Who let the dogs out? Ever since an unleashed pit bull named Capone attacked another unleashed dog Sept. 8 and then bit the woman who tried to break up the fight, injuring both, parks and coffee shops and the letters page of the Missoulian have been buzzing with anxiety and fear. It didn’t help when Capone became a repeat offender weeks later—though Capone was put down, the issue continued to pick up steam. City Council has discussed the matter several times, and a working group has formed to talk over the possibility of increasing fines and rewriting the laws. Talk of banning particular breeds even surfaced, though cooler heads had the sense to see that wasn’t the answer. By all appearances, Missoula seems to be in the throes of a St. Bernard-sized barking fit.
So what does all the sound and fury signify? Not much, as it turns out.
Ed Franceschina, director of Animal Control, says there were 153 reported dog bites last year. As of the end of October, there had been between 80 and 100 reported bites, which indicates a marked decrease in dog-on-human violence, even as the number of people (and their dogs) in Missoula continues to rise.
“Dog bites are not going up,” Franceschina says. “If anything, they’re holding steady or going down, which is good because the number of dogs in the county is going up.”
What has increased is media coverage of the bites, he says. No longer, apparently, does the story have to be “Man Bites Dog” to warrant front-page coverage (though the tag-team pit bull/German Shepherd attack on a llama that made the cover of the Whitefish Pilot this week certainly puts an interesting twist on the tired narrative…).
Dog issues do need to be discussed, he says, especially as the city’s population rises. And like many city statutes, dog laws could probably stand some updating. Perhaps fines should be increased, he says, from the current $25 ticket for at-large dogs. But he’s not saying whether he would support the dramatic increase—to $150—that some have been talking about. He says he’s checking what other cities charge and comparing it to other local fines, and he’ll eventually make a recommendation. But he wants any changes to be reasonable.
“You don’t want to go and make an at-large ticket that’s unreasonable,” he says. “And yet you want to get their attention.”
We’re glad that authoritative, informed, local voices are tuned in to the unfortunate possibility that we, as Missoulians, might overreract and commit to an overly aggressive law in the heat of the moment. We agree Capone acted like a very bad dog, and there are plenty of others that should be leashed, too. But let’s also keep a grip on our own reactions.