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Dog-attack bills pushed
February 20, 2007

State lawmakers are pushing bills to deal with bad dogs and their owners more harshly and to crack down on people who sell animals by the roadside.

Written by Peggy Fikac, San Antonio Express-News


AUSTIN — From a San Antonio girl fatally injured by the pit bull she was trying to help to a young boy mauled to death by two dogs in Harris County to an elderly Milam County woman killed by a canine pack, dog attacks have raised alarm around the state.

Now, state lawmakers are pushing bills to deal with bad dogs and their owners more harshly and to crack down on people who sell animals by the roadside.

"It's not anti-dog. It's pro-human. I'm trying to protect humans from being severely injured or killed by these vicious animals," said Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, of his Senate Bill 405 to require tighter control of dogs and to do away with the "one free bite" the animals can inflict before owners face criminal liability.

Other lawmakers are pushing bills to drastically increase criminal penalties for owners whose dogs cause serious bodily injury or death, currently a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

The owner of a dog that, unprovoked, kills someone could be charged with a second-degree felony punishable by two to 20 years in prison under House Bill 1355 by Rep. Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown. Serious injury could draw a third-degree felony charge, punishable by two to 10 years.

The charges would apply to owners who are criminally negligent or knew a dog was dangerous but failed to secure it.

"I don't want to put any extra burdens on responsible pet owners that have these animals that are treating them right. I want to put the responsibility on those who are bad actors and are not responsible," Gattis said.

Lawmakers can cite some terrible recent examples. Gattis calls his proposal, "Lillian's Law," for Lillian Stiles, 76, who was mauled to death in her front yard in Milam County in East Central Texas. The owner of the dogs was charged with criminally negligent homicide, but Gattis said a stronger, more specific law is needed.

Wentworth said he was asked to act by Stiles' sisters, and he cited the death of 10-year-old Amber Jones, fatally attacked by the dog she was trying to free after its collar got hooked on a chain link fence.

"We want to see a ban, we want to see these dogs taken out of populated areas," said Sharon Marsh, Amber's aunt.

Marsh said her family realizes that changing current laws might be an uphill battle.

"We've been calling it AJ's law," she said of recent proposals. "That's the only thing that keeps us going straight, knowing that a child's death was not in vain and that something good came out of it."

Under a bill by Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, a dog attack resulting in death could mean a third-degree felony charge for the owner, and a serious-injury attack would be a state jail felony carrying a sentence of up to two years.

Shapleigh said he was spurred to act after a woman in his district was attacked by two pit bills and hospitalized for weeks. He said he hopes stricter laws can persuade owners to keep dangerous dogs away from people.

"It shouldn't be when you walk you are in fear for your life," said Shapleigh, who has a list of dog attacks in his Senate colleagues' districts.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, wants to give Harris County the power to ban dangerous pets in Senate Bill 349 and is pushing another measure, Senate Bill 254 that has been expanded to allow the state's four largest counties — Bexar, Dallas, Harris and Tarrant — to regulate animal sales by the roadside and in parking lots in unincorporated areas.

"Dangerous dogs, unvaccinated animals and animals that are not spayed or neutered are commonly distributed on roadsides," Ellis said, calling it an area of the law "where we simply have not focused much attention in the past."

Local officials applauded the Legislature's attention to the problem.

"I don't like child predators, whether they're man or animal," said Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said he would welcome the authority to regulate roadside sales of animals, although he's not certain what sort of county manpower he'd need to enforce such regulations.

"We'd have to come up with a strategy on that," Wolff said, adding he wants a crackdown on owners of dangerous dogs. "We've had too many incidents of serious bites and deaths."

Animal welfare advocates such as Dallas lawyer Skip Trimble of the Texas Humane Legislation Network don't oppose strong penalties for owners of dangerous dogs but say they want to ensure fairness. Trimble, speaking for himself and not the network, singled out Gattis' measure as one that "seems to balance the interest of the dog owner and public safety."

Patt Nordyke, executive director of the Texas Federation of Humane Societies, had questions about allowing county commissioners to declare a pet "dangerous," as Ellis wants to do. She called Wentworth's bill "pretty good," but questioned its requirement that a dog be destroyed if its owner is convicted after an attack, rather than leaving that decision to a judge.

She'd also like to see a statewide crackdown on roadside dog sales.

"If this would go through as a state law, I would think I just died and went to heaven," she said.

Nordyke emphasized that the fault for attacks lies with dogs' owners.

"What I think they need to bear in mind is that there aren't, per se, bad dogs," she said. "There are bad owners. I think there should be more accountability for owners."


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