By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
Destiny Marie Knox was 16 months old when her baby sitter’s pit bull mauled and killed her in the woman’s Union County mobile home.
The dog, which had been chained in the yard, had slipped from its collar and entered the trailer while adults unloaded groceries from Walmart. No one apparently noticed as it followed Destiny into one of the bedrooms and tore into her face and neck, killing her instantly.
The wounds were so bad that Union County Deputy Coroner Rob Anderson said he wouldn’t allow the father to view the girl. Even after paying extra for facial reconstruction, family members said they had a closed casket funeral. She didn’t look the same, they said.
That was Nov. 5, 2009.
Two months earlier, Ayla Abel had been visiting her paternal grandparents in Tupelo when the pit bull she’d been raised with savagely attacked her while chained in the backyard.
Ayla was 18 months old at the time. She hadn’t seen the dog in about one year – it lived with friends after her family moved to Florida – but she seemed to remember the pet and toddled up to it in the backyard.
The dog, though, apparently didn’t remember Ayla. It lunged and grabbed onto her face, ripping her skin in some places and puncturing it in others. Had she wandered any closer, her family said, she likely would have been killed.
Ayla required more than 100 stitches and will need additional surgery when she turns 5 next year.
“I couldn’t look at her picture for two months,” said Ayla’s great-grandfather Bill Russell, “because I’d just cry.”
For the families of Ayla and Destiny, pit bulls are a dangerous breed that warrant stiff regulations by communities. The dogs should be licensed, leashed and monitored, they said, and their owners should carry liability insurance to cover hospital bills and, in the case of Destiny, funerals.
In neither case were the dog owners charged or held financially liable.
“Right now, her death is in vain and this is all that’s left,” said Cathy Blackwell, tearing up as she gestured to the grave of her granddaughter. “I just wish people would open their eyes.”
But for every family shattered by a pit bull attack, there’s another eager to defend the breed as loving and kind.
“It is all in how you raise any dog,” said proud pit owner Brandi Smith of Tupelo. “If you raise a dog to be a guard dog, to be protective, that is what you’re going to get. My dog is perfect. She’s beautiful, she’s healthy, she’s good with kids.”
Sugar sat lazily in the family’s fenced-in yard Wednesday as Smith’s children petted and poked and pulled at her. They lavished her with hugs and yanked her collar, trying to engage her in a game of rolling on the ground.
“I love her,” said the youngest child, 4-year-old Kayla.
When Sugar had enough, she gently hoisted her stout body from the grass and ambled to another part of the yard.
She never barked. She never growled, not even at two new people in her presence, including a man with a large camera flashing repeatedly in her face.
Yet according to Tupelo’s current ordinance, Sugar shouldn’t roam the backyard. She belongs in a secure pen marked with the words “Dangerous Dog,” and she needs to be permitted at the Tupelo-Lee Humane Society.
Smith, who was fined recently for not registering her dog, called those rules ridiculous and said the city needs to crack down on animals that pose real threats, whether they’re pit bulls or Pomeranians.
“If you take me to court because my dog bit somebody, yes, I can understand that,” she said. “But until you have proof I have a dangerous dog, don’t take me to court and make me pay fines and put up signs and a pen.”
Pontotoc County resident Tiffany Myers agrees. Her family has owned pit bulls since she was an infant and said they’ve been nothing but loyal and kind.
“My first baby sitter was a pit bull,” Myers said. “We lived on a highway, and I wasn’t allowed to go past the second car. Shug would push me back anytime I went out there.”
Now a mother of her own, Myers said she has no qualms about raising her own small children with her pit bull, Reflection. The dog is a treasured member of the family who loves and protects the kids.
“Don’t go after responsible dog owners who … take good care of our animals,” she said. “The city should go after irresponsible pet owners who let their dogs go loose.”
Tupelo’s current ordinance already labels pit bulls as dangerous and requires permits and extra precautions for the breed. A proposed amendment before the City Council would strengthen that law with additional rules, including mandatory sterilization and at least $100,000 in liability insurance.
Destiny’s paternal grandmother said she favors such rules.
“People should be allowed to have their pet,” said Ella Knox. “But they should be liable if it does something.”
The council is expected to vote on it Tuesday but faces opposition from pit owners and area veterinarians, including Stephen King of the Tupelo Small Animal Hospital, who said it unfairly punishes responsible residents.
King said breed alone doesn’t determine a dog’s behavior or likelihood to attack. He also said he’s been more afraid of some small dogs than he has of some pit bulls.
Smith echoed that statement, saying of all the dogs she has owned, a Chihuahua was the meanest.
But while all breeds can bite, pit bulls have caused 60 percent of U.S. canine-related fatalities even though they comprise just 5 percent of the U.S. dog population, according to 2005-2012 statistics from DogsBite.org, a national dog bite victims’ group.
Most victims were children, the organization reported. And many of the pits were family pets who attacked children unprovoked. In at least three cases, the pits killed infants as they slept in their bassinets.
At least three other dog attacks – two involving Huskies, one involving a Chow mix – also saw infants plucked from their bassinets and killed.
Rottweilers, German Shepherds and Huskies ranked high among the fatal incidents, but pit bulls and pit bull mixes topped them all.
Council members in support of the breed-specific ordinance say it’s common sense to acknowledge certain breeds carry more risk and to identify them outright. Ward 5 Councilman Jonny Davis is among this group and said people who own pit bulls know the breed’s history when they adopt the dog and should accept the extra responsibility.
Tupelo-Lee Humane Society Director Debbie Hood agreed. She said a large majority of animal-control calls involve pit bulls and that the breed can cause brutal damage to humans and other domestic animals.
The families who love their pit bulls still feel their pets should be judged as individuals, not as breeds. That’s also what Destiny’s mother thought before her daughter’s attack.
“Everybody I knew had pit bulls, and I never gave it much thought,” said Nicole Howard, who had felt comfortable leaving Destiny in the care of a pit bull owner.
But she now fears the breed, in part because of their strength and drive. Howard said the dog that killed Destiny not only mauled the girl, but refused to let go even after being stabbed 13 times by the baby sitter’s boyfriend.
Myers, the pit bull owner, called such incidents tragedies but said they can be avoided. Each animal is different, she said, and people need to trust their instincts about which dogs should be penned up and which can be let loose.
That’s what Russell thought, he said, before Ayla’s attack. Now he eyes each pit bull with suspicion.
“Even if your pit bull is sweet and gentle, they sense fear,” Russell said. “If you’re around even a docile dog, especially if it’s one you don’t know, that dog will pick up on it and act differently.”
If Tupelo passes its tougher ordinance next week, it will go into effect 30 days later and apply to all city residents with dangerous animals – and pit bulls automatically will be included.