Hollister, CA -- Following the June 3 mauling death of 12-year-old Nicholas Faibish in his San Francisco home by his family’s pit bull, many in California and around the country again pose this question: Are pit bulls normal pets, or are they potentially dangerous animals that require special treatment by the law?

A Wednesday incident in Hollister involving a local woman and her pit bull has brought that national controversy closer to home.

Roxanne Laguna owns two dogs: Spanky, a Jack Russel Terrier, and Zeus, a pit bull. According to Laguna, the terrier has a history of behavior problems and has growled at or bitten her and members of the family, including the pit, on more than one occasion.

“If he were a bigger dog, I’d be terrified,” she said. “My husband’s not even that possessive of me.”

To combat the terrier’s aggressiveness and ward off any problems between the two dogs, Laguna began muzzling and crate-training both on the advice of a pit bull organization.

On July 13th at around noon, Laguna decided to take both dogs into the backyard to exercise. She had lost the terrier’s muzzle but masked the pit bull. Laguna said that when the terrier saw the other dog in the hallway, it growled and lunged at it without warning. The muzzle fell off the pit bull’s face, either due to human error or a broken lock, and the two started to fight in earnest.

“I threw myself on top of the dogs,” said Laguna. “I was hitting them on the head, trying to make them stop. My fingers got trapped in his (the pit bull’s) mouth, but he was trying to protect me.”

The pit bull then dragged Laguna across the hall from the bedroom to the bathroom, according to both police and Laguna, but she maintains that the pit was frightened and trying to protect her.

“He never growled or barked once,” she said. “And he never has. Spanky was though, he was real mad.”

Laguna was locked inside the house, and alone, so no one heard her calls for help. In the midst of the struggle, Laguna says a decorative birdcage was knocked over. The noise startled the pit and he let go. The terrier ran underneath a couch and, using the birdcage as a makeshift muzzle, Laguna detained the pit in her bedroom.

Laguna then attempted to call her mother, but the line was busy. She asked the operator to break through the line, but when the operator heard the word “pit bull” she put Laguna through directly to 911 - which she says was never desired or warranted.

The medical team determined that while her wounds required attention, they were not an emergency - her fingers were visibly cut and in need of stitches, and her back needed to be examined.

According to experts, a pit bull bite can deliver up to 2,500 pounds per square inch. By comparison, a German shepherd delivers only 1,000 psi. It takes 4 psi to snap a human finger in half.

“If Zeus wanted to kill something, he would have already,” said Laguna. “We’re not naive, we’re not careless, but I’m 99.999% sure he would never hurt anyone.”

Both dogs are now in the custody of Animal Control where they will be quarantined for ten days to screen for rabies, a standard procedure for all dogs brought in to the shelter. From there an investigation and hearing will take place to determine exactly what happened and the fate of the dogs.

“We don’t have breed-specific legislation regarding pit bulls,” said Julie Cuerro, Animal Control Supervisor for the city of Hollister. “What we do have is a very specific Dangerous Animal Ordinance in the City Municipal Code, and that’s what we work off.”

The ordinance details 11 criteria used in the determination of whether an animal should be considered dangerous. These include any history of an attack on a person or domestic animal and it’s severity and/or provocation; damage to property; whether it appears the animal has been trained to fight; whether the animal’s temperament is predictable; and whether the animal has been properly cared for.

If an inspection and hearing determine that the animal is dangerous, it’s not an automatic death sentence. If a hearing officer decides that the animal doesn’t warrant euthanasia and can be released, the owner must register his pet as a dangerous animal, the same way sex offenders register upon release. These pets must wear special tags at all times, identifying them as a dangerous animal.

In order to be allowed to keep a dangerous animal, the owner must pay a fee of $50 every year, compared to an annual fee of $9 for a spayed or neutered dog or $19 for an unaltered dog under normal circumstances. The animal must be kept either in the house or behind a secure fence, with a “Beware of Dog” sign displayed in an obvious location. Postal or utility workers who come onto the property must be notified of the dangerous animal.

The dog must be walked by a person over 18 years of age who can restrain the animal should it attack, and be kept on a muzzle. Dangerous animals must be fixed, and tattooed or microchipped for easy identification should animal control find it.

Pit bulls are not illegal in Hollister, as they are in Denver, Colo.; Dade County, Florida and other places, but it is the policy of the local animal shelter not to adopt out foundling pits.

“Most of the pit bulls we find on the streets don’t pass our temperament tests,” said Cuerro. “Some of them do, and we give those to pit bull rescues to adopt out.” The others are euthanized.

When any dog is received by the shelter, it’s put through a battery of informal tests to check for problem behaviors, such as aggression toward people (especially children), snappiness around food, excessive fear, or unusual aggression towards cats. The animals are also given a physical check-up for diseases that might be passed on to other animals in the shelter or render it unsuitable for adoption.

Hollister Animal Control’s records for the past three years indicate there have been 340 dog bites of people and domestic animals during that period. Of these, 49 were by pit bulls, or approximately 14%. German Shepards, Rottweilers and pits together account for half of those attacks.

According to the American Temperament Testing Society, a respected nonprofit organization in the world of doggie-psychology, American pit bulls pass a standardized temperament test at a rate of 83.4%, compared to 80.5% for an Australian shepard or 80.9% for a toy poodle. The exams simulate a walk in the park and observe how the dog reacts to different situations like a friendly stranger, rowdy children, or a menacing stranger.

Meanwhile, pit bull enthusiasts are angered that the California State Senate, in response to the Nicholas Faibish death, is advancing a bill that would allow cities and municipal areas to mandate spaying or neutering of breeds deemed “vicious and dangerous.” It would also require pit bull owners to hold insurance for their dog should it attack.

Supporters of the bill say it protects the general public from pits without taking them from their owners. In May of this year, Denver’s en masse confiscation of pits led to public outcry. Columnist Bill Johnson accused law enforcement of “rounding up pits... and killing them like rats during the Plague.”

Opponents insist that if the bill doesn’t require all dogs to be fixed, it allows room for discrimination. A dog deemed vicious and dangerous would be costly to insure, they say, and typically lower-income families own the breeds of dog likely to get placed on a dangerous list.

There was a time when pit bulls weren’t the cause of so much controversy. In the early part of the century, pits were desired for their short, clean hair, unique facial shape and eager to please disposition. A pit was featured on the cover of Parade magazine for the breed’s contributions to WWII, and Helen Keller, Shirley Temple and Theodore Roosevelt all owned pit bulls. It was only later, when pit fighting became popular in impoverished urban areas and the breed became the preferred guard dog of choice for drug dealers in the 80’s, that pits earned their dark reputation.