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Dangerous Dogs of North Minneapolis

“It’s like muscles with teeth,” Casey Toner says of this dog who lives behind her house
Nick Vlcek

BRYAN BLOOMQUIST'S MAIL satchel was nearly empty when he noticed the front door ajar. It was the second-to-last house on the second-to-last block of his mail route—the one with the pit bulls.

Quietly, he backed down the path to the sidewalk. Then he saw the screen door fly open. In slow motion, two pit bulls hurtled soundlessly toward him. Bloomquist froze.

He felt searing pain as the dogs ripped into his flesh. He stretched out his forearms to find 90 pounds of dog hanging off each limb. If he could just cross the street and reach the neighbor's yard, he could climb the fence to safety.

One of the pits let him go, and the other clamped onto his right wrist. With his free arm, Bloomquist gripped the dangling canine by the throat and swung him like a club at the other snarling dog.

Momentarily free, Bloomquist scrambled halfway up the fence to freedom. But one of the dogs lunged and sank his teeth into Bloomquist's calf, then dragged the helpless mailman back to the street.

Bloomquist shielded his face. He was breathing hard as the dogs chewed into his hands. He resigned himself to his fate.

Then, miraculously, the dogs let up. Someone was beating at the dogs with a baseball bat. A car horn honked.

The neighbors had come to his rescue.

Surrounded, the dogs padded back to their yard, where they sat on the front stoop, mouths agape.

Bloomquist lay in the street, trying not to pass out. He heard the police sirens, then the dogs bark, then the gunshots that killed the pits.

When Bloomquist awoke at North Memorial Hospital, he'd been through surgery. It had taken more than 80 stitches to close the 41 wounds caused by the dog attack. He felt lucky to be alive.

Ten days after the attack, Bloomquist sits in a Minneapolis coffee shop, picking absent-mindedly at a dark scab on the palm of his left hand. Below a deep gash on his right calf where the dogs tore in, his leg is numb, perhaps permanently.

"It just feels so weird," he says.

Bloomquist says he'll never go back to his mail route.

"Every time I hear a dog barking, I'm just going to jump out of my skin."

During his recovery, he occupies himself playing video games. He's also spent time with his dog Zoe, a Springer-Labrador mix.

"The only thing you got to worry about with her is that she'll lick you to death," Bloomquist says. "She'd never hurt anyone."

He pauses.

"I'm sure the people who own those pit bulls would say the same thing."

DOGS IN NORTH Minneapolis are morelikely to be killed by police than canines from any other part of the city. In the past five years, Minneapolis cops have killed at least 113 dogs; 81 of them—72 percent—were killed in North.

In fact, dogs from north Minneapolis face a greater risk of being shot than people. If they live in the North neighborhoods, dogs are more likely to be killed by police than their owners are to be murdered.

Minneapolis cops are trained to kill dogs in two circumstances: if a dog is severely hurt and Animal Control isn't there to help, or if the dog is a threat to the officer or others.

According to Sgt. William Palmer of the Minneapolis Police, 99.9 percent of the time it's the latter. "When I was on SWAT one year, we killed 12 in one month."

The most notorious case of Minneapolis cops shooting a dog came in 2002, during a raid of a house at 26th Avenue North and Knox Avenue North. A pit bull was turned loose on the cops, so they shot and killed it. Unfortunately, the bullet ricocheted and also hit 11-year-old Julius Powell in the arm, inciting riots in the neighborhood.

One evening in August 2007, cops searched a house on the 3500 block of Irving Avenue North looking for a man who'd assaulted a Hennepin County Sheriff's deputy. A pit attacked them, so they shot and killed it. They found another pit was in the basement, among piles of feces and urine.

By far the most dangerous dog to be in north Minneapolis is a pit bull. Police logs are loaded with pits. In June 2008, for example, police raided a house on 25th Avenue North, found a loaded gun and some crack cocaine, and shot and killed a pit that charged them. Just this May, police shot a pit at 34th Avenue North and Russell Avenue North, the scene of a double murder. Police said they had to kill the dog because it would not let them near the bodies.

Pit bulls weren't always considered dangerous dogs—that honor has shifted from breed to breed throughout history. In the 1880s, bloodhounds tormented the populace. In the early 20th century, Newfoundlands were the canine terrors. By the 1960s and 1970s German Shepherds and Doberman Pinschers led the pack, until Rottweilers took over in the '90s. And today it's pit bulls.

 

Pit bulls aren't an individual breed, but rather a broader category for at least three kinds of dogs—the modern American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, and the Staffordshire bull terrier—collectively referred to as the "bully breeds." Pits are the modern-day result of crossing bulldogs—used in the sport of bull baiting and to corral livestock—with terriers, who were known for their courage and speed. By the early 20th century, pits were the breed of choice in dog fighting.

"Pit bulls were bred to be animal aggressive," says Tom Doty, assistant manager of Minneapolis Animal Control. "The butcher's dog would grab the cow by the nose and pull it down."

Despite the oft-portrayed media image of violent, snarling creatures, pit bulls aren't naturally aggressive toward people. "If they have a breed tendency, it's to be extremely people-friendly," says Maureen Haggerty, owner of the Canine Coach, a dog training company in Minneapolis.

Dogs are often killed in north Minneapolis because the area has a lot of crime. And pit bulls, specifically, are killed often because they are a popular breed among criminals.

"Unfortunately for the pit bulls, that's the macho dog for the criminal element," says Dan Nizoliek, head of Minneapolis Animal Care and Control. "That criminal element is going to play into more irresponsible ownership as well as cruelty."

WHEN CASEY TONER and her husband first bought their home on Hillside Avenue in Jordan seven years ago, there were no scary dogs living nearby. Back then, the Toners didn't have children. Now they have four little girls.

A few years ago, the Toners discovered they had a problem: a snarling, vicious pit bull behind their house. The dog was tied up, but the yard's unsteady chain link fence was riddled with holes the dog could dash through were he to snap his chain.

"He doesn't just bark—he snarls and he growls," Casey Toner says. "It's supposed to be somebody's pet, a friend. It's not. It's like muscles with teeth."

The Toners are so intimidated by the dog that in the summers, they don't use the garage behind their house. Casey Toner forbade her girls from playing out back. She has drilled into them what they must do if they see a loose dog: immediately go in the house.

A couple weeks back, Toner's neighbor, Mary Caesar, saw a pit bull running loose down Hillside. Caesar recognized the dog as one of five pits who live up the block with a large extended family.

Just up the block from Caesar lives Jerry Millner, whose house faces the home of the family with the five pits. He sees pits running loose along Hillside all the time.

"There are 11 within 50 feet of my house," Milner says. "It's like having lions in the yard."

Also living on Hillside are Don Samuels, the Minneapolis City Councilman, and his wife, Sondra Samuels, the community activist. They too have been confronted by snarling pit bulls—twice while Don was campaigning in the neighborhood, and once in their own front yard.

A few years back, Don Samuels pushed for changes to the city's dog ordinance after a pit bull attacked and killed a seven-year-old boy in north Minneapolis. Now, aggressive dogs are listed on the city's Dangerous Dogs or Potentially Dangerous Dog list, depending on the severity of their bad behavior. Owners must take safety measures to prevent dogs from re-offending, including muzzles, short leashes, and kennels.

North Minneapolis has more than its fair share of dangerous dogs. Although the area houses only 18 percent of the city's population, it counts 58 —or 32 percent—of the city's dogs on the dangerous list.

Half are pit bulls. In the rest of the city, only one-third of the bad dogs are pits.

That tally doesn't include the dogs in Hillside running loose, who haven't yet made the city's bad dog list. These dogs might scare or intimidate people, but they haven't bit anyone yet, or at least haven't been reported.

The presence of a lot of loose dogs in a neighborhood typically means people aren't taking proper care of their animals—either out of ignorance or simply not caring, says Pamela Reid, Ph.D., vice president of the Animal Behavior Center at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"If you do invest in your pets, you're not going to let them run loose and run the risk of getting hurt," Reid says. "In a community where there's a lot of loose dogs, I'm suspecting that there are a lot of people who don't necessarily put that kind of investment into their pets."

 

Of course, there are plenty of good dog owners on Hillside Avenue and elsewhere in north Minneapolis. The block has a combination of lovely homes, as well as some dumps owned by slumlords. It's just that in areas poverty is more prevalent, animals will also be affected.

"Dogs, especially, because they're so closely tied to their people," says Adam Goldfarb, director of the Pets at Risk program for the Humane Society of the U.S. "When you have those communities that maybe have a higher crime rate, that are suffering from more socio-economic problems, we do see animal-related problems in those areas as well—whether it's loose dogs, or dangerous dogs, or dog-fighting, even."

Animal Control gets more calls in the 4th police precinct, which includes north Minneapolis, than any other part of the city. Compared to aggressive dogs, run-of-the-mill loose dogs aren't top priority.

"It's not uncommon to get two to three dog bites in an evening," Nizoliek says.

If Animal Control officers can't respond to loose dog calls within four hours, they close the case and move on. Often by the time they arrive, the threat has passed.

"By the time Animal Control gets there, the animal gallops home and is in its yard," says Roberta Englund, who heads up the neighborhood association for Folwell, where the mailman was attacked. "And than the owner says: 'What? The animal was never out of the yard.'"

BERNICE HALBERG SPREADS six photographs across the picnic table. In one, a dark brown pit bull peers at the camera, its ears perked. In another, Halberg cradles a caramel-colored bulldog in her arms.

"This is the first time in the two months that Hemi's been gone that I've actually been able to talk about it without crying," Halberg says.

Halberg's fiancé, Brian Dumoulin, sits beside her, his mustachioed face stoic. He rolls up the right sleeve of his T-shirt and reveals a tattoo on his deltoid: a pit bull's face and the words "R.I.P. Neko."

"Neko was the best dog I ever had," Dumoulin says.

Halberg and Dumoulin obviously love dogs. Halberg works at Petco and is a vet tech student at Argosy University; Dumoulin reads Halberg's animal-care textbooks and has spent hours on the Internet researching bully breeds. The couple loves dogs so much that they adopted two from abusive homes: Neko, a pit bull, and Hemi, an American bulldog mix.

But Halberg and Dumoulin are on the blacklist of Minneapolis dog owners because of their poor track record controlling their dogs. The city considered the couple's history so bad that Halberg and Dumoulin are two of only four people that the city has banned from owning dogs.

In October 2007, Neko chased a child on a bike and bit him on the leg. That earned the canine a spot on the city's Potentially Dangerous Dog list.

His track record worsened in July 2008, when a dog jumped at the family's fence. The dogs tussled, Neko's muzzle broke, and he bit the other dog's neck.

The couple had broken the rules—Neko was supposed to be in a kennel. Halberg and Dumoulin protested that the regulations weren't clear, so Animal Control let them slide.

Neko's most serious misbehavior came in November, when the couple was moving. They claim they muzzled and kenneled Neko, but somehow he got out and bit a five-year-old neighbor boy. Neko tore a chunk of skin the size of two silver dollars from the child's right cheek. The boy needed skin grafts and plastic surgery to repair his face.

Neko was put down.

A year and a half later, the couple's other dog, Hemi, became a problem. Halberg had worked with Hemi—a hyperactive, nervous canine—for three years to get him under control. She used techniques she learned in vet tech school and from watching The Dog Whisperer.

But on May 23, Hemi jumped on Halberg's six-year-old niece and slashed her cheek open. It took 19 stitches to close the wound.

The family said Hemi swiped the girl on accident, with his claws. The doctor ruled the injury a dog bite. The city declared Hemi a dangerous dog.

Animal Control slapped a five-year provision on the couple: They could own only one dog, and only if it had no history of aggression.

They tried to find Hemi a new home, but couldn't find one fast enough. Most dog rescues won't take animals with a history of violence. So Hemi had to be euthanized.

Dr. F. Larry, the family's veterinarian, knew Neko and Hemi well. Even she can't explain why the dogs lashed out.

"It's hard to pinpoint a cause on these things," Larry says. "A lot of times it's the home environment. For most animals, it's the basic training."

Halberg and Dumoulin say they did nothing wrong, and without knowing exactly how they handled their dogs, it's impossible to tell from the outside.

 

"Humans and animals—to some extent, there's always an element of unpredictability," says Keith Streff, an animal cruelty investigator for the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley.

For Halberg and Dumoulin, the whole traumatic experience has strengthened a dream: The couple wants to open a rescue for bully breeds.

"It's going to be called 'Neko and Hemi's Misunderstood Friends,'" Halberg says, smiling. "On Neko's birthday and Neko's anniversary, we're going to take a dog off of pit bull row—to make sure that they don't get euthanized."

ONE EARLY WINTER morning four years ago, a stray dog wandered into the backyard of 3558 Humboldt Ave. N. Two pit bulls, China and Pacino, lived in the yard; details vary, but the stray was attacked and maimed so violently that the dog had to be put down.

Daniyeal Martin and Marshall Nelson owned the aggressive dogs; Martin wasn't there, but says she was distraught over the incident.

"When I saw pictures of the dog, I cried and I cried and I cried," she says.

But the animal control records indicate those on the scene weren't as compassionate.

"The people were acting like it was a joke or fun and games," the responding officer wrote in the police report, "as they were laughing because the stray dog was getting what it asked for."

Minneapolis Animal Control ordered the dogs destroyed. Officers tried to deliver the notice, but Martin and Nelson were nowhere to be found.

Martin and Nelson fit the profile of classic bad-dog owners. Both had criminal convictions—Martin for minor traffic infractions, and giving police officers false information, Nelson for felony property damage and drug possession. And when their dogs got into trouble, they didn't take responsibility for the consequences. Instead, they disappeared.

In north Minneapolis, the city sees a lot of bad dog owners.

"They're abusive, they treat their animals not well, they see them as a security dog, a protection dog, they just don't care about their dog," Nizoliek says. "That is clearly the group that's going to be involved in animal cruelty."

The rules of being a good dog owner are pretty straightforward. "License your animal, provide training and socialization, proper diet, and medical care," says Donald Cleary, spokesperson for the National Canine Research Council. "And do not allow your animal to become a nuisance in the community."

It's a matter of training dogs to behave around people and other animals, and socializing them so they aren't fearful, which can lead to aggression. Although dog obedience classes are a good way to accomplish these goals, training doesn't have to be expensive.

"If they get a good book or watch a good television program, they can get the basics of training," says Reid, the animal behavior specialist.

Nizoliek often sees a second kind of bad dog owner: someone who is simply ignorant of their dog's needs. They'll tether their dogs outside day after day. They don't walk them or play with them. They don't socialize the animal or spend any time with it.

"Those are ticking time bombs," Nizoliek says. "Sooner or later it's going to go off."

Halberg and Dumoulin fall into a third category of bad dog owners: people who have the best of intentions, but for whatever reason can't handle their dogs. The couple deliberately adopted dogs who had been abused. They clearly loved the animals, and spent a lot of time with them. They tried to address problem behaviors. They weren't perfect, but they did try to follow the good dog ownership rules.

"I'm not going to judge where they're coming from or where their heart is, because I think their heart is in the right place," says Nizoliek.

But even under the care of the most skilled dog trainers, animals with a history of being abused are high-risk. Knowing this, Nizoliek decided that Halberg and Dumoulin weren't qualified to own more than one dog, and that they couldn't own dogs with histories of aggression.

"What I look at is just the behavior. If I see a repetitive nature of dogs causing harm, and non-compliance, then I ask myself, 'Do I believe there is a risk to the public with these people owning dogs?'"

THE TWO PIT bulls that attacked Bryan Bloomquist were litter mates, owned by Othello Pitts and Gidget Nicks. Both have criminal records. Pitts, 48, has been convicted of theft, disorderly conduct, and carrying a weapon without a permit. Nicks, 40, owns a rap sheet that includes car theft, financial fraud, and driving while intoxicated.

Until recently, Pitts and Nicks rented at 3311 Colfax Avenue North. Neighbors say their dogs often ran loose in the neighborhood, and everyone was waiting for something to go wrong. Yet Nicks had never come in contact with Animal Control. Pitts' only encounter came 11 years ago, when he received a warning for not leashing and licensing his dog.

 

On August 13, the city charged Nicks and Pitts with misdemeanor Harm Caused by a Dog. The crime carries a 90-day jail sentence, and is the most serious possible for the attack.

The city declared the dead pit bulls dangerous, posthumously. That means that the city can ban Nicks and Pitts from having dogs for five years—if they can find them.

All that remains at 3311 Colfax is an eviction notice, dated August 6. On the steps leading up to the door lays a crumpled sign: "Beware of Dog."


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