Animal Welfare

Little Boy Mauled by Pit Bull Bounces Back. Group Sues to Save Dog.

Dr. Alan Romero, 2-year-old Luca in his lap, and Dr. Allis Cho holding 7-month-old Lyla.
Dr. Alan Romero, 2-year-old Luca in his lap, and Dr. Allis Cho holding 7-month-old Lyla. Jim Schutze
Last weekend, I caught up with the parents of Luca Romero, the 2-year-old boy mauled by a pit bull at a dog adoption event in Klyde Warren Park in December. Because I have written about the attack here before,
I thought I should share with you a little bit of good news. The kid’s OK. The kid’s great.

The boy’s parents told me the wounds on his chest and arm were so jagged and dirty they had to be left partially open while they healed in order to prevent infection, so the scarring will be permanent. But nature makes 2-year-olds out of rubber. Barely two months after the attack, Luca was bouncing around and jolly when we met on the deck of a Starbucks in Euless.

“Now he sleeps with us. He was sleeping by himself before. For a while, he had nightmares two or three times a night. He would wake up screaming and yelling, ‘No, no, no.’”— Dr. Alan Romero

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Another kind of injury is harder to see. The father, Dr. Alan Romero, 37, an anesthesiologist, said, “Now he sleeps with us. He was sleeping by himself before. For a while, he had nightmares two or three times a night. He would wake up screaming and yelling, ‘No, no, no.’”

The mother, Dr. Allis Cho, 36, an otolaryngologist, said, “He’s better now. He maybe has the nightmare once a week. He used to have it several times a day.”

The Cho-Romeros have a German shepherd of their own, and members of their extended family also have dogs. “For a month afterward,” she said, “he would run away from dogs when they were just standing there. He said, ‘They’re going to bite me, they’re going to bite me.'” But the parents think they can see most of that fear fading already.

Dallas Pets Alive, a “no-kill” nonprofit pet rescue group, put on the pet rescue event where the child was attacked. Klyde Warren Park is a compact, narrow, urban park on a deck above a depressed freeway downtown. The pit bull was on a leash held by a man who had adopted the animal the day before. Luca, 2, ran a few steps toward the dog to pet it, his mother said, and the dog attacked.

Ten days after the attack, Dallas Pets Alive published a statement putting blame for the attack on the child and excusing the dog. “In Rusty’s case,” the online statement said, “we believe it was an isolated incident given the exciting, but still stressful, environment of a busy park with strange noises/smells and an unknown person on his level reaching for him.” Dallas Pets Alive is pursuing a lawsuit to prevent the city from euthanizing the dog.

Since the attack, the parents have received angry emails and messages attacking them for wanting to see the dog put down. “One of them,” Romero said, “said that the kid should be put down and the dog saved.”

I have received several emails expressing the same or similar sentiments, often blaming the 2-year-old for frightening the pit bull and using the word “innocent” to describe the dog.

Detractors of the pit bull argue that the breed was developed for dog fighting, bred to select for traits of aggression and vicious combat just as other breeds have been bred for traits that make them good herders, hunters, ratters or retrievers. A pit bull attack is distinctive, detractors of the breed say, for the deep, unyielding bite and for the violent shaking by which the dog tries to snap the neck of its prey.

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Luca in the E.R.
Dr. Alan Romero
The attack on 2-year-old Luca that day at Klyde Warren Park was no simple fear-bite, his mother said. “If this was a simple bite,” she said, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

“We understand dogs can bite out of fear or if they get startled. This was definitely not a simple fear-bite. It was a mauling. The dog bit him and dragged him to the ground. It was trying to shake him.

“The only reason it could not do it was because four or five guys jumped in so fast and held the dog down. It was trying to shake him, but all these people held it down, so it couldn’t shake him anymore. Then it took like a minute to pry the dog off of him. It wouldn’t let go.”

Had the group of men not intervened immediately, Cho believes, her child would be dead. In fact, she doesn’t think an adult alone could have survived the attack: “We’re very lucky there were so many people around. If nobody was around, I’m sure it would be another story. If you were by yourself with this dog and he attacked you, there was no way you would survive that.”

Romero said the dog was doing to his son “what my dog does to kill a bird.”

Of course, Cho and Romero see the attack on their child mainly through their eyes as parents, but their view is also informed by their roles and training as physicians. “We try to help people stay alive,” she said.

“We understand dogs can bite out of fear or if they get startled. This was definitely not a simple fear-bite. It was a mauling. The dog bit him and dragged him to the ground. It was trying to shake him." – Dr. Allis Cho

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I was thrilled, frankly, to see the little boy bouncing around like a rubber ball on the deck at Starbucks on a nippy Sunday morning. His new little sister, Lyla, 7 months old, smiled up from a car seat on the ground, all bundled up in a goose-down cocoon.

I had seen photographs of Luca being examined in an emergency room on the day of the attack, but I had forgotten exactly where the bites were. I was relieved to realize that none of the bites had been to the face. A very cherubic and unmarked little face it is now.

Every kid picks up a scar somewhere along the way in life, but parents especially want to keep those scars off the faces of their children for as long as possible. Something in the perfect, unblemished face of a child poses a kind of primal challenge, as if the parents’ mission in this world is to keep that face unmarked for as long as possible, knowing that it won’t be unmarked forever.

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Detail of bite wounds.
Dr. Alan Romero
And we do love our dogs. I feel sort of stupid always having to profess that I love dogs when I write about this business, but I do. I need a dog. Dogs have been a part of my being since I was a little boy myself.

The moral stumbling point is where the interest of a dog collides with the interest of a child. In this case, it doesn’t matter if the dog’s attack on Luca was an unusual behavior for the dog. Once it is known that a dog is even remotely capable of killing a child, for any reason, then that dog must be killed.

I have had a certain amount of personal experience with people involved in dog rescue work — enough to give me the impression that the work must be emotionally and spiritually challenging, even draining at times. The effect of that challenge seems to split the dog rescuers into two distinct streams.

Some of them seem deepened and strengthened by their mission. I get the feeling that their empathy for animals enriches their understanding of life and of other human beings.

But then there’s the other stream. Some rescuers either came to the work already cracked in the head or they got that way doing it. I keep coming back to the sentiment expressed in some of the more grotesque emails sent to Luca’s parents and to me in the last two months, especially the ones arguing that the dog should not be put down because it is “innocent.”

Dogs are not innocent. They are never innocent. Nor are they ever guilty. They’re dogs. Guilt and innocence are moral constructs. In order to be guilty or innocent, you have to be capable of having morals.

Dogs can be a lot of things — happy, sad, lonely, glad to see you, mad at you. But there’s one important quality dogs have in common with squirrels. They don’t have morals. Squirrels have no morals. Dogs have no morals. Imputing human qualities to a dog is not a kindness. In fact, it’s deeply unfair to the dog, an expectation the dog is not capable of fulfilling.

The so-called no-kill solutions that Dallas Pets Alive proposes are unhinged — placing the dog in a family with no children, an idea that might work unless the new owners are elderly, infirm or otherwise not fleet of foot. The other idea I keep hearing floated is putting the dog in some kind of so-called rural dog preserve, an idea that sounds like the plot for a cheap horror movie.

People do keep dangerous dogs. They keep them in junkyards behind tall metal fences topped with concertina wire with signs every 10 feet saying, “Beware Bad Dog.” Maybe that puts enough onus on human beings to stay away from them, but, if the owner of a junkyard dog leaves a hole in the fence big enough for the dog to get out or a 2-year-old to get in, then I think it’s pretty clear whom most of us would blame for the child’s mauling death.

Because Dallas Pets Alive is suing to protect the life of the dog that mauled Luca Romero, City Attorney Larry Casto is devoting considerable resources to a jury trial slated for March 22. I assume that means the parents will be drawn away from their medical practices to testify.

But watching the little boy fly around the deck at Starbucks on Sunday, it occurred to me that any expenditure of effort, time and money is worth it if this life and lives like it are protected. It’s too bad we even have to have the conversation. Apparently we do.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze