Doggone It: A Dangerous Decree

Admittedly, I've never been a big fan of dogs. But a recent wave of pit-bull attacks in Italy has so frightened me that I've become uncomfortable about living in Rome. The attacks are chilling: a 43-year-old woman loses her leg while jogging; two men in their 80s out for a stroll are mauled to death. Worst, especially for me, is the 4-year-old boy in Turin who encountered a lone pit bull while out with his babysitter, who tried unsuccessfully to protect him. Within seconds, the beast literally gnawed off the youngster's face. Its owner, Vittoria Cavallaro, 67, showed up moments later with the leash. A little late.

We live on the same street as the owner of a pit bull, near Porta Latina. He walks his dog (or it walks him) down our block every morning. Our babysitter will take our children out only after 9:30 a.m., when he and his "pet" have passed. She loves dogs but is terrified of this one. And even I, usually more insouciant, will walk blocks out of my way just to avoid sharing the sidewalk with it. But just this week, as my 4-year-old and I were crossing our street, there they were. This time, the owner wasn't walking the pit bull but "motoring" it. Its leash was loosely wrapped around the handlebars of his moped as he sped by within a meter of us. The pit bull's yips and growls sent my son scrambling into my arms as the owner swerved through traffic, the dog galloping in tow. It would have taken nothing more than a quick jolt for that strong animal to break free and, perhaps, attack us. Luckily neither the dog nor my son sensed my real terror.

I am not alone. Italian authorities say the problem with pit bulls is grave and stems from the illicit dogfighting industry, worth around 15 million annually. The government estimates that as many as 16,000 fighting dogs are spread throughout the country, bred and trained solely to kill and maim--or, more to the point, to make money for their owners in dogfights. Many are heavily dosed with steroids and trained to bolster their strength and aggression. Retired fighters and their offspring are often sold into the population as guard dogs and novelty house pets.

To his credit, Italian Health Minister Girolamo Sirchia recently passed an emergency decree banning the "training of pit bulls or dogs of any other type aimed at exciting their natural aggression." It is now illegal for violent criminals or children to own dangerous dogs, and owners must take out an expensive third-party insurance policy to cover potential injuries. The dogs must also be kept on a lead and muzzled when in public.

It seems like a good idea on the surface. But the decree is so broad that it actually applies to 92 different breeds of dogs. Leading the pack are the obvious: pit bulls, Dobermans and Rottweilers. But the law considers cute little corgis, schnauzers and even Newfoundlands (those noble search-and-rescue dogs) as equally dangerous. Those owners must also muzzle their docile pets and pay the annual insurance premium.

Animal-rights groups are outraged. But what's more upsetting to me is another consequence. Since the decree, many dog owners who can't afford the new insurance have begun ditching their lethal pets. Late last week two abandoned pit bulls cornered a group of young children playing with a new puppy in a private courtyard in Rome. Luckily the police arrived in time to shoot one of the aggressive animals and capture the other, but not before the pit bulls had killed the puppy. The Animal Defense Society here warns: "There is now a risk that thousands of dogs will be abandoned as owners seek a way out of the problem." In other words, thanks to government help, my children and I may be in more danger than ever.