Los Angeles — Suddenly, pit bulls have become as hot a topic in local communities as sewer lines and spending caps. A recent series of highly publicized attacks by the muscular, aggressive canines is spurring a growing push across the country to control ``vicious'' dogs.
A number of cities and states have passed laws aimed at restricting all dogs that bite people. Others are weighing measures specifically designed to curb or control pit bulls.
Indeed, in isolated parts of the country a near-hysteria over the bulls has developed. Here in California, there are reports of hundreds of pit bull owners turning in their terriers to animal shelters to be put to sleep in the wake of recent attacks by the dogs. Owners are apparently concerned about being arrested, sued, or attacked.
At the same time, however, many pit bull owners and breeders are stepping forward to say that, no, their dogs are not the vicious villains they are portrayed to be. In some neighborhoods, dog owners have been discussing their views toe to toe with non-dog owners.
Moreover, a furor is erupting over the pit bull statutes. Many breeders and animal-welfare groups contend that singling out a particular breed is ``canine racism.'' They argue dog owners, not dogs, are the ones to blame, though most do support the generic vicious-dog statutes.
``Pit bulls are bringing into sharper focus the larger issue of irresponsible ownership,'' says Dr. Randall Lockwood of the Humane Society of the United States.
Concern over controlling vicious animals is a longstanding one. It has flared up from time to time with reports of serious dog attacks. Often the outrage is focused on one or two breeds. Yet rarely has so much venom been vented against a particular dog.
Ironically, the controversy comes at a time when the most egregious attacks by dogs have remained static. According to the Humane Society, there have been about a dozen fatal canine attacks in each of the last 10 years.
What has changed, however, is the dogs responsible for the assaults. Most of the earlier attacks were caused by German shepherds, malamutes, and St. Bernards. But since mid-1983, pit bulls have been responsible for 20 of the 28 dog-bite-related deaths in the US. Yet there is no firm evidence that pit bulls attack more frequently than other dogs.
Even so, the pit bull, originally bred in England to fight other animals, has a powerful jaw. It also often hangs on longer when it bites. The breed has become popular as a guard dog. Many animal experts believe most pit bulls involved in attacks were either sloppily bred or poorly trained and cared for.
However malevolent they are, cities and states are responding to complaints. This week the Los Angeles City Council approved an ordinance allowing local authorities to impound dogs that bite people and, after a hearing, destroy the animals in extreme cases.
City officials, though, decided against a breed-specific law.
``We have a dog-bite problem,'' says Robert Rush, head of the city's Department of Animal Regulation. ``You shouldn't separate out any breed.''
Illinois lawmakers also approved legislation this week that requires ``vicious'' dogs to be kept on run lines or in enclosed pens. At least three-dozen other communities and states have updated or added ``vicious'' dog statutes in the past two years.
Although some animal-rights' advocates consider these laws overreaching, the biggest debate revolves around the statutes aimed at pit bulls. Some 40 or so communities have enacted or weighed these kinds of restrictions in the past year. Hearings will be held next week in two communities - Waukegan, Ill., and Littleton, Colo., - on pit bull bans.
``The statistics are clear: Pit bulls are more dangerous than other breeds,'' says Larry Berkowitz, the Littleton city attorney.
Not so, say many breeders, nor is that the point. ``Any dog can be a biter,'' says Jim Wheat, a Chicago-area breeder. ``What we need are stiffer penalties for the owners of vicious dogs,'' Mr. Wheat says.