A visitor to the Beaufort County Animal Shelter might assume it only accepts pit bulls.
Roughly 90 percent of the dogs there are pit bulls or pit mixes, according to director Tallulah Trice. They pace in their cages for months, sometimes years, because of their reputation as being dangerous. That and other factors make them nearly impossible to adopt out.
Of the roughly 600 dogs taken in at the shelter so far this year, half are pit bulls and pit mixes. That includes American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers and American bulldogs. And of the 56 dogs that have been euthanized, nearly three of every four (41) were pit bulls or pit bull mixes.
A controversial Beaufort County proposal aims to lessen the pit bull population. If approved by County Council, all pit bull breeds and mixes would be required to be spayed/neutered and microchipped. The proposed ordinance has been discussed at the committee level in recent weeks and will soon go before the full County Council for consideration.
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The proposal is a sensible, humane solution to a long-standing problem, say shelter officials and some who run local pit bull rescue groups.
"We would rather stop the problem at its source and address it on the front end instead of euthanize it on the back end," Trice said.
But others say the ordinance is unfair and fails to address the real problem: Irresponsible people who train the dogs to be dangerous.
Instead, they say the rule will target a misunderstood breed that is no more aggressive than other dogs and will lead to further wrong-headed restrictions.
"The fear in the pit bull community is that this will open the door for banning (the breed)," said Dianne All, founder of Rogue Rescue and Sanctuary.
Many are conflicted on what should be done, including John Horishny, whose greyhound Ringo died in May several days after being attacked by a neighborhood pit bull.
"Do I think all pit bulls are bad? No, though that's hard to swallow right now," he said. "And some good owners and dogs would be punished by this. But they are in the minority and not the ones causing the problem."
'HE WAS AS CLOSE AS I HAD TO A CHILD'
The pit bull that killed Ringo was known around the neighborhood -- and not in a positive light, said Horishny.
Last year, it bit a jogger in the stomach, leaving two puncture wounds. The dog owner was cited for having a dog at-large and arrested on an outstanding warrant.
But the dog was allowed to stay in the home.
On May 20, Horishny saw the pit bull while he was walking Ringo. He said he moved to the other side of the street, but it wasn't enough. The pit bull attacked.
Some of the bites exposed bone on one of Ringo's legs, Horishny said. Other puncture wounds went deep into muscle tissue. A bite to Ringo's face had pushed a tooth into his muzzle and caused him to bleed from his nose and mouth.
"There was a part of me that hoped he would pass because he was so damaged and so hurt and I couldn't stand to see him like that," he said. "I'm not married and don't have children so he was as close as I had to a child."
After the attack, the pit bull was seized. A hearing last Wednesday imposed a $1,092 dog-at-large fine on the owner as well as $750 in restitution.
Custody of the pit bull has also been turned over to the county -- the dog has been held at the animal shelter since the attack -- but did not rule on whether the dog should be euthanized.
Several greyhound groups and residents of the area have raised money for a memorial paver for Ringo at the future Bluffton dog park. An area couple has also paid the sponsorship costs if Horishny decides to adopt another greyhound.
He said he is glad the county is looking into ways to lessen attacks, but doesn't know if the proposal on the table is enough.
"Do I think that the ordinance would help?" Horishny said. "I'm still up in the air on that because, yes, it'd keep that specific dog from breeding. But that doesn't keep irresponsible people from owning the dog."
It's a term that Trice hears far more often than she would like.
She hears it from representatives from pet adoption agencies as they walk right past the shelter's rows of cages containing pit bulls.
She hears it from county residents who come to the shelter to adopt a dog.
If a dog looks "too pit-y," even if it isn't actually a pit bull, the agencies know from experience that they won't be able to adopt the dog out. And residents, looking for a loyal companion to take home, fear the dog may be dangerous and a legal liability.
The breed's bad reputation extends into the housing market, too.
Numerous apartment complexes, military housing and insurance companies prohibit pit bulls or impose hefty fees on those who own them.
"Society has already left its mark on pit bulls, which is what is so sad," said caretaker Antwon Daley, who works to rehabilitate the dogs at the county shelter. "We at the shelter are now giving pit bulls a chance, but society is not."
Many are afraid of pit bulls, associating the breeds with dogfighting as well as bites and attacks.
Since March, pit bulls and pit mixes have been responsible for three Beaufort County attacks -- one that injured a Chihuahua in March, one that resulted in Ringo's death in May and one that injured a man on Daufuskie Island in June.
But many rescue groups and animal associations say the breed doesn't deserve its bad rap.
"They are no more and no less aggressive than any other dog," said Wayne Brennessel, executive director of the S.C. Humane Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who added that the society opposes any breed-specific legislation. "Theoretically you could train a Chihuahua to fight. Are we going to ban Chihuahuas?"
Opinions among experts are split on whether pit bulls have a greater propensity toward aggressive behavior than other breeds, even if they're not trained to be that way.
Pit bulls can be trained to be well-behaved and gentle dogs, just as they can be trained to fight, say breed advocates who fear the county's pit bulls will soon join the long rank of misunderstood breeds that have been banned in various parts of the country.
"These things follow a pattern," Brennessel said. "First let's ban Dobermans, then it's bull mastiffs, then it's German shepherds and now it seems to be the vogue to ban pit bulls."
The county is not considering a ban at this time, said Trice and Beaufort County Council member Rick Caporale.
The better route, they say, is mandatory sterilization, which has proven successful in other places.
After San Francisco adopted its policy in 2005, bites, shelter intake numbers and euthanasia rates dropped. In the past decade, San Francisco has impounded 14 percent fewer pit bulls, euthanized 29 percent fewer and seen 38 percent fewer bites, according to city data.
Caporale said he hopes Beaufort County will see similar results.
"If we as a county are going to do something breed specific, that says prejudice all over it," he said. "So we need to show the numbers to justify it and, in my opinion, we have those numbers."
Kimberly Morgan, a receptionist at a veterinarian's office who has volunteered at the shelter for more than 20 years, still remembers the sounds she heard July 1 as she sat down for dinner with her husband and young daughter.
Despite years working as an emergency dispatcher -- talking on the phone with people as loved ones died in their arms or during a plane crash -- Morgan said she heard sounds like she had never heard before. The sounds still haunt her.
Running outside with a shovel, she and her husband discovered their neighbor's four pit bulls "tearing to shreds" a fifth pit bull the neighbor had put in the yard to breed with the females.
Her husband and another neighbor were able to break up the attack. The attacked dog barely survived although it lost parts of its ears and legs.
"That could have been my daughter or another neighborhood child or something like that," said Morgan as she began to cry. "It still upsets me so much because I called so many times and tried to do something, tried to prevent something like this happening. But nothing could be done."
She said she had previously called animal control and the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office several times, concerned that the neighbor often kept the dogs chained in his backyard without shelter, water or socialization. He promised he wouldn't breed them.
Animal control and law enforcement visited several times and spoke with the owner, Morgan said. They even seized his dogs on a few visits, but he was allowed to reclaim the animals without getting them sterilized.
"That is just a perfect example of the problems we are having in this county with backyard breeding and irresponsible owners and why we need an ordinance to change what's going on," she said. "I love pit bulls and think they are incredible dogs. But they have been perverted by people with bad intentions. Hopefully this (ordinance) will help stop that and give us more strength to hold those people accountable."
Currently, animal control officers can cite owners for animal cruelty and abuse. But they don't have much power beyond that.
Different municipalities also operate under different codes -- meaning some complaints go to animal control while others go to the local police department or Sheriff's Office.
With such inconsistency, complaints inevitably fall through the cracks and are not investigated the way they should be, Trice said.
She and Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said they hope the ordinance is not only adopted at the county level but also receives buy-in from the municipalities, creating a more consistent enforcement effort.
"This ordinance gives us the opportunity to target people who are the problem, like the backyard breeders and the dogfighters, because they are the problem," Trice said. "We now will have a better way to tackle it."
- Greyhound attacked in Bluffton Park dies from injuries, May 26, 2015
- Proposal would mandate spaying for pit bulls in Beaufort County, June 1, 2015
- Bluffton bait dog calls attention to area dog fighting, August 29, 2011
- Man bitten by dog on Daufuskie Island, June 1, 2015
- Port Royal official calls for 'one-bite' ordinance, July 13, 2012
- Something must change to curb violent dog attacks, February 26, 2011