Laws with teeth

 

Laws with teeth

(Updated Sunday, July 17, 2005, 6:28 AM)

 

Chrystal and Matt Babcock, divorced parents of 6-year-old Tyler Babcock, who was mauled to death in January by two dogs, show photos of Tyler at Chrystal Babcock's apartment. The Babcocks have made public appeals to Fresno County supervisors pushing for tougher vicious-dog laws.
John Walker / The Fresno Bee

Valley dog laws

The following cities and 
counties in the central 
San Joaquin Valley have laws regulating dogs or are 
considering new laws:

Clovis: Leash law in effect 
within the city limits; maximum 
of three dogs per household.

Fresno: Leash law in effect 
within the city limits; maximum 
of four dogs that are older than 
4 months per household. The city 
also is looking at adopting a spay-and-neuter ordinance.

Kings County: Countywide 
leash law in effect.

Madera County: Countywide 
leash law in effect. The county 
also is developing a spay-and-
neuter ordinance that, if approved,
would require residents to have a 
permit to breed dogs, limit each 
resident to one litter per year and 
force residents with unaltered dogs
 to pay a higher licensing fee.
Tulare County: Countywide 
leash law in effect.

 

 

Neighbors found Tyler Babcock's naked body lying in a pasture on 
a cold January afternoon.

Two large dogs — including a pit bull mix — had brutally attacked the 6-year-old boy. 
They tore apart his flesh and ripped his clothes to shreds. Tyler's injuries were so 
severe that nothing could be done to save his life.

The dogs that killed Tyler were frequently spotted roaming the Fresno County 
neighborhood about a mile east of Clovis, just north of Shaw Avenue. The owners 
weren't required by law to keep them on leashes or confined to the back yard.

Now Tyler's family wants that to change.

They are turning their grief into action by pushing for Fresno County officials to 
re-examine the way they deal with dangerous and aggressive dogs. They've made 
public appeals to the Board of Supervisors asking for tougher vicious-dog laws.

Their goal: a ban on pit bulls and pit bull mixes in Fresno County.

Legally, the county can't take such a restrictive step. State law prohibits cities and 
counties from banning a particular type of dog. But a bill being proposed by a state 
senator would allow cities and counties to regulate certain breeds.

After impassioned pleas from Tyler's parents and grandparents, Fresno County 
supervisors are now considering tougher regulations. If passed, they would affect 
anyone who owns a dog in Fresno County.

Some of the proposals include restricting the number of dogs people can own, requiring 
that all dogs be spayed or neutered unless owners pay a breeding fee and forcing owners
 to keep their dogs on a leash or behind a fence.

The county isn't alone in its pursuit of tougher vicious-dog laws. Cities and counties around 
the state are struggling with the same issue after several dog attacks in the Bay Area.

With most of the attention focused on pit bulls and pit bull mixes, some owners fear the breed 
will be banned in the future. Owners and advocacy groups say pit bulls are unfairly targeted, 
and that most attacks are the result of irresponsible owners who aren't properly caring for 
their dogs.

But Tyler's parents, Matt and Chrystal Babcock, believe tougher regulations are necessary to 
ensure public safety.

Says Matt Babcock: "This is something that didn't need to happen, but it did, and we don't want 
to ever see it happen again."

Rush to find him, save him

A frantic search unfolded in a rural Fresno County neighborhood the day Tyler Babcock went missing.

Tyler spent part of the morning of Jan. 2 with his dad watching their favorite football team, the 
Pittsburgh Steelers, on television. Tyler, who loved to collect bugs and dig for worms, grew restless 
and wanted to play outside.

He left the house about 10:15 a.m. No one really knows what happened after that.

Matt Babcock says he checked on his son about 20 minutes later, but couldn't find him. He immediately 
grew worried. It wasn't like Tyler to wander off.

He stopped by several neighbors' homes, but no one remembered seeing Tyler. Many joined in the search.

Matt Babcock was in the back yard when he heard someone shout: "Oh my God, it's the boy. The dogs got him. 
Call 911."

He grabbed his cell phone from inside and jumped the fence that separated his house from a neighbor's property. 
He ran through the neighbor's back yard and out to the pasture where people had gathered.

There, he saw his son lying on the ground with only a sock on one foot, his shredded clothes surrounding him. 
Blood covered the grass.

Neighbors immediately tried to console Matt Babcock, who began screaming. Then he knelt down beside his son 
and put his hand in Tyler's hand.

"I told him, 'Tyler, I love you, I love you. I'm so sorry,'" Matt Babcock recalls telling his injured son.

Tyler looked into his dad's eyes. A tear rolled down his cheek.

Donna Hanner, who lives across the street and is a close friend of the family, covered the little boy with jackets.

Hanner talked to Tyler and prayed with him. She told him that the helicopter was on its way to take him to the hospital. 
She talked about how happy everyone was that they finally found him, and she told him that he was safe.

As she talked, Hanner put her hand over one of Tyler's hands. Tyler put his other hand on top of hers.

"It was like he was trying to comfort me," Hanner says. "I could tell that he was relieved that we had found him."

Tyler's breathing was shallow by the time the helicopter arrived to take him to Children's Hospital Central California.

Meanwhile, word of the attack was just reaching Tyler's mom.

Chrystal Babcock was working that afternoon at Fashion Furniture in Fresno when two sheriff's deputies came to the store. 
They told Babcock she needed to come with them to the hospital.

Immediately, Babcock noticed the word "Chaplain" on the back of one of the deputies' shirts.

She wasn't told much — only that Tyler was hurt in a dog attack.

Within minutes of arriving at Children's Hospital, she saw Matt Babcock surrounded by hospital administrators.

A doctor approached. He told the Babcocks that Tyler's heart had stopped pumping and nothing could be done.

Their son was dead.

Deep sense of loss

Tyler's death left a huge hole in the Babcocks' close-knit family.

Chrystal and Matt Babcock are divorced but have always maintained a close relationship because of Tyler. 
They shared joint custody of their son, and both say he was the most important thing in their lives.

Tyler was an active child who excelled in T-ball and liked to climb trees. He enjoyed singing and dancing. 
He loved Spider-Man and would beg his mom to let him wear his Spider-Man costume to bed. He made 
friends easily and didn't like it when someone close to him was upset.

He was in kindergarten at Cedarwood Elementary School in Clovis and even though he was only there for half 
the school year, he made an impression on his classmates. After Tyler's death, his class shared memories of 
Tyler in a book. The school's yearbook was dedicated to Tyler, and a Cedarwood tree was planted in his memory.

Tyler also loved animals. His parents say he wasn't afraid of dogs.

But he didn't like the two dogs that lived next door. Matt Babcock says the dogs had come into their back yard once 
before when Tyler was outside, and Tyler's grandfather scared them away.

DNA tests confirmed the two dogs killed Tyler. The male dog, named Felony, was believed to be a pit bull mix 
because he had a large head and other characteristics of a pit bull. But investigators later said they weren't certain 
the dog had pit bull in him.

The other dog — a female dog named Blue — definitely was part pit bull. A third dog, believed to be a Chow mix, 
also lived on the property but was not involved in the attack.

All three dogs were held in quarantine at the Central California Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals 
until the investigation was completed, and then they were euthanized.

The dogs lived on property owned by Roxanne Montgomery, according to a Fresno County sheriff's report. 
Attempts to reach Montgomery at her home were unsuccessful.

The report said that the female pit bull was owned by Josh Romero.

No criminal charges were filed in the case. The Fresno County District Attorney's Office said when the investigation 
was complete that there was "insufficient evidence to prove criminal conduct on the part of those responsible for the 
animals."

But questions remain about how the attack occurred.

Tyler was found in a pasture behind Montgomery's property. There is a 4-foot wooden fence that separates 
Montgomery's back yard from the pasture. A gate leads from the back yard to the pasture.

Tyler's body was found about 15 feet from the gate's entrance, the Sheriff's Department reported.

When deputies arrived at the scene, the gate was pushed open about 6 inches, according to their report. But no 
one knows whether the gate was open earlier that morning. And no one knows how Tyler ended up in the pasture.

The Babcocks say they want someone held accountable for their son's death, and plan to file a wrongful-death 
lawsuit. They have retained San Francisco-based civil attorney Ronald Rouda, who has worked on other dog
 mauling cases.

Rouda represented the mother of Diane Whipple, who was killed by two presa canarios in the hallway outside of 
her Pacific Heights apartment in San Francisco four years ago.

Rouda says the owners of the dogs that killed Tyler are liable for his death regardless of how the attack occurred: 
"The owners were the keepers of the dogs. They were responsible."

Fresno Co. rules reviewed

In the months after Tyler's death, Chrystal and Matt Babcock began a personal crusade.

They soon learned their neighborhood, about a mile outside Clovis city limits, did not fall under Fresno County's 
leash law. Only certain county neighborhoods are covered by the leash law. They set out to change that.

Tyler's mom and grandmother Sharon Babcock appealed to the Board of Supervisors asking that their neighborhood 
become a designated leash law area. They attended several board meetings, and each time more than a dozen friends 
and church members joined them, wearing stickers that read: "Tyler Babcock Never Again."

The supervisors agreed it was time for a change. But the discussions grew beyond just designating the Babcocks' 
neighborhood as a leash law area. The supervisors wanted to do more.

Says Supervisor Bob Waterston: "To lose a child in an attack like this that could have been prevented, is just awful."

Nationwide, about 20 people a year die in dog attacks, according to the National Canine Research Foundation — 
a nonprofit organization that has studied more than 500 fatal dog attacks since 1965.

The group's data show that pit bulls and pit bull mixes have been involved in more than one-third of the 120 fatal attacks 
over the past five years — more than any other breed.

Not as much is known about the types of dogs involved in nonfatal attacks. An estimated 4.7 million people will be bitten 
by dogs this year, and 60% of those will be children. But there's no agency that tracks which breeds are involved in nonfatal 
dog bite incidents.

California didn't keep track of the breeds involved in the 25 fatal dog attacks that occurred in the state between 1991 and 
2003.

The limited information on the types of dogs involved in attacks makes it hard for cities and counties to enact laws that target 
one breed over another.

Fresno County officials are considering a requirement that regardless of where a dog lives in the county, it would have to be 
under the physical control of its owner, such as on a leash or behind a fence.

The board also is considering:

A spay-and-neuter ordinance. The hope is that the ordinance would reduce the dog population in the county and deter 
aggressive tendencies in some breeds. Owners who don't want to have their dogs spayed or neutered would pay a fee to be allowed to breed their pets.

A limit on the number of dogs allowed per household, although a number hasn't been determined. A household with more 
dogs would be considered a kennel, and the owner would have to obtain an operating permit.

Changes to the process for determining whether a dog is vicious and needs to be euthanized. If a dog bites a person or 
another animal at least twice in 36 months, the dog is considered "vicious" and a civil court hearing is held to determine 
whether it needs to be euthanized or placed under strict confinement. Sometimes it can take as long as six months before 
a case is heard. Because it's such a lengthy process, very few dog mauling cases ever reach the courts.

Fresno County will discuss these proposed regulations in August. Public hearings will be held before a final decision is 
made.

The Babcocks say they are pleased the county is taking steps toward regulating vicious dogs.

Says Chrystal Babcock: "I don't want to see anybody else get hurt or killed."

Efforts to control breeds

There has been a rash of dog attacks in California, most involving pit bulls or pit bull mixes.

Some residents in the Bay Area became enraged after 12-year-old Nicholas Faibish was mauled to death by his family's 
two pit bulls.

Nicholas' mother said she locked her son in the basement of her San Francisco apartment while she ran errands because 
one of the dogs was acting aggressively. Nicholas found a way to open the basement door and was killed by at least one 
of the dogs.

His mother now faces felony child endangerment charges.

After Nicholas' death, some Bay Area residents began calling for a statewide ban on pit bulls, sparking a decades-old 
debate about the need for breed-specific laws.

California wrestled with banning pit bulls in the 1980s, but strong lobbying by various dog advocacy groups squashed the 
legislation.

Fresno County officials say they are not attempting to ban pit bulls, as other cities and counties throughout the United States 
have successfully done. The city of Denver, for example, has had an outright ban on pit bulls since 1980.

More than 200 cities have laws in place regulating specific breeds. Some have laws that require certain dogs to be muzzled 
when they're walked in public. Others require dog owners to carry liability insurance.

California has a law that prohibits local jurisdictions from enacting breed-specific laws. However, a state senator is trying to 
change the law.

Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, has introduced a bill that would allow cities and counties to enact laws targeting certain 
types of dogs. But outright bans on breeds would still be prohibited.

Speier, whose legislative district covers part of the Bay Area, acknowledges it won't be an easy bill to pass. Her office has 
already been flooded with calls and e-mails from people opposed to the legislation.

Says Speier: "We still believe this is the right step to take at this time."

Proponents say breed-specific laws will help reduce the propensity of certain dogs to attack. Neutering male dogs, for 
example, is thought to make them less aggressive. Many want to see a crackdown on pit bulls and pit bull mixes, which 
have been linked to some of the more vicious attacks.

On the other side are the dog advocacy groups that argue breed-specific laws won't solve the problem. They claim the 
problem lies with unscrupulous breeders and irresponsible owners who mistreat their animals and raise them to fight.

American Kennel Club spokeswoman Lisa Peterson says counties should be promoting responsible dog ownership rather
 than putting more laws on the books that are difficult to enforce.

"Breed-specific laws really aren't the way to protect a community," Peterson says. "People who are irresponsible dog 
owners really don't pay attention to the laws anyway. They'll find ways to get around them."

Fresno County supervisors admit the regulations will be hard to enforce. Waterston says the county can't afford to hire 
any more animal control officers.

Currently, only one animal control officer responds to dog calls in Fresno County. SPCA Executive Director Norm Minson 
says the county would need to have at least five animal control officers to enforce any new laws effectively: "Right now, we 
don't have the manpower to enforce it."

In the breed's defense

Chica roams around Kevin Ramirez's front yard in Fresno County, drinking water from a bucket and roughhousing with her 
two young pups.

The 88-pound tan-and-white pit bull may appear fierce to some, but to Ramirez she is a friendly and loyal member of the 
family.

"I've never had a more loving dog," Ramirez says. "She would do anything in the world for me."

Chica had nine puppies three months ago. Ramirez bred Chica with a male pit bull owned by a friend. All but two of the 
puppies have been sold, but Ramirez couldn't part with little Mercy and Mack.

Ramirez and other local pit bull owners say their dogs are being misrepresented as fierce, aggressive animals who are likely to attack.

Pit bulls came to America in the 1900s from Europe, where they were bred to fight with other dogs. There are now three 
types of pit bulls: the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire bull terrier.

The American pit bull terrier has long been a popular American symbol. It's the only dog to appear on the cover of 
Life magazine three times. The dog was also used to represent the United States' presence in World War I.

Petey, the dog from the "Little Rascals," was the first American Staffordshire terrier to be registered with the American 
Kennel Club in 1936.

But as the pit bull has grown in popularity over the years, so have concerns about its temperament.

Marcy Setter, who works for Pit Bull Rescue Central in Detroit, says the breed is loving and loyal: "Are they for everybody? Absolutely not. But that's the same for every breed."

Dr. Eric Weigand, a veterinarian for nearly 20 years and president of the California Veterinary Medical Association, 
says pit bulls' jaws aren't physically different from other breeds. But while other dogs tend to bite and release, pit bulls 
bite and hold on.

"They latch on, and they don't let go," he says. "They are so powerful that if they do bite, there is a real serious potential for 
injury."

He also cautions that pit bulls are "purpose-bred dogs" and their purpose is to fight: "When you have a purpose-bred dog, 
you have to be careful with it. But every single dog has the potential to bite."

Still, many pit bull advocates don't believe pit bulls are any more likely to attack than other dogs. They say the reason it appears that pit bulls are more involved in fatal dog attacks is their popularity has soared in recent years.

Setter says it's a cycle: "Dobermans were the pit bulls of the '80s. In the '70s, it was the German shepherd and in the
 '90s it was the Rottweiler."

With the popularity came more backyard breeding, some for the wrong reasons, Setter says. She believes fatal dog attacks 
will decrease if there is more public education about pit bulls, a crackdown on breeding and a push for more responsible 
dog ownership.

"All dogs can do some horrendous damage. They all have teeth," she says. "At the end of the day, a dog is an animal and 
you have to treat it that way."

The Babcocks agree that people who own pit bulls need to be more responsible. But they also believe pit bulls are 
unpredictable animals that are instinctively aggressive.

Ultimately, they want to see a ban on pit bulls in Fresno County. But until that happens, they plan to continue sharing 
Tyler's story so their son will never be forgotten.

"I guess that's what keeps me going, being able to do something for Tyler," Chrystal Babcock says. "But we miss him. 
We weren't ready to give him up."

 

 

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