Wichita family’s plight over pit bull highlights limits of animal control staff

Johnny Denney with a baseball bat under his arms, faces off with a pit bull in his yard. The photo was taken by his daughter.
Johnny Denney with a baseball bat under his arms, faces off with a pit bull in his yard. The photo was taken by his daughter. Courtesy of Anna Pate

Johnny Denney’s family has lived in their Planeview neighborhood home for 29 years, long enough for the rose of Sharon bush out front to set down deep roots and send out a tower of magenta blooms.

But because of a neighbor’s aggressive dog, they have become prisoners in their own home, Denney says. He is 65, suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has a knee replacement. He carries an aluminum bat when he goes outside. He has stared down the white pit bull while gripping the bat, after it has repeatedly lunged at him or tried to tear through a front-porch gate to get to his 83-year-old mother, he said. They fear for their pet Yorkie even when it is in the fenced yard because the pit bull is big enough to leap over.

“We shouldn’t have to live like this,” Denney said Friday morning, newly frustrated after seeing the white pit running loose again. He said he has called 911 several times, but each time Wichita animal control officers told him they were unable to find the dog or that it was in an enclosure when they spotted it or that they couldn’t find the owner.

Denney’s frustration isn’t unique. The city animal control unit has limited staffing, and they respond to thousands of calls a year. At most, the city has three animal control officers citywide per shift, but usually it’s one or two officers, said Wichita police Lt. Steve Kenney, who oversees animal control.

In the past year, animal control has logged 992 calls in which the caller initially indicated a dog was aggressive, 318 calls in which a dog was reported as having attacked someone by, for example, running at someone or inhibiting a person’s movement, said animal control supervisor Dennis Graves.

Animal control also recorded 4,930 calls about pets, mostly dogs, being stray or running loose, Graves said.

The calls are prioritized so that the highest is a dog biting someone or being aggressive, Kenney said. The next priority is a dog being aggressive toward or harming another pet. A dog simply running loose is a lower priority.

The challenge is that dogs move quickly, so spotting and catching them can be difficult. And because dogs are considered property, police usually need to know who owns them, Kenney said.

The legal process

The fortunate thing, Kenney said, is that there is a streamlined process for people who have problems with dogs. It basically involves filling out an affidavit, which is reviewed by an animal control officer to make sure it qualifies under the ordinance, and if it meets the criteria, it goes to Municipal Court, where the owner has to show up and answer to the complaint.

Denney said he doubts he would be willing to take the steps to pursue it through the court.

Most people don’t want to prosecute; they just want the problem to end, Kenney said. Many times, he said, it’s because people don’t want to have conflicts with neighbors.

Denney said his family’s problem with the white pit bull began around the time of Riverfest, in late May. He said he has no opposition to the pit bull breed. It depends on how they are raised and cared for, he said. He thinks the white pit bull belongs to a neighbor.

While animal control officials say pit bulls can be sweet dogs, the breed also has plenty of critics who say pit bulls have a reputation for being fighting dogs because of their disposition, musculature and powerful jaws. Whether or not the breed is unfairly labeled, pit bulls are “overrepresented” in city statistics, Graves said recently. In a previous Eagle article about problem dogs, Kenney cited these 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.

Pit bull siege

Denney said that the white pit bull, which he estimated at “a good 75 pounds,” showed up outside his house and tore up a lattice gate to the front porch as it snarled at his 83-year-old mother. The pit bull didn’t appear to have tags. A city ordinance sets specific requirements for pit bulls, including that they be sterilized and have a microchip for identification. Pit bull breeders have exemptions, but very few people qualify for a breeder’s license.

The white pit bull also caved in chain-link fencing in front of the Denney home, Denney said.

The dog has lunged at him four times, he said. His daughter took a cellphone picture of the pit bull outside the house on a recent night, facing a bat-carrying Denney. But an animal control officer and police officer declined the family’s offer for the officers to view the photo, he said.

According to Graves, on May 31, the 911 emergency dispatch system received a call about two pit bulls – one white, the other brown and white – running loose near Denney’s home. The animal control officer was able to catch and impound the brown-and-white dog but couldn’t find the white dog after a search. Animal control officers have returned to the block five times since catching the brown-and-white dog, Graves said.

Denney said he also worries about the safety of his neighbors, many of whom have small children.

Over the years, his family has built a decorative pond with gurgling spouts of water in a yard ringed with established flower beds. On Friday, a hidden cardinal sang above flowering moss, waxy-green hens and chicks and rain-soaked honeysuckle.

But with the pit bull loose, Denney said, his mother is “afraid to come out here and work on her own plants.”

Holding the bat in the yard Friday, Denney said, “I don’t want to carry this every moment of my life. I shouldn’t have to.”

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

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