.
Pit bull owners, meanwhile, insist their pets are among the sweetest, safest dogs a person can own, that savage attacks like the one on Huong Le are an anomaly, exceptions rather than the rule. The real enemies, many pit bull supporters insist, are careless owners and, worse, those trying to kill the city’s pit bull party.
Pet lovers in Seattle have known the name Ellen Taft since at least 1993. At the time the city was debating whether or not to legally permit Vietnamese potbelly pigs as pets. Taft spoke out at city council hearings and argued, according to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article at the time, that “pigs bite, spread disease and will cost the city money for trucks, pens and trained pig-handlers.”
Leash laws were next. The city had had one in place since 1958, but rarely enforced it. Once in the early 1990s while sitting on a park bench with her daughter in Greenlake, Taft, according to a story she told the P-I, confronted a man who had just taken the leash off his Rottweiler. She threatened to call animal control on the spot. He put the leash back on, but flipped her off and called her a “bitch.” Taft kept at it, turning over photographs and videos of leash-law violators to animal control. She also led an effort to successfully eliminate an off-leash area in Volunteer Park.
In 2008 she called for a ban on dogs at the Folklife festival and other Seattle Center events. The year before that she led the charge against pet pygmy goats, speaking before the city council about the mini caprine creatures’ general uncleanliness and penchant for Hoovering up beautiful flowers.
But it’s her stance on pit bulls that has gained the 61-year-old the most foes. Her organization, Families and Dogs Against Fighting Breeds, or FDAFB, which she runs out of her Capitol Hill home, is committed to the prevention of “dog attacks through adopting legislation banning fighting breeds of dogs,” according to its website. One such piece of legislation is an initiative that would amend city code to severely limit ownership of all “fighting breeds” such as pit bull–type dogs, as well as more obscure breeds such as Akita and Cane Corso.
Her wish list includes but isn’t limited to the following: Existing fighting breed dogs can stay in the city, but no new fighting breed dogs are allowed; all such existing dogs are sterilized; all are muzzled outside the home and wear vests with dog licenses clearly displayed; all pit bulls and other fighting breeds are micro-chipped; no one convicted of a violent crime, drug trafficking, or a crime in which a dog was used may possess a fighting breed; no child under 14 can be in the presence of an unmuzzled pit bull or other fighting breed without an adult.
When Taft first announced the initiative, she was barraged with missives, allegedly from pit bull supporters threatening her legally (references to lawsuits) and physically (“You should be publicly executed for your actions against our beloved pets,” an emailer wrote). Someone else told her they hoped a pit bull would rip off her face.
The threats have made Taft extra cautious. Approached by a reporter, she insists he or she sign a “contract” before she’ll talk, one in which the reporter swears, under penalty of perjury, that he or she is “not a member or sympathizer of any organization, which advocates or acts in any way to prevent breed specific legislation.” The document also states that the reporter is not a member of a group that wishes to harm any member of FDAFB and that the reporter will “not pass any information whatso-ever” about Taft’s group to pro–pit bull groups or to two specific people (a dog breeder and the former vice president of a canine advocacy group) whom she lists by name. But refuse to sign the agreement and Taft, oddly, lightens up. On the phone she’s friendly, with a conversational manner that flits from topic to topic, keying in on her listener’s shock threshold. Stories about pit bulls biting off a toddler’s genitals? She’s got one (Nebraska, 2001). A pit bull savagely attacking a woman entering a burning building to save some children? Yep. Just let her track down the mauled Good Samaritan’s email address.
“I was screaming, ‘No!’ I was concerned that if I let go of my arm that it might be in two pieces.”
Taft’s fight against vicious dogs began long before she landed in Seattle. In St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1982, Taft, then a grad student in her 30s, was assaulted by two dogs who bit her legs and feet. Her four-legged assailants weren’t pit bulls, but by then pits were undeniably the dog the public feared most.
Traditionally bred to fight bears and bulls for sport in the 1800s, pit bulls, which are not a breed like, say, Irish setter or German shepherd, but rather a group of breeds with similar physical characteristics—including American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers—were once considered the top family dog in the United States. The RCA Victrola dog (the one that stares quizzically into the speaker) is a pit bull. The Little Rascals had one, too.
But by the early 1980s, above-the-fold newspaper stories began documenting the rise of dog fighting and the pit bulls (bred and raised for the new taste for dog-on-dog combat in the U.S.) that were increasingly attacking people. “ ‘Fighting Dogs’ Attacks Raise Alarm on Coast,” a 1982 New York Times headline read. A 1984 Seattle Times story told of dozens of pit bull attacks on humans and pets throughout Puget Sound.
In Seattle, Taft found an ally in Colleen Lynn. In June 2007, Lynn was jogging on the sidewalk along 15th Avenue on Beacon Hill—she was training for a half marathon—when she spotted a woman about 20 feet ahead walking a pit bull on a leash. The woman turned around, saw Lynn, and pulled the dog off the sidewalk and onto the grass. Just as Lynn ran past, the dog broke free, ran several yards ahead of Lynn, stopped, sat on the sidewalk, and stared at her. “I stop and I sort of have my hands up above my head,” Lynn recalls, “because I don’t really know what’s going on.” The dog charged and knocked her backward onto the ground. It chomped into her right forearm and began shaking it and dragging her along the sidewalk. “I’m screaming and the woman is screaming…and I don’t know why it let go, but it did, and I managed to kind of roll out of there.”
She ran across 15th. A man stepped out of his house to help her. He happened to be an ER doctor. “My adrenaline was extremely high and I was screaming at him like, ‘No!’ and I just kept saying that. I was concerned at that moment that if I let go of my arm that it might be in two pieces.”
The attack and its aftermath—there were no legal ramifications for the dog’s owner, though the dog itself was euthanized—led the then-38-year-old web designer to register the domain name dogbites.org. (A photo of her injury taken shortly after the attack can now be found on the site.)
Ellen Taft and Lynn pressed city officials to adopt legislation on pit bulls. At one point Lynn caught the ear of council member Tim Burgess, but he eventually told her he had no interest in pursuing the matter. Taft enjoyed a brief audience with council member Tom Rasmussen and an aide to council member Sally Clark—both of whom told her that such legislation sounded interesting—but they have stopped returning her emails and phone calls.
“The problem is that they’re not leaders; they’re followers, so they’re not going to take on anything which will demand leadership skills,” Taft says.
Astute pet lovers in the city, however, know better than to underestimate Ellen Taft. Just ask dog owners who used to let their dogs play in the now-nonexistent designated dog area in Volunteer Park; or go ahead and try to find an owner out in public with his pooch off leash—just to name a couple Taft triumphs. “This is Seattle, and most people are followers,” she says, “and they don’t like to be labeled uncool and antidog, so they don’t say it; but I think there’d be a lot of people out there who’d like to see some restrictions on pit bulls.”
Pit bulls, she insists, are a public danger on par with assault weapons. “Because they were specifically bred to fight other dogs, the damage that they inflict is much greater than any other dog.”
Taft and Lynn have some numbers on their side. Of the 251 dog-bite related human deaths since 2005 in the United States, 151 were caused by pit bulls, according to dogbites.org. (Rottweilers, at 32 deaths, are a distant second.) But Ballard resident Heather van Helvoort doesn’t recognize anything in those statistics—or Taft and Lynn’s description of pit bulls—in her dog Amber. Van Helvoort and her husband adopted Amber from a shelter in New York four and a half years ago. The bull terrier had been abused, her red fur hanging off a shaky, skeletal frame. She was in near-constant fear, cowering at the least provocation, particularly around men. But through training and a lot of affection, the Van Helvoorts built up Amber’s confidence. They were eventually able to walk her around Manhattan without incident. Almost without incident. “We’d be walking with this beautiful dog and people would come up and want to pet her, and they’d be petting her and they’d ask, ‘What kind of dog is she?’ ” When the strangers learned Amber was a pit bull, they would stiffen, their faces twisted in a polite expression of panic as they slowly backed away.
It wasn’t until the couple moved to Seattle in early 2012 that they found a community open to their two-person, one–pit bull family. In Ballard no one blinks at the sight of Amber. Pit bulls are everywhere.
Ellen Taft and Colleen Lynn’s campaign appalls Van Helvoort. “Amber wouldn’t hurt anyone. She couldn’t. She’s so timid and submissive. And she loves people.” Then she repeats what all pit bull advocates end up saying sooner or later: “It’s not the breed. It’s the owner.”
“Pit bulls have no different threshold for aggression than other breeds.”
Dr. James Ha, an animal behaviorist at the University of Washington who has testified in the courtroom for numerous animal attack cases, agrees with Van Helvoort. Despite the splashy headlines and even the dog-bite death rates, there is nothing about pit bull–type dogs, as breeds, that makes them any more dangerous than many other dogs, Ha says. “We have to make a big distinction between a genetic breed predisposition, and how the animals are handled or trained. Many years ago German shepherds were the ‘bad’ dogs, because people kept them for protection, and criminals held them for protecting property. Then it was Dobermans, then Rottweilers, now pit bulls. All of these breeds have equally high aggression drives and can be trained, or mistreated, into becoming dangerous animals.” And while it’s true that due to breeding that took place a century ago, the dogs, with their superior neck and upper-body strength, are capable physically of doing deadly damage to humans and other animals, “pit bulls have no different threshold for aggression than those other breeds.”
Even the numbers that Taft, Lynn, and other proponents of breed-specific legislation (or BSL) recite are problematic. Because “pit bull” isn’t a breed but rather a catchall phrase to describe multiple breeds, when one notes that “pit bulls” killed, say, 18 people in 2006, that isn’t entirely fair. Rottweilers killed eight people that same year, but the 18 deaths attributed to “pit bulls” could have been executed by as many as three different breeds.
So pit bulls have a category problem, one that Malcolm Gladwell, in his oft-cited New Yorker article (“Troublemakers”), which questions the efficacy of BSL, describes this way: “When we say pit bulls are dangerous, we are making a generalization, just as insurance companies use generalizations when they charge young men more for car insurance.”
Nowhere is the complicated role of pit bulls on display more than at the Seattle Animal Shelter, which doubles as headquarters for the city’s animal control agency. On a gray Monday last December, Kara Main-Hester, who manages the department’s volunteer and fundraising programs, stood in the shelter’s dog kennel as the baying of at least 12 canines, almost half of them pit bulls, drowned out her words.
“Sammy was part of—” Nothing but barking, lonely desperate barking. “Sammy was part of a cruelty investigation we had,” Main-Hester continued, louder and gesturing toward a brown-and-white pit bull behind the mesh wire of a cage. The dog shivered as if locked in a freezer rather than a temperature--controlled kennel.
Sammy had lived in the backyard of a Rainier Valley home well known to animal control. Six months before Sammy lived there, a trespasser had climbed over the backyard’s 10-foot-tall fence, and some of the yard’s seven unspayed and unneutered adult pit bulls and some puppies—no one can be sure which ones—chomped, sending the trespasser to the Harborview ER and earning their owner an animal control investigation.
One of the dogs, Lilac, later lived in Main-Hester’s house as part of the shelter’s foster care program. That’s right, she brought an animal in a dog mauling investigation into her home. Was she scared? “We put her through a behavioral evaluation and she did swimmingly.”
Every dog that comes into the shelter gets the same evaluation—which assesses aggressive tendencies—and “pit bulls are no more likely to pass or fail the behavioral evaluation,” Main-Hester says. Besides, Lilac and Sammy were victims of a bad situation: “I mean, why would you have seven dogs plus puppies in your backyard, all unspayed and unneutered?”
Those that don’t pass the evaluation and that have demonstrated violence toward humans, she explained—nodding toward two pit bulls at the end of the kennel—are quarantined pending an investigation. Those dogs will likely be led into a space behind the kennel that doubles as a grooming room, injected with a barbiturate, and put to rest forever. Fourteen percent of the dogs that enter the shelter leave this way.
The rest, like Sammy, Lilac, and some 150 other pit bulls a year, are adopted out. It’s a process that’s more nuanced than anything proposed via breed-specific legislation. And that’s why Main-Hester—and her boss, executive director Don Jordon—oppose the ideas of Ellen Taft.
To which Taft says, “There is no way to scientifically determine whether, in a certain situation, the dog’s training is going to guide its behavior or whether the dog’s DNA is going to guide its behavior.”
And more: “The opposition keeps saying it’s not the dog, it’s the owner, and I say, ‘Great, what are we doing about the owners?’ ”
If there’s one thing on which everyone on both sides of the issue can agree, it’s that Travis Cunningham, owner of Big Guy and Rim Shot, who attacked Huong Le in front of her SeaTac home, should never have possessed pit bulls.
Cunningham had a long rap sheet dating back to 1993. He was convicted twice for assault by age 30 and spent a year in prison for a 2000 burglary and possession of an unlawful weapon.
When he moved into the house at 3202 South 152nd Street in SeaTac—two blocks from Huong Le—the landlords told him dogs weren’t allowed. He brought in a female pit bull and her puppies anyway and erected a Beware of Dog sign. Before long, the puppies had grown big enough to scale the shoddy, wooden four-foot-high backyard fence, which they did routinely. Cunningham installed a metal kennel, but the lock didn’t work and the animals regularly slipped out. “I hated those dogs,” Cunningham’s girlfriend told investigators, adding that she stayed away from them. According to King County Animal Control, Big Guy and Rim Shot were apprehended in May of 2008—five months before they attacked Le—after running loose along International Boulevard. Records show that an acquaintance paid the vaccination and licensing fees at the pound on Cunningham’s behalf and returned the dogs home.
Because of Cunningham’s negligence, his past criminal history, and the seriousness of Huong Le’s injuries, prosecutors took an unusual step. For the first time in Washington history, the state leveled the charge of “possession of a dangerous dog.” Cunningham faced up to five years in prison. He plea bargained and received a 12-month sentence.
In a guilty plea statement, signed on February 9, 2009, which he wrote in surprisingly fine cursive—the s’s like tiny serpentine works of art—Cunningham admitted to possessing a dog that mauled Huong Le. He wrote, “I knew,” then scribbled out the second word, and penned, “I should have known that the dog was potentially dangerous.”
Published: February 2013