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Dog laws need strengthening, county residents complain 

BITING BACK: Victim of dog attack fights for stricter penalties for pet owners.
  • BITING BACK: Victim of dog attack fights for stricter penalties for pet owners.

It’s not lions, tigers, or bears that keep Hilaro Springs residents in their homes. It’s dogs — because, some people say, the animal control laws don’t have the bite they need.

Dog attacks have prompted cities statewide to ban or consider banning pit bulls. Little Rock’s board of directors is considering a ban on pit bulls, as is Jacksonville’s; North Little Rock has already banned pit bulls from the city. Since North Little Rock’s ban was enacted, the number of pit bulls in Little Rock has gone up, and so have the number of pit bull bites, said Tracy Roark, Little Rock animal services manager.

(Most bans aren’t limited to pit bulls, but include pit bull lines, such as Staffordshire terriers and American bulldogs.)

According to Little Rock animal services records, the percentage of reported dog bites from pit bulls in 2004 was 16.5 percent. That rose to 19 percent in 2005, the year North Little Rock’s ban went into effect. In 2006, the percentage of bites caused by pit bulls in Little Rock jumped to 35 percent (47 of 135), and is the same percentage to date for 2007, with 19 of 55 bites coming from pit bulls.

Two residents of Hilaro Springs, a community south of Little Rock, were the victims of dog attacks, and their encounters illustrate the way county ordinances handle dog bite-incidents.

John Swillum, a computer network engineer and early-morning jogger, was attacked by a pit bull while jogging down Hilaro Springs Road in August 2006. According to the incident report, Swillum’s face and shirt were covered with blood from the dog leaping directly at his face.

Eight months later, another jogger, Matt Patton, was bitten by a Great Dane on his right arm and lower right leg. Patton’s wounds were “oozing” with blood, according to the sheriff’s report, which said the animal had not been properly restrained.

Both dogs belonged to Allison Neeld, a long-time resident of the neighborhood. She was charged in Pulaski County district court with failure to control animals, fined $105 in both cases and placed on probation. The dogs were confiscated while rabies tests were run, but were returned.

Swillum sued her in small claims court and won an award of $884.55, but Neeld has not paid the money, which is accruing interest.

Neeld says she had the Great Dane put down, but denies that her dogs are vicious animals. She said her Great Dane was “labeled” as the one that attacked Patton, but that it could have been a neighbor’s dog.

Neeld — who also has another pit bull, a new Great Dane (though neighbors dispute that) and a cocker spaniel — said her dogs would not “bite a hot biscuit” unless they were provoked, and she said the dogs’ veterinarian at East End Animal Care would agree.

However, a clinic official, who asked to remain unnamed, said that one of Neeld’s pit bulls was even-tempered but the second was too aggressive to be walked during its last visit, and clinic workers had to call Neeld to walk the dog herself.

Swillum and Patton both say they think the injuries caused by dogs are more severe than the penalties for dog owners.

“I don’t think [Neeld] is a bad person,” Swillum said, “and the dogs are not bad dogs, but they make a terrible combination. … If a person had done this [attacked someone, causing bodily harm], they would be in jail.”

“Because there is no real recourse for the victims, [dog owners] have no basis for any responsibility,” Swillum said. “There is no real damage inflicted on [them].”

Swillum suffered nerve damage from the attack and has permanent numbness in parts of his face, which he said complicates some daily tasks.

“When I lie down at night, I cannot feel the pillow on my face from my cheek to my eye. When my daughters kiss me at night, they have to kiss me on the left side because I cannot feel on the right side,” Swillum said.

“What would’ve happened if a child had been running down the road?” asked Patton, who said he fears Neeld’s dogs will attack again. “There is no way a child could’ve gotten out of that situation,” he added.

Neeld, who works during the day, said her dogs are in the house until she returns in the evening. Then, she said, her teen-age daughter helps keep the dogs inside the fence surrounding her home.

Deputy Chris Schmeckenbecher, the officer who responded to Swillum and Patton’s attacks, wrote in a police statement that Neeld’s fence “appeared to be chicken wire with a gate that utilized a chain and pieces of wood to secure it.”

Patton said Neeld’s dogs are not the only ones that he has encountered; he compared his neighborhood to a “war zone” and does not feel safe. Patton keeps a written record of each time he is chased and carries pepper spray for protection.

Neeld said that since the incidents, she has willingly complied with everything Pulaski County asked her to do, namely caging her Great Dane and putting her pit bulls on leashes. But she said some of her neighbors do not keep their dogs in a fenced area.

“I follow the law. I’m not following what my neighbors do. What my neighbors do is their business,” Neeld said.

Neeld said Patton was attacked after children in the neighborhood opened her gate and released the dogs. She said she thinks the children’s parents should take partial responsibility.

She said Swillum taunts her animals as he jogs past her house by throwing rocks at them or coming onto her property, a move she said led to his attack. She also said children in the neighborhood provoke her dogs for fun by running sticks along the fence.

But Neeld’s neighbor, Richard Thompson, who has seen the dogs act aggressively, said Neeld’s dogs are a real problem in the neighborhood. Thompson, who is disabled, said he is afraid to check the mail because he knows he could not get away from Neeld’s dogs if they were to chase him. He said he is not the only one with such fears.

“It is a bad situation when neighbors are afraid to walk up and down the street,” he said.

Thompson said neighbors are petitioning the county judge to forbid Neeld from owning dogs.

“It’s not fair. I go to work and come home. … I don’t bother them [neighbors]. I just want to be left alone,” Neeld said.

Pulaski County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tonia Goolsby said the ordinances on dog attacks are geared toward removing the animal instead of punishing the owner. Most of the time, nothing is done when owners do not control their animals until an incident occurs, Goolsby said. Swillum said he thinks laws should be more proactive. He believes “irresponsible” dog owners should not be allowed to own dogs.

District Judge Wayne Gruber, who ruled in both of Neeld’s cases, said it is the court’s policy to dismiss charges after six months if owners have taken adequate steps to control their dogs and have not had any repeat offenses during probation.

“We just don’t have a good criminal statute that sets out criminal liability for dog owners, or past problems with a specific dog,” Goolsby said. “We just don’t have a lot of really good laws to cover it. I wish that we did.”

— Marcey Evans

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