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Debate over pit bulls is reignited after death of boy in Lowell

Neighborhood children looked at the memorial to the 7-year-old boy who was mauled to death Saturday in Lowell.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

After a spate of horrific pit bull attacks, Lowell officials tried to address the problem in 2011 by requiring pit bulls to be spayed or neutered as well as muzzled and leashed when off their owners’ property.

But a year later, the state Legislature took that power away from Lowell, Boston, and other communities by prohibiting cities and towns from adopting breed-specific ordinances.

Now, some local officials, sparked by a vicious pit bull attack that killed a 7-year-old boy in Lowell on Saturday, are demanding that municipalities once again be granted the power to regulate or ban the breed.

Rodney Elliott, a Lowell city councilor who supported the city’s original pit bull ordinance, said he believes the dogs are dangerous and local officials have a responsibility to protect residents.


“We ban chickens in the city but we won’t ban pit bulls — that makes absolutely no sense to me,” Elliott said Monday. “How many losses of lives do we have to experience before we realize that, at least in cities, we need to ban these dogs?”

Governor Deval Patrick signed the 2012 state law blocking local ordinances after animal advocates argued that breed-specific regulations are not effective in reducing attacks.

“Overall, there have been no studies that have shown that targeting a specific breed works to prevent dog bites,” said Kara Holmquist, director of advocacy at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which supported the state law. “Our position has always been, ‘Well, wait a minute — what are the factors that have led to this?’ We need to look at this problem much more in-depth.”

The Centers for Disease Control said there were 36 fatal dog attacks nationwide in 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available. While studies have found that pit bulls are frequently involved in such attacks, the CDC, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and the Lowell Police Department each said they do not track attacks per breed.


Researchers say the data are notoriously difficult to collect because the pit bull designation actually encompasses four types of dog — the American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, and American bully. In addition, many large dogs involved in serious attacks are mistakenly identified as pit bulls, researchers say.

Julia Doane, with the MSPCA in Methuen, worked with a 2-year-old female pit bull named Sammi.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The American Veterinary Medical Association says controlled studies have not found pit bulls to be “disproportionately dangerous” compared to other dogs.

Holmquist said policy makers should focus on better training and supervision of dogs, spaying and neutering, veterinary care, and adequate funding for local animal control officers.

“This is such a horrific incident, but it’s not representative of the majority of pit bulls that are living in homes across Massachusetts,” she said. “Most are never going to have any incidents. It’s extremely rare.”

Supporters of tougher regulations acknowledge that fatal dog attacks are very rare but point out the majority of deaths and serious injuries are blamed on pit bulls.

“We’re not saying you shouldn’t have dogs. We’re saying there are some breeds that, because of their behavior, unless they’re corrected, don’t do well in urban America,” said Alan Beck, a professor of animal ecology and director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine. “You can see the analogy to guns. We’re not saying you can’t have guns. We’re saying you can’t have an Uzi.”


Beck said people should not be surprised by pit bull attacks because those dogs have been bred to bite and hold, just as pointers have been bred to point and herding dogs to herd.

“The pit bull has become a cause to protect, rather than try to correct, and that is a sad problem and is not appreciated by animal lovers,” he said. “If you look at individuals, yes, many are fine. But if you look in the aggregate, you have an outcome that is very socially costly. We outlaw products that have a much lower fatality rate than pit bulls.”

Authorities have not released the name of the boy who was killed Saturday, or the name of the dog owner, and no charges have been filed. Witnesses have said they heard screams and saw two pit bulls dragging a boy in a driveway protected by a chain-link gate.

One dog had the child by his neck and one by his legs. One dog escaped but was captured and euthanized Saturday night, authorities said. The other was taken by animal control.

The dogs were on their owner’s property so would not have had to be muzzled under the city’s 2011 ordinance.

A 2013 study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association examined 256 fatal dog attacks between 2000 and 2009 and found several common factors that suggested many of the deaths were preventable.


The study said that, in many cases, the owner had failed to neuter the dog; the dog was isolated from regular positive human interactions; and the owner abused or neglected the dog or kept it in an area where it was trapped or alone. Such conditions, the study said, make dogs more likely to act defensively and bite.

“I’m not going to put my finger on pit bulls and say, ‘That’s the problem.’ It’s not,” said Jeffrey J. Sacks, a retired epidemiologist who coauthored the study and spent more than two decades studying dog-bite fatalities at the CDC. “Any breed can inflict a lot of damage if so inclined.”

Sacks likened the frequent calls to ban pit bulls after a fatal attack to the recent efforts by gun-control advocates to ban the mechanical attachment that allowed the man who killed 58 people in Las Vegas to fire his semiautomatic rifle like a machine gun.

“Going after a particular breed with legislation, it’s almost like thinking you’re banning a bump stock, so you’re going to solve the problem of mass shootings,” he said. “It’s an overly simplistic approach that won’t work because the problem is multidimensional.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.