After recent attacks in Beaufort County and elsewhere around the state, it is both natural and advisable to ask what can be done to keep dogs from mauling innocent people, like the 3-year-old town of Port Royal girl who was hospitalized last week.
Answers do not come quickly or easily in a society that resists outright bans on aggressive breeds and that recoils from euthanizing en masse dogs found running free.
However, while preventative measures are pondered, there need be no equivocation about how best to deal with attacks after they happen. We must hold their masters' responsible.
South Carolina law makes owners liable for the damage their pets inflict in all public places, or when a victim has been invited onto the property of the owner. The only mitigating factor is if the pet was provoked by the person attacked.
This seems to be a tough-but-reasonable law, but its punitive and preventative effect comes not from what is prohibited but from vigorous enforcement and sharp penalties for violating those prohibitions.
So are these sufficient to the task?
Consider Burton's Kevin Ramsey, who faces a fine of up to $5,000 and as much as three years in prison after a pit bull he is believed to have owned attacked Daniella Ramirez as she and her baby-sitter walked down Wayside Lane on Feb. 17. The attack was thwarted by a Port Royal police officer, who had to shoot and kill the dog after it was separated from the girl but tried to attack her again.
The charge -- owning a dangerous animal that attacked or injured a human -- apparently is the first of this nature against Ramsey, and is a misdemeanor. However, Ramsey's dog was familiar to county animal control officers. Twice in the past two months, it had been impounded, then returned to him.
We should note officials say the dog did not display aggressive tendencies when they picked it up. We also will not assume Ramsey's guilt in this misdemeanor charge.
However, we will ask: If he is convicted, how likely is he to receive the maximum penalty? And is the maximum penalty enough if indeed this is the dog that twice was picked up and returned to Ramsey?
Ours is not the only community confronting these issues.
Back home in January, animal-control officers tranquilized and captured an aggressive, stray pit bull in Sun City Hilton Head and were looking for another stray described as a pit-bull mix. Officers were concerned enough to advise Sun City residents to use caution when going outdoors.
Wednesday in Port Royal, a woman was arrested when her bull mastiff allegedly tried to drag a toddler who lived next door under a backyard fence by the leg.
Nationwide in 2010, there were 34 dog-attack fatalities, including two in South Carolina, according to a study published at Dogbitelaw.com. That report said just two breeds -- Rottweilers and pit bulls -- account for two-thirds of incidents resulting in human death and that there "appears to be a breed-specific problem with fatalities."
This lends credence to the argument that certain aggressive breeds simply need to be banned -- or at least more strictly regulated. However, the report also noted a rise in dog-bite incidents overall and that this increase "involves all dogs and all dog owners, not just the breeds most likely to kill."
This suggests validity to the argument that owners have as much to do with attacks as the nature bred into dogs. Indeed, owners who do not properly train and socialize their animals are creating a nuisance. The only distinction between the derelict pit bull owner and the derelict dachshund owner is the damage potentially wrought by their laxity.
We shouldn't tolerate such owners' negligence any more than we would tolerate their dogs' aggressiveness.