No bad dogs, just bad owners

Her name was Maria Eliza Sebastian Ruiz, 77 years old. She was married 60 years, a mother of five, a grandmother. She died early July 6 on her front porch in Phoenix, mauled by a pack of four hulking Staffordshire terrier mixes.

Pit bulls, to use the common parlance.

The dogs’ owner, Alejandro Hernandez, 33, is in jail charged with negligent homicide. It’s a Class Four felony that carries a minimum one year behind bars and 3-year-9-months max. Personally, I hope Hernandez serves every last day, because the police report details negligence in the extreme.

“(Hernandez) stated the dogs belong to him and are known to escape from his backyard,” the investigator wrote. “Def. admitted to multiple occasions where his dogs escaped from his backyard and would wander around the neighborhood. 

“Def. admitted to prior incidents of the dogs biting other people at least two times. Def. knew the gate from which the dogs escaped from was faulty and needed to be repaired or reinforced in order to prevent the dogs from escaping. Def. stated he did not make any changes to the gate because he did not have time.”

He’ll have plenty of time now. 

Hernandez’s pit bulls immediately were put down by Maricopa County Animal Control. Their euthanizing was a no-brainer. 

But the story of Maria Eliza’s killing raises a larger question: Should Arizona cities and towns allow people to own pit bulls at all?

In 2016, the state Legislature passed Senate Bill 1248, which forbids breed-specific legislation like the pit-bull bans passed by more than 900 cities nationwide. 

This could easily be reconsidered, in light of Maria Eliza’s death and the fact that in 2019 pit bulls accounted for 33 killings – 69 percent of the 48 dog bite fatalities reported nationwide.  

No other dog bites or kills so frequently. No other dog fills Maricopa County’s animal shelters to overflowing. No other dog makes headlines so often. 

In February, a loose pit bull attacked three Gilbert residents, including a 16-year-old girl and a 70-year-old man.

On Christmas Day 2020, a pit bull turned on its 39-year-old owner in Phoenix, tearing up her face and hands and leaving her in critical condition.

Last summer in Casa Grande, Lorenzo Hidalgo, 42, went to check on his grandmother, but was met instead by three loose pit bulls. The dogs reportedly lunged at his neck. Hidalgo was airlifted to a Valley hospital, where he was filled with stitches and staples.

I could go on, but you get the idea: There’s a long roll call of the maimed and the dead. Yet on the other side of the argument stands canine experts like the ASPCA, who argue for nurture ahead of nature. 

“All dogs, including pit bulls, are individuals,” reads the official ASPCA position. “Treating them as such, providing them with the care, training and supervision they require, and judging them by their actions and not by their DNA or their physical appearance is the best way to ensure that dogs and people can continue to share safe and happy lives together.”

Late into their sixties, my parents adopted a pit bull from the pound: Jake, a brindle behemoth who followed my mother everywhere. She was the dog’s big love in life, up there with dropped food and lying on “his couch.” 

Jake outlived my mom and my dad, and now resides with my brother. He’s a sweet boy, raised in a house full of love, treated with respect and care. 

It’s been 10 years and I’ve never heard Jake so much as growl. I view him as proof that Alejandro Hernandez deserves prison time. Because there are no inherently bad dogs, only bad owners.

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