On Responsibility

Thoughts following a canine disaster.


January 26 was a bad day for dogs everywhere. That was the day the now-infamous pair of Presa Canario mastiffs attacked and brutally killed a woman in a San Francisco apartment building. There isn’t a dog owner in the country – and especially right here in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live – who isn’t getting dirty looks from the non-dog-owning public. Heck, even dog owners are giving other dog owners hard looks now, especially if the recipient’s dog is having a bad hair day with excitement, or heaven help him, aggression in any form. All because of the horrific act committed by two bad dogs.

But it’s not just the dogs who ought to be hanging their heads in shame; in my admittedly angry opinion, it’s not just the dogs who ought to be euthanized for their crime. In my opinion – and I’m sure, the opinion of every relative, friend, and student of the outgoing, caring teacher who was murdered by the dogs – every person who had a hand in the creation of this tragedy-waiting-to-happen ought to be punished in some serious way. That includes the breeders, who, according to news reports, specialize in the production of fighting dogs; and it includes every person who ever had a hand in the purchase, ownership, care, and (lack of) control of the dogs.

Dogs do occasionally kill people. Not all that often – about 15-20 times a year in this country. Why am I so upset about this case?

Partly because, in this case, it seems there were many opportunities to prevent the tragedy. The people who lived with the dogs, of course, are the guiltiest parties in this respect. They handled the dogs daily; how could they fail to note and respond to the many danger signs of escalating aggression?

But there were a lot of people who failed to protect that innocent woman – and for that matter, who failed to protect the criminal dogs themselves. Within one week of the incident, investigators had already collected dozens of allegations of the dogs’ past misdeeds. People who lived nearby told stories about the dogs lunging toward them in the halls; one neighbor said the male dog had once grabbed him by the leg of his pants as he walked by the leashed animals. Other dog owners from the neighborhood reported incidents of aggression toward both people and other dogs. One man claims that the dogs attacked his Sheltie when the dogs passed each other while being walked by their owners; the Sheltie reportedly received serious injury, including a punctured liver.

It’s impossible to know exactly how many people failed to report these cocked-and-loaded canines to the police or animal control officials. Or how many of the dogs’ owners and handlers failed to properly socialize, train, and even equip the dogs for safe exposure to the world – with muzzles and head halters, for a start.

So, who’s responsible?

Mostly, the handlers, of course.

Who’s taking responsibility?

No one.

It’s hard to believe, but the people who were living with and handling these dogs will not admit any responsibility for the attack. They are both lawyers, sure, but real human attorneys, I would think, would admit some accountability. But no; one of these caretakers (the dogs’ legal ownership is shadowy) went so far as to say, in a letter to the District Attorney, that the victim had several opportunities to avoid the attack but didn’t avail herself of them – she brought the attack on herself, he seems to say. In the same letter, he describes eight separate incidents of aggression between one or the other dog and other dogs or people, and in each incident, he blames the other parties involved.

Today, it feels like the dog world has gone crazy. Let’s take responsibility.

-Nancy Kerns