On March 31, 2014, nine-year-old Nicholas Blake went to play with his friends, one of whom was an 8-year-old girl. Blake’s rescued Pit Bull Terrier mix, Tinkerbell, also joined the fun with a ball of her own.
When Tinkerbell punctured the ball and went to bury it, the little girl held the ball over the dog’s head. As Tink jumped to retrieve it, she hit the girl in the mouth and the bite tore her lip, requiring stitches.
The incident went to trial in the Circuit Court of Wayne County, West Virginia, overseen by Judge Darrell Pratt, where Tinkerbell was ordered to be humanely euthanized.
But there are two questions that must be answered to dictate this:
1) Did Tinkerbell, without justification, attack and cause serious injury or death.
2) Did she have a previously known propensity for violent behavior, at which times she also caused serious injury or death?
… no person shall own, keep, or harbor any dog known by him to be vicious, dangerous, or in the habit of biting or attacking other persons, whether or not such dog wears a tag or muzzle. Upon satisfactory proof before a circuit court or magistrate that such dog is vicious, dangerous or in the habit of biting or attacking other persons or other dogs or animals, the judge may authorize the humane officer to cause such dog to be killed.
In some states dogs live by a “one-bite rule,” meaning the owner is only held liable if he/she knows the dog is likely to be aggressive. Of course, the owner could claim ignorance, but the first bite would put the dog on a state’s radar, so to speak. On the other hand, “statutory strict liability states” adopt a much harsher policy in which the owner is held liable even with no previous knowledge of violent behavior.
Upon satisfactory proof before a circuit court or magistrate that [a] dog is vicious, dangerous, or in the habit of biting or attacking other persons or other dogs or animals, the judge may authorize the humane officer to cause such dog to be killed.
This is where Michael and Kim Blatt, Tinkerbell’s owners, found their chance to save her life. Their dog by no means was “in the habit of” this type of behavior. Additionally, the two believed there was not proof enough to delineate Tink as an aggressive dog.
According to Mr. Blatt’s testimony, Tinkerbell loves to fetch and play ball, and has never shown aggressive tendencies before. The only witnesses to the incident reported that the girl took the ball from the dog and held it up as if to throw it, and then Tinkerbell bit her by accident trying to get the toy. Also, the witnesses and owners saw Tink retreat to the house immediately after it happened. As a result, the court’s decision was found to be unjustified.
Judge Pratt ordered Tinkerbell to be euthanized upon the belief that all Pit Bulls are inherently vicious, dangerous, and unpredictable. Because of the evidence provided (and the fact that poor Tink hid the entire time in the courtroom) the trial concluded that the answer to our first question (whether Tinkerbell was inherently vicious) is that she is not. The answer to the second is consistent, as the Tinkerbell had never had any previous offenses.
As for determining the merit behind the opinion that Pit Bulls are violent dogs by nature, books could be written on the topic, and they have been. Eugene Volokh writes in the Washington Post:
“Any dog may certainly be considered “dangerous” in that all dogs are ‘able or likely to inflict injury or harm.'”
As young Nicholas very astutely pointed out, dogs have no hands, so they use their mouths to hold things. Mouths have teeth and teeth are sharp. Anyone or anything on the other end may be bitten or harmed.
This case went all the way to the West Virginia Supreme Court, where individuals determined that the evidence provided was not proof enough to label Tinkerbell as a violent dog:
[Her] behavior did not “[constitute] an ‘unprovoked attack’ that was ‘intended to dominate or master’ the injured child. [The high courts] believe it just as likely, if not more so, that the child was accidently (sic) bitten during what both the dog and child perceived as the course of play.
The underlying question is at which point is it warranted that a dog be euthanized after biting a person or animal? The answer varies widely across states, and depends heavily on the situation. This time, we’re thrilled the law worked in Tinkerbell’s favor and that she gets to remain with her family.
If you’d like to know more about the euthanasia laws in your state, visit the American Medical Veterinary Association‘s by-state chart.