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Pit bulls can be sweet, but they also figure prominently in Wichita attacks, officials say

2015: Vicious dogs

Animal Control Lt. Steve Kenney talks about the pit bull attack on a mail carrier in March. (May 20, 2015/Mike Hutmacher/The Wichita Eagle)
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Animal Control Lt. Steve Kenney talks about the pit bull attack on a mail carrier in March. (May 20, 2015/Mike Hutmacher/The Wichita Eagle)

Peewee was the runt of his litter, and with a stubby snout, he was no show dog.

But Richard Almire adored the little Yorkie with the teddy bear face. When the Boeing retiree died in 2012, Peewee became Dori Almire’s link to her husband.

A few weeks ago, Dori Almire took Peewee to the groomer, and the 8-year-old dog was smelling like “a clean pup” as she pulled up to her Mulvane home. But when Almire set him on the ground, something grabbed her finger, pushed her down and snatched Peewee. That quickly. A pit bull mix – a dog that Almire had never seen before even though it lived across the street – was gripping Richard’s beloved pet by the neck in its jaws.

The pit bull, a dog known for its power and fighting reputation, shook Peewee and dragged him 30 feet into his front yard. Almire, a retired Boeing tool crib attendant, kicked the pit in its ribs hard enough, she thought, to crack its bones. But it didn’t release Peewee. Almire screamed, “Let go of my pup! Somebody, help!” and tried to hoist a landscape rock, thinking she would smash the pit’s skull. But as desperate as the 77-year-old woman was, she couldn’t lift the rock. Peewee was limp.

Peewee survived, thanks to a 71-year-old neighbor who rushed over. But the trauma that Peewee and Almire endured is part of a national problem, officials say and statistics show.

“You go anywhere across the U.S., and they will tell you they have a problem with pit bulls,” said Wichita police Lt. Steve Kenney, who oversees the city’s animal control unit. “It’s not just Wichita.”

Pit bulls are “overrepresented” in the city’s statistics, said animal control supervisor Dennis Graves. Kenney cited the numbers: In 2014, pit bulls accounted for 110 of 208 reported and investigated dog attacks, 188 of 569 dog bites and 35 of 53 dogs deemed dangerous under a city ordinance.

The total number of animal bites and attacks in Wichita, including all dog breeds and a variety of other animals, has declined considerably since it hit a high of 2,140 in 1997, city records show. The number rose slightly last year, to 1,105.

Recently, the city again seized a pit bull named Bear that had attacked a mail carrier March 16 on South Terrace. His owners signed papers allowing him to be euthanized by lethal injection.

On May 22, another pit bull bit another mail carrier, this time in the 2500 block of East First. The injury was relatively minor, Kenney said.

The U.S. Postal Service referred to Bear’s attack in a May 15 news release saying that Wichita ranks No. 15 in the nation in carriers attacked by dogs, with 25, ahead of larger cities such as Cincinnati, San Antonio, Pittsburgh and New Orleans.

Kenney said he wonders whether Wichita’s number could be so high because carriers are exposed to more dogs in a city that has a relatively high number of mail boxes at people’s doors rather than at the curb.

In Dallas in April, media reported that a family pit bull fatally mauled a 2-month-old boy in his home while his father was outside checking a sprinkler.

According to DogsBite.org, of 42 dog bite deaths in the nation in 2014, pit bulls accounted for nearly two-thirds of the fatalities, even though they are only 6 percent of the U.S. dog population.

But the issue is complicated. “We’ve had some really sweet pit bulls come through” the animal shelter as strays, Kenney said.

He spoke of a pit bull, named Phoenix by the shelter workers, “that I fell in love with.” Somebody had dumped Phoenix in a field. The dog was partly deaf and blind, and its ribs showed. The shelter nursed Phoenix and got him to a rescue group.

Shawn Hornbaker, program manager for Sedgwick County animal control, said of pit bulls: “I feel like they get a bad rap. … They have to be trained to fight. If not, they’re like any other dog. … It really just depends on the owner.”

Of 50 animal-bite investigations by the county in 2014, only three involved pit bulls – a big contrast to the situation in Wichita. Cats accounted for the biggest share of the county bites – 10.

Even the veterinarian who treated Peewee’s gaping neck wound, which was down into the muscle, acknowledges that her clinic has plenty of pit bulls who are “good patients.” One serves as a therapy dog in nursing homes.

Almire said her mail carrier has a pit bull and “says it’s as docile as a kitten.”

Still, Kenney and Graves also noted that pit bulls also have become associated with a criminal lifestyle. Gang members have been known to parade them as power symbols.

“Pit bull,” they say, refers to several associated breeds that all exhibit a powerful neck, chest and jaw that makes them ideal for dog fighting, a felony.

And there is the money factor. A pit bull can fetch thousands of dollars, Graves said.

Peewee’s attacker, a dog named Mila, which has been declared a vicious dog by public safety officials in Mulvane, has been staying with a family friend in Wichita in the 900 block of North Sheridan. Wichita police have been notified by Mulvane officials of Mila’s presence, Kenney said. Mila’s owner, Elizabeth Robinson, said Mila will stay at the Wichita home until the family can erect a 6-foot privacy fence at their yard across from Peewee’s home.

Mila is a trusted and protective member of a family with four children under the age of 4, Robinson said. Mila naps with the children, but is not socialized with other animals, she said.

“I don’t know why she did what she did” to Peewee, Robinson said.

Bear’s downfall

The attacks by Mila and Bear help illustrate how the animal control system responds and how lives, both human and canine, are affected.

Bear was a blue-gray pit bull that had lived in the 2100 block of South Terrace. On March 16, the 95-pounder jumped through a screen door and lunged into a mail carrier, knocking him down. According to the carrier, Bear came at his face, bit his hand and slashed his forearm. The carrier left a trail of blood to his mail truck, where he called 911. The attack resulted in Bear being declared a dangerous animal under the city animal control ordinance, Kenney said.

Once the dog was allowed to return home, the owners had to have a concrete pad poured for a pen where the dog would have to be secured while outside. They also had to post signs at the home warning about the dog.

On May 19, Bear found a way through a privacy fence after he “literally ate through the pen,” Kenney said. Multiple residents called 911, and Bear was surrendered to the city.

Bear’s owner, 24-year-old Mallory Simons, said she and her boyfriend decided to let the city give Bear a lethal injection, “although we love him to death and he’s a family member.” The problem is, he can escape through anything, she said.

The attack on the mail carrier was the “first time we have ever seen him be violent with a human,” Simons said. They had never thought he was dangerous before, she said. Bear, who was 5, had grown up with Simons’ 4-year-old daughter and had never threatened the child, she said.

“He looks intimidating, but he’s a beautiful dog. He loves the hell out of people.”

But keeping him was “just becoming too much for our family,” she said. She estimated that Bear’s attack on the mail carrier has cost the family “maybe a couple grand.”

Other breeds bite, too

At the city shelter where staff members quarantine dogs after they bite someone, Kenney noted that pit bulls aren’t the only breed to cause problems. One of the dogs being kept there recently was a 40-pound shepherd mix that bit a 3-year-old child in the face and arm. The child was taken in critical condition to a hospital, released the next day and will have ongoing medical treatment, Kenney said.

Animal Control Lt. Steve Kenney talks about the pit bull attack on a mail carrier in March. (May 20, 2015/Mike Hutmacher/The Wichita Eagle)

Some dogs, regardless of breed, can bite without warning, and any dogs should be monitored when they are around children, Kenney and Graves said.

With any reported dog bite, authorities investigate the severity of the injury, determine who the owner is and check to see whether the dog has a history of problems. The city can demand that the dog be quarantined and can issue citations.

George Theoharis, vice president of the Grandview and Mead neighborhood associations in south-central and southeast Wichita, near the neighborhood where Bear bit the mailman, said he encourages residents to report every aggressive-dog incident so the city can take action. “You owe it to your neighbors … and your friends and relatives,” he said.

While different breeds of dogs have become ownership fads over the years, “the pit bull has become a phenomenon that has not died out like other breeds,” Graves said.

Part of the city’s animal control law sets specific requirements for pit bulls. They must be sterilized and have a microchip for identification. There can be only two pit bulls on a property.

Pit bull breeders have exemptions, but very few people qualify for a breeder’s license, and a breeder can’t have the dogs in a residential area.

Mila’s situation

At Peewee’s house in Mulvane, Almire recalled how her neighbors “all came to my rescue” as she tried to save her dog.

She is especially thankful for her next-door neighbor, a 71-year-old who heard someone screaming, “He’s killing my dog!” The neighbor’s wife brought him a broom, and he swung it as hard as he could onto the pit bull’s back, causing it to let go of Peewee and run off.

Officers cornered the dog and put it in quarantine, said Dave Williams, Mulvane public safety director. The owner didn’t contest the city when it declared the dog vicious, which triggered a number of requirements for the dog and the owner, including that warning signs about the dog be posted at the house.

Mulvane rarely has problems with pit bulls, said Williams, a former Wichita police supervisor. His records show that the pit bull who attacked Peewee was living in the 900 block of North Sheridan in Wichita as of May 8.

Like Peewee, the pit bull, named Mila, was the runt of her litter, said Robinson, Mila’s 37-year-old owner. Mila’s parents had no history of being used as fighting dogs, Robinson said. The family is determined to build a tall fence so they can bring Mila home. Robinson’s 3-year-old son keeps asking, “Where’s Mila?”

“We don’t have any desire to give her away,” Robinson said.

On the day Mila went after Peewee, Robinson was out on an errand, and her sister was watching her children. Mila – “an inside dog” – got out the front door, Robinson said.

Afterward, Robinson said, she went over and apologized to Almire. “I made her blueberry muffins.” She also paid Peewee’s $300 vet bill.

“I understand it is scary” what happened to Peewee, Robinson said.

Almire, who loves blueberry muffins, said Robinson teared up as she apologized. “I felt sorry for her,” Almire said.

‘Tough little guy’

Andrea Pellegrini-Ahlerich, the veterinarian who treated Peewee, said: “That dog was down and out and close to not making it when he came in. He was not responsive. He was absolutely in shock.” She started him on IV fluids and worked to keep the wound from becoming infected.

Peewee’s neck was so swollen, he looked like a hunchback for awhile. His range of motion with his neck seems limited now. An oval scar shows beneath his wiry hair.

“He’s a tough little guy,” the vet said.

On a recent day, Almire and Peewee walked out into their front yard – their first venture out together since the attack.

Peewee stretched out on the grass, and Almire looked down at him and smiled. “Yeah,” she said, “I don’t know what I’d do without him.”

As for Mila, the pit bull who might be moving back across street, Almire said: “All I know is I don’t want the dog around. I’m scared to death of it.”

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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