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A breed apart: Residents are divided over pit bull issue

A vicious dog attack against Kathleen Olmstead's Anatolian shepherd, Halee, has helped to spark a debate in Medford over laws that could ban dangerous dogs such as pit bulls.

Olmstead, a 63-year-old Ashland resident, had just taken Halee to a Medford vet on Sept. 27, 2013, when she stopped at Hawthorne Park so her dog could relieve herself.

Two pit bulls and another dog charged Halee, wrestling the 90-pound dog to the ground. One dog ripped at Halee's neck, another at her stomach and a third gnawed on her leg.

"I was really scared for her life," Olmstead said.

The owner of the dogs, a Medford transient, was unable to restrain them.

"During the attack, he sat down on the ground and put his hands over his head, and I was screaming and screaming," Olmstead said.

Some bystanders broke up the attack by punching and kicking the attacking dogs, which were later euthanized.

After $4,000 in veterinarian bills and being confined to a crate for two months, Halee has recovered, though she remains wary.

Olmstead made a presentation to the Medford City Council, but initially thought her pleas had fallen on deaf ears. She also appealed to councilors in Ashland because she's seen pit bulls in that city as well.

The attack on Olmstead's dog by pit bulls resonated with many councilors who have heard stories about attacks by that breed of dog. The reports include an attack last year on a woman walking her cockapoo, which was leashed to a stroller. A pit bull tried to drag the cockapoo and the stroller away from the woman.

Medford Councilor Karen Blair asked the Medford Police Department to look into the issue because she was familiar with other pit bull problems in the community.

The council, at the urging of Medford police, is considering several options, ranging from banning pit bulls to requiring sterilization of the animals.

Medford police have recorded 89 attacks by dogs in three years, of which just more than half were by pit bulls or pit bull mixes. Police also say pit bulls are the dog of choice at drug dealer houses.

Police Chief Tim George said he was surprised by the high number of attacks and believes it probably represents only a portion of the actual bites and attacks that have taken place within the city.

Other cities in the country have banned pit bulls, while many have opted for sterilization or muzzle laws. In some cases, cities have banned pit bulls and other dog breeds considered dangerous from city parks.

As the city looks at its options, other groups, including pit bull supporters, are urging the city not to take extreme measures.

Scott Beckstead, senior Oregon director for The Humane Society of the United States, said he would discourage the city of Medford from an outright ban on a particular breed.

"A breed-specific ordinance has the potential to be explosively divisive," he said.

Beckstead, whose wife owns a Labrador/pit bull mix, said he thinks other breeds such as cocker spaniels are more prone to bite, but pit bulls are a bigger dog and when they do bite they cause more damage.

"They have strong jaws, but there is no such thing as a locking jaw," he said, trying to dispel a commonly held belief about the jaws of pit bulls.

Beckstead said Oregon has an effective dangerous-dog law in place, and he thinks a newly enacted state tethering law, if followed, would limit the time dogs are chained up, which causes aggressive behavior.

"Any dog in the wrong hands can be dangerous," Beckstead said. "People out there that are wonderful owners have wonderful pit bulls; then there are the bad people."

Barbara Talbert, manager of the Jackson County Animal Care and Control Center, said pit bull mixes are the most common type of dog at the animal shelter in Talent.

She said her staff carefully evaluates the family situation before allowing the adoption because pit bulls have a particular kind of temperament that doesn't always make them suitable around other dogs.

"We watch how the kids and parents interact," she said.

On Friday, Talbert had three dogs in quarantine, all for biting someone. Two were pit bull mixes and one was a golden retriever. One of the pit bulls, which ripped open a woman's shoulder, may be euthanized, she said.

Her center is preparing statistics on pit bulls and other breeds to present to the city of Medford as the council weighs its options.

Most of the time a dog is brought in because it has bitten its owner rather than an innocent bystander, Talbert said. Many different breeds of dogs come to the shelter because they have bitten someone.

She is currently a foster parent for Thumper, a 9-month-old pit bull mix, who was given up by a family for nipping at their children.

"There was too much kid energy at the house," she said.

She said the dog's behavior is something that she is trying to discourage, and so far at her home, Talbert said, Thumper has been behaving well.

"I think he can grow out of that," she said.

She said Thumper will likely be given up for adoption to a home where there aren't children, or possibly sent to a rescue center in Salem.

Talbert said the animal shelter and the county haven't taken a position on some of the options being considered by Medford.

Pit bull owners have started Facebook pages that show their friendly looking dogs and are organizing to counter any potential bans in Medford.

Juston Menteer, a 33-year-old Central Point breeder of pure-bred pit bulls, said he would prefer the city of Medford not pass any laws against dogs, particularly banning a specific breed.

"We see the writing on the wall, that at some point they're trying to make the breed extinct," he said. "People that are responsible shouldn't be penalized."

Menteer said pit bull owners need to be responsible, and stricter laws should be directed at the owners of these dogs, not the dogs themselves.

"I'm not opposed to some sort of regulation, but a ban is excessive," Menteer said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow on Twitter at @reporterdm.

This pit bull was put in quarantine at the Jackson County Animal Care and Control Center after biting someone.