UPDATE Feb. 17, 2021
The Municipality of Anchorage has now answered the request to review its records, as stipuled by state law, to try to determine where, if and to what extent there have been problems caused by unleashed dog accompanied by their owners. This is the official answer:
“At this time, we cannot fulfill your records request. It would require staff research and data analysis for upwards of 150 hours in order to collect the 2020 records related to dog bites. We are not required to fulfill requests if we do not have a report that provides the information requested or if they require conducting research or analyzing data. This request falls under both of those categories. Staff would need to research all complaint records to find those relating to bites, analyze which of those were dog bites and considered confirmed bites, and then compile this information into a viewable report for you.”
A proposal to require dogs be leashed wherever they venture with their owners within the Municipality of Anchorage – an area larger than the state of Rhode Island – has inspired a raging debate in Alaska’s largest city.
On one side are the lovers of what has been called “man’s best friend,” some firmly committed to the belief that Fido, or at least their Fido, can do no wrong.
On the other side are those who fear Fido as more dangerous than the moose and bears, both black and grizzly, that roam the municipality. All three of the latter have killed adults in the Anchorage area.
There appear to have been no adults killed by dogs, but children have fallen victim. A six-year-old died just 12 years ago after being attacked by her family’s pitbull. She was bitten in the neck while “playing” with the dog in the family’s mobile home, according to the website DogsBite.org, which tracks dog attacks.
Homes are the site of most serious dog attacks and, sadly, children are most often the victims.
“More than 50 percent of all dog bite victims are children,” according to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which oversees a highly respected children’s hospital. “While only 12 percent of adults require medical treatment, 26 percent of all children need to go to the emergency room or see a doctor. The most likely place for the attack to occur is in the home of the victim. The second most likely place is at the home of a friend of the victim. Seventy-seven percent of biting dogs are owned by the victim’s family, a relative or a friend of the family.”
The dangerous places
Dogs in the home are well-documented as a potential threat to children, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), which in 2001 organized a Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions to examine what might be done about what it called “a serious public health problem.”
The report bluntly laid out the good and the bad in the relationship between canines and humans:
- “Dogs have shared their lives with humans for more than 12,000 years, and that coexistence has contributed substantially to humans’ quality of life.
- “Approximately 334,000 people are admitted to U.S. emergency departments annually with dog bite-associated injuries, and another 466,000 are seen in other medical settings.
- “The insurance industry estimates it pays more than $1 billion per year in homeowners’ liability claims resulting from dog bites.
- “Hospital expenses for dog bite-related emergency visits are estimated at $102.4 million. (And) there are also medical insurance claims, workmen’s compensation claims, lost wages, and sick leave-associated business costs that have not been calculated.”
The report conceded that the only way to fully eliminate these problems would be to ban the ownership of dogs, but it suggested there were things communities could do to decrease problems and increase safety.
The report also offered a warning about responding to public-demands to blindly “do something” because “the something that is done often reflects a knee-jerk response. Only later do officials realize that the response was not effective and, in fact, may have been divisive for the community.”
Alaska’s largest city is today in the midst of the divisive.
The local newspaper has featured dueling commentaries on the evils of dogs running free with their owners and the horrors of forcing owners to keep their animals always chained to them like canine slaves when out and about.
Most Anchorage residents are dense packed into what is called the “Anchorage Bowl,” a 112-square-mile patch of relatively flat land squeezed between Cook Inlet and the Front Range Chugach Mountain. But even around the rim of the bowl, there are any number of low-density, residential neighborhoods where dogs and their owners can go for a walk on the road (sidewalks are largely non-existence outside the city’s 50-year-old urban core) and encounter few or sometimes no other people.
The same is true on some of the many trails in the city and in the large sprawl of vacant public land and parks, including the half-million-acre Chugach State Park, that abut the city to the east and north.
Still, even in winter, some of these trails are busy with walkers, runners, skiers, fat bikers, snowshoers and more. The situation is complicated.
The majority of Anchorage residents would likely agree there are places where dogs should be required to be on the leash, and others where well-socialized dogs that respond to commands are OK running off leash.
None of these areas have been delineated at this time, and how much of a problem dogs are in general on municipal walkways, trails and roads is unclear. Michelle Sinnott, vice-chair of the Animal Control Advisory Board, directed questions about the issue to Tamiah Liebersbach with the municipality’s Department of Health and Human Services.
“Tamiah should be able to provide you with some of the statistics that you are asking about,” Sinnott emailed. “Statistics being what they are, I don’t know that the numbers we have will be able to answer all of your questions (like which incidents involve children versus adults). But, Tamiah can provide you what we have.”
What information the city turns out to have is little.
“From 2016-2020, there were an average of 503 dog bites per year reported to Anchorage Animal Care and Control,” Liebersbach reported.
Nothing + nothing + nothing
How many of those bites involved unleashed dogs accompanied by their owners on trails, sidewalks, streets or the public parts of residential areas where the proposed new ordinance would require dogs be leashed at all times?
She didn’t know.
How many of the bites happened on public property in general? She didn’t know.
How many happened in homes or on private property where the leash law wouldn’t apply? Didn’t know. How many bites were serious? Didn’t know. How many involved children? Didn’t know. How many involved loose dogs that have escaped from their owners? Unknown.
Apparently, some of this data exists but has never been pulled together to define the extent of the dog problem in Anchorage.
“I have requested an estimate for the staff time required to provide you with these records and will get back to you with an estimated charge for your request sometime next week,”Liebersbach offered. “The Municipality charges for the time it takes to search for, retrieve, and redact records as necessary at a rate of $40 per hour for any time over 15 minutes.”
An email noting that state law stipulates that “the public records of all public agencies are open to inspection by the public under reasonable rules during regular office hours,” accompanied by an offer to sit down and go through the records to try to define the problem went unanswered.
Nationally, the best data on dog bites is almost two decades old. It was compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2001 and estimated 4.7 million dog bites per year in the U.S., 799,700 of which required some kind of medical care.
Since then, there have been but a handful of local and regional studies conducted, and the results generally track the conclusions drawn in the CDC report. Given this, an attempt can be made to analyze the Anchorage data using the CDC findings.
The CDC study would dictate about 17 percent of dog bites require medical attention. At that rate, Anchorage would have seen an average of 86 serious bites – discounting any psychological injuries – from 2016 to 2020.
The CDC reported noted that the injuries were heavily weighted toward those under age 18, and that 80 percent of the minors who were bitten were in their home or that of a friend when injured.
The report also observed that “75 percent of fatal dog bites were inflicted on family members or guests on the family’s property,” but did not report the percentage of bites in general that happened on private property.
Local government officials in Washington, D.C. report “85 percent of bites occur at the owner’s home.’‘ The percentage is unknown in Anchorage, but given the data from other communities, it is likely more than 50 percent and certainly less than 100 percent.
At the 50 percent rate, Anchorage might be witnessing somewhere around 40 significant dog bites per year on public property somewhere, but the number could be well less than that. No one has done the analysis to find out.
Bites, of course, are not the only injuries caused by dogs. Free-running dogs have collided with and injured cyclists in the municipality, and aggressive dogs have terrorized some Anchorage residents.
To what extent these issues would be reduced by the proposed new leash law is, however, is wholly on known at this point has made any effort to define the factual extent of the existing problem.
Thus the problem is both as big as some people think and as small as others believe because the entire discussion is taking place in the world of opinion sans facts. Why?
That’s another question with no answer.