Last week's convictions of Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel, owners of the dog that killed St. Mary's College lacrosse coach Diane Whipple, 33, outside her San Francisco apartment last January, were powerful statements on owners' responsibilities for their pets. Knoller became the first person convicted of second-degree murder in California as a result of the actions of her dog.
Initially, the case also focused attention on the dogfighting industry (SI, Feb. 12, 2001), a criminal subculture involving as many as 40,000 Americans. Even though investigators subsequently discovered that Knoller and Noel's two dogs, Bane (who attacked Whipple) and Hera, were never trained for dogfighting, the case did "sensitize the public to the issue of dogs raised for illicit purposes," says Eric Sakach of the Humane Society. The news of the Whipple verdict stood in stark contrast to recent reports that dogfighting is on the rise in Afghanistan, where the sport, banned under the Taliban regime, is now making a comeback. However, at least in the U.S. the numbers are encouraging: Dogfighting arrests have increased over the past year, and hearings concerning dangerous dogs in the Bay Area have more than tripled.
Yet heightened awareness of these dogs may be offset by a disturbing upswing in interest in the Presa Canario (Bane and Hera were Presa-mastiff hybrids). A Presa can weigh 140 pounds and be antisocial in temperament if improperly trained. "There are unscrupulous breeders producing Presas that are too aggressive," says Tracy Hennings, president of the Dogo Canario Club of America. Hennings estimates that in the U.S. there are fewer than 1,000 purebred Presas, but she predicts that number will triple within the next two years. What's more, Presas may fall into irresponsible hands. "I know of one breeder with 20 females and a two-year waiting list," says Hennings. "No way there are that many qualified owners." Adds Sakach, "Someone who responds to a tragedy like this by saying, 'That's the dog for me,' needs counseling. There's no difference between a dog that's unchecked and a loaded gun."