The recent trail of vicious pit bull attacks that have literally cost life and limb – the death of three children and two adults – is a matter of concern to everyone in South Africa from animal behaviour experts to pet owners and residents.
In recent months, media outlets have reported on deadly cases of dog attacks around the country almost on an ongoing basis.
“Pit bull terriers, commonly referred to as pit bulls, actually comprise a number of different breeds. They have a similar appearance and were originally bred for dog-fighting, which was (and sadly still is) a form of entertainment for people,” said animal behaviour expert, Dr Quixi Sonntag.
Sonntag who is a lecturer at the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria said the dogs were not originally bred to be human-aggressive, just dog-aggressive.
At the weekend, it was reported that a man was mauled to death by a pit bull at a tavern in Mogwase in the North West.
The latest incident follows other incidents including that of a Port Alfred woman who was attacked and killed by three pit bulls in the Eastern Cape last month. The dogs are said to have escaped from the secured property by damaging the perimeter fencing. Also in the Eastern Cape, a third child succumbed to his wounds following a pit bull attack. Countrywide, there have been similar attacks.
While pit bulls can make good family pets, they can also do a lot of harm.
“However, some people like the fact that the dogs are scary and can do a lot of harm, and so the demand for such dogs has increased over the past decade or so. As a result, people who just want to make money out of selling them, have started breeding very dangerous dogs that are now also human-aggressive,” she explained.
She added that poorly informed, unskilled breeders have been selecting this type of dog and now that behaviour is part of the genetics of many pit bulls.
“Members of the public who like to be associated with a very aggressive dog support these breeders. The increase of unusually aggressive pit bulls is thus partly a social problem,” she said.
Sonntag said well-bred pit bulls can be excellent household pets and are known to be great with children.
“However, now that the genes of pit bulls, in general, have been changed by specific selection of excessively aggressive dogs by a sub-group of breeders, it is difficult to know which individual dog is dangerous and which one isn’t. But they can be difficult to control and are thus not appropriate pets for any household. There are unfortunately some South Africans who seem to enjoy the fact that their dogs are scary and dangerous and this supports the bad kind of breeding.”
The National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) has emphasised that it remains the responsibility of owners to understand the type of animal they own. The NSPCA has urged potential pet owners to do research on the animals they intend to own.
“We believe that if you have to own an animal, regardless of the breed, you have to be responsible, you have to understand the breed itself. Dogs have no concept of right and wrong,” said Senior Inspector Nazareth Appalsamy, Manager, Special Investigations Unit, at the NSPCA.
Speaking during a webinar hosted by the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS), Appalsamy also stressed the importance of pet owners developing a bond between themselves and their four legged companions.
“It is important that one trains the animals, and more importantly, is the development of a bond between the animal and human. This strengthens the relationship while also making the animal more obedient to commands. This is important because the more time you spend with the animals, the more socialised it becomes, and the more you are able to understand its behaviour,” he said.
In addition to spending time with the animal, pet owners must also ensure that they have the adequate space to keep the pets.
Calls for a ban
Amidst the attacks, there have been growing calls to have pit bulls banned as domestic pets with a petition calling for their ban, doing the rounds. Started by the Sizwe Kupelo Foundation in October, the petition calls on government to take decisive steps to ban the breed. According to the foundation, countries like Russia, Finland and Denmark have either banned or put restrictions on ownership of the breed or its importation.
In a recent statement, the foundation said over 120,000 people had signed the petition, which will be handed over to the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development Minister Thoko Didiza as soon as her office gives the foundation a date.
Last month the department met with pit bull breeders in an attempt to understand what is fuelling the attacks.
Sonntag said that breed-specific legislation banning certain breeds of dogs has not been successful anywhere in the world.
“Part of the problem is that it can be difficult to distinguish the dogs from crossbreeds or other breeds, and not everyone (e.g. police officers) knows dogs well enough to be able to make those distinctions anyway. The moment something is banned, it goes underground. Therefore I would not support the current petition as it is practically virtually impossible to implement effectively.
“Engaging with all the stakeholders is necessary – breeders need to understand what the consequences of their genetic selections can be, they need to carefully select appropriate owners. Potential owners need to understand what is required of them to be responsible dog owners and everyone including members of the public need to learn about the emotions that dogs experience and why.
“We all need to learn to read the body language of dogs and know how to respond to dogs in tricky situations. Some kind of regulation would probably be necessary, but more directed at people than at the dogs in my opinion,” she explained.
Appalsamy said the country is divided along owners who say pit bulls are excellent pets, while others have lost loved ones through attacks.
“Right now, it is important to understand that we do not support the ban. We never have and we certainly do not support a ban of any breed. What we do support, is a call for stronger regulations, the calls for stronger laws for the owning of such animals. And this is what we would like local government and national government to implement in South Africa.
“Unfortunately, there is no law regarding the breeding or keeping of animals and this is why municipalities across the country have municipal bylaws. The challenges with municipal bylaws is that sometimes it is not always enforced or easily enforced. This is why we are calling for national law in stronger regulations.
“We enforce the Animal Protection Act, which deals specifically with the protection of animals. So that’s where our mandate lies. Currently, we are talking about the protection of the public that rests with government.”
He stressed that the doors of the NSPCA are always open. He said that due to the attacks, owners have surrendered their dogs.
“The attacks in the country have caused panic and have caused citizens to re-look at the current animals and wonder if they have the capacity and the knowledge and skills to own such an animal. This has placed a huge burden on SPCAs all across the country, in so far that our resources right now are currently being challenged,” he said of the non-profit organisation that does not receive funding from government.
Manager of the NSPCA Wildlife Protection Unit, Douglas Wolhuter said that the organisation is against the keeping of wild or exotic animals such as tigers as domestic pets. This as there has been a proposal to reclassify pit bulls as wild animals.
“A domestic animal cannot be reclassified as a wild animal. If we do that, we are certainly heading to a big failure in terms of compliance and enforcement,” he said, adding that the NSPCA does not have the capacity to inspect all wildlife facilities. Already, he said there was little capacity to care for animals that live in unacceptable conditions in the wild.
Cost of ownership
Meanwhile, Lungelo Mokoena from Burger Huyser Attorneys said owners have a responsibility over the pets “but you also have responsibility over any potential liability that may arise, owing to such ownership”.
In the case of attacks, owners could dispute actions against their pets around circumstances of the attack. This includes the dog being provoked by the individual who was attacked.
Sonntag stressed that any breed of dog can bite.
“Unfortunately, pit bulls, due to their strong jaws and teeth, and low threshold for aggression, can do much more harm than smaller breeds of dogs and dogs with weaker jaws. If you feel uncomfortable around a dog, stand still, don’t move, and look away.
“Breathe normally, and very slowly step backwards until you can find a safe spot. Do not shout or turn and run. Do not make eye contact or any sudden movements. If the dog is trying to bite you, put something (anything) between you and the dog – this could be your bag, your shopping or your bicycle.
“If necessary, “feed” your clothing to the dog – let him bite on your jacket rather than your body. If there is a car nearby, try to get the car between you and the dog and even climb on top of it if necessary. If you have been pulled to the ground, do not get up and run as you may then trigger the prey instinct even further. Rather curl into a ball (foetal position), cover your face with your arms and play dead,” she said. – SAnews.gov.za