OTTUMWA IA - A 'PIT' OF A PROBLEM: OTTUMWA'S HIDDEN PIT BULLS
The City of Ottumwa hasn’t given up its 13-year old ban on pit bulls.
Yet the Ottumwa Police Department keeps discovering them within city limits; just a few months ago, an officer said one blood spattered pit bull came within inches of killing a 10-year-old boy.
Tom Rodgers, the city public information officer, was present when the ordinance to ban the specific breed was first being debated in council chambers. And he is still moved by any discussion of one case after he assisted police: He acted as the press liaison for the OPD as Iowa media rushed to Ottumwa for the story of a little girl killed by her family’s pit bull.
“The political [tone] really changed after the CharLee Shepherd incident, the killing of a 21-month-old child by a pit bull,” recalled Rodgers.
That’s when the new law was born. Just not right away.
“In addition to the required public hearing, we held public input meetings above and beyond what’s legally required. There had been a number of attacks and maulings by pit bulls in the community in the early 2000s. One I specifically recall was a letter carrier who’d been pretty brutally torn up.”
CharLee was killed in August, 2002.
“In February 2003, the pit bull ban went into effect and we don’t see as many of those brutal mauling events,” he said.
It’s accurate that there are not as many really bad incidents but if there were no pit bulls, there should be no pit bull attacks.
“There are pit bulls,” confirmed Officer Jeff Williams, the Ottumwa Police Department’s currently designated animal control officer. “I know they’re out there, hidden.”
He believes in the laws he’s required to enforce.
"Genetics are a big part of it," he said. "You can have a nice pit bull. But they have been bred to kill. You can't train that instinct out of their system. And you don't know you have a killer -- until they kill."
So when he hears someone say my dog hasn’t hurt anyone, Williams said that in his mind, he adds one word: “yet.”
Just as a dog bred to be a retriever wants to go get things and bring them back, pit bulls want to fight; it’s built in, Williams believes.
The law: “Any animal which is not naturally tame or gentle, and which is of a wild nature or disposition, and which is capable of killing [or] inflicting serious injury upon … human beings or domestic animals and having known tendencies as a species to do so.”
Pit bulls are on that list. Owners are fined, then ordered to remove the dog from city limits. And though there are exceptions, reading the list makes it seem unlikely there would be a neighbor who would be allowed a pit bull: “In a public zoo … where they are kept as live specimens for the public to view.
For exhibition to the public by a bona fide traveling circus … licensed to perform in the city. In a licensed veterinary hospital for treatment. At an approved dog show when “properly confined …”
Oddly enough, due to an oversight, there may be one other exception: Two Ottumwa dogs listed as “pit bulls” were allowed to register and be licensed, said City Clerk Amanda Valent.
She said a front counter employee at a vet office filled out the paperwork. But Valent took responsibility, saying she herself was supposed to be checking each of the 3,000 licenses that came across her desk in bulk in 2015.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I regret it happened.”
The new procedure in place, where each license is entered on the spread sheet one at a time, should make it much less likely to happen, she said.
But that's not how most people try to get their pit bull home, Williams said. THEY HIDE THE DOGS. OR THEY LIE.
“I’ve had people with rabies certificates say, ‘See, it’s not a pit bull. It’s a bull terrier, says it right here.’ Right,” he said, shaking his head, “that’s because you told the clerk at the vet’s office that it was a bull terrier. And we don’t make owners bring their dog down to be licensed, where [city employees would have to] try to determine the breed of the dog. Some people will try [licensing the dog differently]; they try to get around it.”
Police officers don’t use anything other than their training and the opinion of a vet when it comes to determining breed — though there is a test local vets can order that Williams said he will accept as proof.
Now that Ottumwa vets are wary of putting whatever a customer wants on a rabies certificate, they’ve become stricter. That, in turn, simply has certain pet owners having their dog vaccinated out of town.
In 2015, there were 11 pit bulls found in which owners were cited. Since January of this year until June, there have been seven charges of possession of a pit bull. Additionally, a judge has issued nine warrants for the same charge, which are currently outstanding.
Officer Williams regularly arrests or cites pit bull owners and orders the dog’s removal. If need be, he'll obtain a search warrant. He checks to make sure the dog has been removed; at that time, he said, an owner may think “when the heat is off, we’ll bring the pit bull back to town.”
That doesn't always work: When Williams rings the doorbell, he may recognize the same dog's bark. Recently, when he rang the doorbell, a pit bull ran to the living room window and stuck his head under the curtains, barking at the officer.
“They think I won’t be watching. Well, I’ve charged them again — for the same pit bull."
As for attacks, there were “only” four charges of “animals that bite” for all of 2015.
“We’re up this year,” Williams said.
So far this year, at least up to July, a total of seven months, there have been 13 arrests for animals that bite.
Five of the 13 were for pit bulls.
“Not every incident of biting results in a ticket,” Williams said. “If you step on a dog and it bites you, that’s one thing, but if for no reason the dog chases you and bites you, that’s another.”
No matter how long Williams has been a police officer, it troubles him to see the damage from dog attacks, especially on kids; he’s a father, too, after all.
“It’s always disturbing when you see a child who is going to be scarred for life.”
But when you talk to him about the most recent mauling, that of a 10-year-old boy who is literally scarred for life, it’s not the scars he thinks of. He thinks how much worse it could have been.
“If there wasn’t an adult at the house, it could easily have been a fatality. That dog was so much bigger, so much stronger than him,” Williams said. “That dog would have killed him, or hurt him much worse, if the owner’s relative hadn’t come pull the dog off him.”