It’s been nearly five years since the bloody and naked body of 57-year-old Klonda Richey was found in the snow in her front yard after the Dayton resident was mauled by her neighbors’ two mixed-mastiff dogs.
But despite Richey’s gruesome death — and other fatal maulings like the April 2017 death of Maurice Brown of Dayton — Ohio lawmakers have shown little interest in strengthening state law.
Just ask state Sen. Bill Beagle, R-Tipp City, whose legislation two years ago failed to win final approval in the waning days of the 2015-2016 legislative cycle.
Beagle, who is term-limited and will leave the Senate in January, is at it again with Senate Bill 195, which seeks to toughen penalties on owners whose pets kill or seriously injure humans.
But Beagle says the bill, which he introduced in September 2017, will not likely make it through the House and Senate before the current two-year legislative session ends next month.
“Vicious dogs are generally a low priority call until something horrific happens,” Beagle said. “It’s hard to get legislators’ attention.”
It’s not impossible to change Ohio’s animal laws. It used to be that Ohioans could keep alligators, lions and bears at home because the state’s exotic animal laws were so lax. Then lawmakers ushered in strict regulations for exotic animal ownership after Terry Thompson released more than 50 wild, dangerous animals from their cages in Zanesville and forced local law enforcement to hunt and kill bears, lions, tigers and monkeys as they roamed free.
But legislation involving dogs has had a tougher road, as lawmakers weigh protecting possible victims against preserving the rights of dog owners. Arriving at a consensus on the right legislative fix has been difficult, Beagle said.
‘They need to pass some kind of reform’
If Beagle’s bill fails again, state Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, who was re-elected on Nov. 6, said he will pick up the issue in the next legislative session.
That would make Antani the fifth area lawmaker — after Beagle and state Rep. Jeff Rezabek, and former Reps. Terry Blair and Roland Winburn — to try to get reforms passed since 2014.
Survivors of attacks, along with family members of victims, have pressed lawmakers to make changes.
“They need to pass some kind of reform,” David Brown, Maurice Brown’s brother, said last week. “If it’s not criminal, some civil penalties to make people understand that these dogs come with a cost of ownership.”
The legislative inaction angers Tierney Dumont of Miami Twp., whose 8-year-old daughter, Savannah Coleman, was attacked from behind by a neighbor’s pit bull July 28 as she played with friends down the street.
“We heard someone screaming and we thought it was play,” Dumont said. “A minute later, one of the kids came down the street. I took off running, no shoes, no nothing.”
Savannah suffered from a skull fracture, nine lacerations to her scalp, three lacerations to her right ear, and two lacerations and a puncture wound to her right hand. She required hundreds of stitches, a blood transfusion and five nights in the hospital, Dumont said.
Savannah is recovering from her physical injuries but still requires weekly counseling, her mother said. “It’s been a rough road. We’re dealing with it and continuing to deal with it the best we can.”
That same night that Savannah were brought to Dayton Children’s Hospital, two other kids were being treated after they were attacked by dogs, Dumont said.
“This is happening to kids — little children — and still, there is nothing being done about it,” she said.
64,735 dog bites
Carol Miller of suburban Cleveland said she is still recovering from a dog attack she suffered in 2007 while riding her horse along a trail. Since then, she has lobbied for stronger laws and against protections for owners of dangerous dogs.
“Until the owners of violent dogs are held accountable Ohio residents will continue to die, Ohio children will continue to be disfigured, Ohio pets will be lost,” said Miller, adding that there is a financial toll as well.
In her testimony in favor of Beagle’s bill, Tequila Ann Williams-Madison of Columbus recounted how her grandmother was fatally attacked by a pit bull in front of Williams-Madison’s young daughters and her sister in July 2015.
Although such fatal encounters are relatively rare, dog bites are not. Data collected by the Ohio Department of Health show there were 64,735 dog bites reported across the state to local health departments between 2013 and 2017.
When dogs do kill, their owners often face few consequences.
Brown, 60, died of blood loss after being attacked by a pit bull that broke free of its restraint while in the backyard of the home at 345 Middle St. in Dayton.
The owner of the dog, Anthony Austin, faced misdemeanor charges.
After Richey’s death, the dogs’ owners pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor counts of failure to control dogs.
“When a breed has been deemed to be as vicious as a pit bull or any kind of dangerous breed, there should be some legislation that holds the owner more accountable,” David Brown said.
Harsher penalties sought
Beagle’s bill, along with a companion House bill, call for harsher penalties when a dog kills or seriously injures a human. Under the legislation, owners could be charged with a fifth-degree felony, even if it’s a first offense. A dog would automatically be destroyed if it kills a person, and a judge would decide if it should be euthanized in cases where the dog seriously injures a person.
Often in dog attack cases an owner argues that the dog was provoked. In those instances, both bills shift the burden of proof from the prosecutor to the dog owner.
Other provisions include requiring dog wardens to follow up on complaints and mandating that owners respond to warnings or postings from animal control officers.
Humane Society of the United States Ohio Director Corey Roscoe said HSUS would like to see Ohio address the issue of tethering and how that contributes to aggressiveness in dogs and consider adding resources for dog owners in low-income neighborhoods to help them properly care for their pets. The organization has not taken a position on the bill.
“Everyone wants to live in a safe community and since two-thirds of Americans share our households with companion animals, we should do everything possible to prevent harmful dog-related incidents from occurring,” Roscoe said in written testimony on Beagle’s bill. “However, strong dangerous dog laws are only one piece of the puzzle.”
Sean Cudahy of WHIO NewsCenter 7 contributed to this report.