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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Interview With James Hammer, Bonnie Beaver

Aired May 19, 2003 - 19:52   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Police in Westchester County, New York investigating the case of a woman whose quiet Friday evening ended in death at the jaws of a pit bull. A reporter Tony Aiello from reporter -- affiliate station, WCBS Television, here in New York City, has more now on what happened earlier this weekend.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TONY AIELLO, WCBS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 2-year-old Mr. B's (ph) days are numbered. He'll soon be destroyed. Friday at this home in Courtland he suddenly attacked and killed a 75-year-old tenant, Bonnie Page, and injured his owner, Nancy Delany. Neighbors say Mr. B (ph) seemed gentle and sweet, still they were surprised when Nancy Delany adopted him six weeks ago.

BARBARA PETULA, NEIGHBOR: We all felt, why are you walking a pit bull? And she stopped us all dead in the tracks and said, it's not a pit bull. She was assured by the shelter that it was not a pit bull.

MELODY LAROCCA, NEIGHBOR: She said that she didn't want a pit bull. And she told the shelter that.

AIELLO: Mr. B (ph) was adopted from the city-owned shelter in Mount Vernon. Delany's friends say officials here told Delaney Mr. B (ph) was an American Staffordshire terrier, not a pit bull. In fact, that terrier is one of three breeds commonly called pit bulls. This afternoon the mayor defended operations at the shelter.

MAYOR ERNIE DAVIS, MOUNT VERNON: I don't want to get carried away with whether it was a pit or not. The dog did not show aggressive behavior. The dog was in our care for over a year, and it was deemed adoptable.

AIELLO: Inside the Mount Vernon shelter, a picture display of dogs for adoption includes six pit bulls, but none are labeled as such. All are described by other names, such as Staffordshire terrier.

Delany's friends questioned why she was encouraged to adapt such an energetic, powerful breed.

LAROCCA: She's a woman with bad knees and a cane.

AIELLO: The Mount Vernon mayor says shelter operations will be reviewed. State police investigators say Mr. B (ph) will be destroyed and subjected to an autopsy. Tony Aiello, CBS-2 News.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HEMMER: This latest incident calls into question whether or not there should be a specific breed-specific law and restrictions banning the ownership of pit bulls. James Hammer, head of the homicide unit, the San Francisco's DA office, was the lead prosecutor in the case against Marjorie Knoller, convicted of involuntary manslaughter after her dogs attacked and killed a neighbor, Dianne Whipple, back in 2001.

College Station, Texas, Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a professor at Texas A&M Veterinary College. Dr. Beaver is a veterinarian who specializes in animal behavior. Good evening to both of you. Thanks for joining us tonight. Jim, you think there should be laws that restrict pit bulls. Tell us why.

Well, I first want to say that the first step that has to be taken is much more vigorous enforcement of zero tolerance policy for any kind of active aggression by a dog or certainly by a bite from a dog. But when you look at the history of dog attacks in America, certain breeds certainly stand out repeatedly as involved in these horrible, unprovoked attacks on children or elderly people. And pit bulls are on the top of the list.

HEMMER: What would zero tolerance mean?

JAMES HAMMER, DEP. DISTRICT ATTORNEY, SAN FRANCISCO D.A. OFFICE: Well, I mean, you have a case now where if a dog bites a person, it is put in quarantine and an animal care and control board decides what to do with the dog. I think we need to tighten that up even more, that if a dog acts aggressively to a stranger on the street, we ought to be taking these dogs out of people's hands.

HEMMER: Doctor, does Jim have a point?

BONNIE BEAVER, TEXAS A&M VETERINARY COLLEGE: Well, there are a couple of things that he missed in his discussion. First of all, the pit bull is not actually a breed. It's an anatomical description of several different breeds, and a lot of dogs that are in fact mixed breeds. The other thing that we have to be concerned about is there are approximately 20 different kinds of aggression that a dog can show that would be normal for them. And so every act of aggression made from the dog's perspective be justified.

(CROSSTALK)

HEMMER: Hang on second, Jim. The numbers don't lie, doctor. I want to get your response to this. Pit bull type dogs involved in 66 fatal attacks over 25-year period, far more than any other dog. Why not then if the numbers support this, given the size and the speed and the strength of these animals, doing something about it?

BEAVER: We have to look at a number of things. It isn't just the numbers, because we don't know how many pit bull types of dogs there are out there. If we had 1,000 of them and they bit 100 people, that is the same bite rate as a breed that had 100 dogs but had one bite. So the numbers are dependent on the population. We have a lot of labrador retrievers in this country, and if you also look at dog bite statistics, you'll find that a high number of bites are performed by labrador retrievers.

HEMMER: Can you defend that, Jim?

HAMMER: I'd like to ask the good doctor, how many golden retrievers kill little children and old people in their homes? I mean, common sense that ordinary Americans know that there are certain dogs that are inherently more aggressive. You don't need a Ph.D. to know that. Some of those are rottweilers, some of those are pit bulls, some of those are prestocnarios (ph) like the kind that killed Dianne Whipple, and I wonder, how many deaths is too much? Twenty to 25 people die a year in dog attacks, and as you pointed out, the majority of those, the vast majority, the highest number deals with the certain kinds of breeds of dogs, and they just don't belong in the company of small children and vulnerable elderly people.

BEAVER: If you actually look at dog bites statistics, you'll find that small breeds are every bit as aggressive as the large breeds.

HAMMER: I'm talking about fatalities.

BEAVER: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) large breeds if they bite, do more damage. And so the concern really shouldn't be the breed of dog, it should be how that dog is raised, because the type of raising that the animal has undergone is actually much more significant than the genetic pool from which it came.

HEMMER: We're tight on time, and I apologize for that. Jim Hemmer, final comment today. Make it quick, if you could, please.

HAMMER: I think the doctor is right, you have to focus on people's individual behavior. But I wonder, you know, when is too many deaths enough. I think one death from a dog is far too many.

HEMMER: Dr. Bonnie Beaver in Texas, Jim Hammer, the DA there in San Francisco, thanks for sharing tonight.

HAMMER: Thank you.

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