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from LA Times


New Rep as Killer Drives Up Demand for Presa Canario

March 17, 2002

By BETH SHUSTER, Times Staff Writer

As the mauling trial of two San Francisco lawyers nears its conclusion, breeders of the type of vicious dogs that killed lacrosse coach Diane Whipple are caught in a paradox. Business has never been better--but for all the wrong reasons.

The massive, boulder-headed Presa Canario is gaining in popularity as a result of the publicity surrounding the gruesome attack. They are the dog of choice for those who want the most explicit symbol of ferocity the pet kingdom has to offer, breeders and trainers say.

As with pit bulls, Rottweilers and German shepherds before them, some say it is a question of whether man's best friend is being bred to be man's worst enemy.

"They're looking for that designer weapon that could make them look tougher," said Tracy Hennings, a breeder in Cleveland who is the president of the Dogo Canario Club of America. "They want that tough, macho, big dog at the end of the chain, lunging and charging."

As a result, the Whipple case is drawing interest and concern from law enforcement officials, already alarmed by both the growing number of aggressive dogs and dog-bite cases.

"A gun doesn't have a mind of its own," said San Francisco Police Sgt. Bill Herndon, the city's vicious-dog hearing officer. "With a dog, the owner has to be even more vigilant."

Lawyers Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel, who housed the powerful dogs that killed neighbor Whipple, are on trial for involuntary manslaughter and keeping a mischievous dog. Knoller, who was with the dogs when they attacked Whipple in the hallway outside her apartment in January 2001, also faces a second-degree murder charge.

Closing arguments are set to begin Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court, where the trial was moved because of a torrent of pretrial publicity in San Francisco.

People Are Looking for 'Killer Dogs'

The case has served as a perverse advertisement for Presa Canario dogs, which were first imported to North America a little more than a decade ago. Breeders say they are receiving dozens and dozens of calls, faxes and e-mail messages requesting information about the 120-pound canine titans. Most, they add, are not exactly from people looking for a family pet.

"They want those 'killer dogs,' " said Dan Wilson, a Presa Canario breeder in Canada. "As soon as the dog killed that woman, they wanted them."

Wilson says Presa Canarios, which are loyal and not overly aggressive if purebred, are likely to be long stigmatized as a result of the gruesome San Francisco case.

"These dogs are going to be ruined," said Wilson, owner of Vulcan Kennels near Toronto. "It's going to catch on with lunatics before it gets a good base with serious owners."

Presa Canarios, which have large heads, muscular necks and low-slung bodies, were brought to America from the Canary Islands. Originally, the dogs were bred from English mastiffs and the now-extinct Bardino Majero. Long ago, they were used by butchers to hold down cattle and bulls while they were being slaughtered, and by farmers to pull heavy carts and for other tasks.

Since their arrival here, the breed has not been recognized by the American Kennel Club. But some breeders continue to produce only purebreds, saying they have superior coloring, size and temperament.

Others, however, are cross-breeding Presa Canarios with such aggressive canines as pit bulls and mastiffs. Those dogs, Hennings and others say, are larger, stronger and more violent.

Dogs Can Weigh Up to 140 Pounds

North American breeders are now producing crossbred males that weigh 120 to 130 pounds. In some cases, they weigh as much as 140 pounds and can cost $1,500 and up. Bane, the dog that attacked Whipple, weighed about 123 pounds; the second dog that participated in the mauling, Hera, weighed 112 pounds.

Although the killing of Whipple is the only known human death attributed to Presa Canarios, the case is drawing attention from authorities concerned about an increasing number of attacks by ferocious dogs.

The Los Angeles County health department say about 170,000 dog bites a year are reported in the county, 153,000 of those to children under the age of 12. Officials believe, however, that the true numbers are far higher because many bites are never reported.

From 1979 to 1996, there were 300 dog bite fatalities across the nation, according to a study by the Humane Society of the United States. Of those, Rottweilers were the most commonly reported breed involved, followed by pit bull-type dogs. Together, those two breeds were responsible for 60% of the deadly attacks.

"When you have dogs like pit bulls who are not trained or not well trained, it's like having a loaded gun," said Jackie David, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services.

In response, authorities are increasingly turning to force themselves. Last year, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department shot 53 dogs.

Bane and Hera, who were eventually euthanized, were crossbred Presa Canarios. Bane's ancestry included mastiffs and Great Danes. Knoller and Noel cared for the dogs after taking them from a farm where authorities believe they killed livestock and ripped fences.

Knoller testified last week that when she first saw the dogs, they were chained outdoors. Hera was barking and Bane, she said, was acting "like a wild animal."

Animal-care experts and others say Presa Canarios require rigorous training well before they turn 1 year old. In that way, they can be controlled and their aggressive tendencies reduced.

In the case of Bane and Hera, however, several experts said it was clear they did not receive adequate socialization or training in their early lives. Rather, authorities allege, the dogs were being raised illegally as part of a breeding ring of fighting dogs owned by two inmates in Pelican Bay State Prison.

"The monsters were created before they ever came into the hands of the defendants," said Richard H. Polsky, a Los Angeles animal-behavior specialist who was hired by the defense in the Whipple case but never testified at trial.

Still, even those who say responsible owners will provide their dog with proper training and socialization acknowledge that Presa Canarios are powerful, territorial animals.

On one Presa Canario Web site, photos are shown of the dogs with infants. But a cautionary note adds: "The Presa Canario is a very tame dog with the family. . . . However, he may not be a 'baby-sitter dog.' If the Presa is introduced in a family with children, it is necessary to teach the children how to treat and respect the dog for preventing any unfortunate inconveniences."

Another breeders' Web site-- BraveHeart Kennel in North Carolina--also acknowledges the reputation of the breed.

"With the naming of our dogs, we are not implying that our dogs are overly aggressive, loaded guns, lethal weapons or attack dogs. They are just firm guard dogs with Brave Hearts."

Fear, Excitement Said to Incite Dog's Biting

Breeders warn that Presa Canarios should not be wrestled with nor allowed to play tug-of-war games in which they grab rags and shake their heads vigorously. Such activities, in the words of breeder Tracy Hennings, can "build up the dog's bite drive."

To Hennings and others, Bane and Hera displayed classic aggressive tendencies. Hera appears to have been a fear biter, Hennings said. "They take real weak bites with the front of the mouth. They snap, they bite and they release." Authorities say Hera shredded Whipple's clothes in the attack.

Bane, however, appeared to be motivated by excitement, Hennings and others said, and was virtually unstoppable. Authorities say Bane bit Whipple's throat and was responsible for the most serious of the 77 bites on her body.

Breeders across the country, who are closely monitoring the trial, say it appears obvious that Knoller did not know how to properly handle her dogs, a prescription for potential disaster.

When Knoller encountered Whipple in the apartment hallway, she acknowledged in court, she "could not stop him [Bane] from doing what he was doing."

Said Canadian breeder Wilson: "She walked out with 250 pounds of dog on a leash. The thought of someone walking around like that blows my mind. It's sickening."

Breeders say well-trained Presa Canarios can serve as loyal guard dogs. Richard Kelly, who owns Show Stopper Kennels in Middlesex, N.J., says many of his calls for the breed come from families in which one parent is traveling and the spouse needs protection.

Several Presa Canario owners say their dogs are loving and well-behaved with their children. They would not attack unless someone was attempting to hurt them, the owners say.

But police, animal regulation officials and others say such large, aggressive dogs are also often used by gang members, drug dealers and others to protect them as they undertake their illicit activities.

"This breed," said Polsky, the animal-behavior specialist, "is increasing in popularity, and undoubtedly, this breed will fall into the wrong hands."

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times

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