Steelers star considers letting his pit bull live



Now that James Harrison III is up and walking, his father is seeking a way to avoid putting down the dog that bit the 2-year-old.

Patron, the pit bull owned by Steelers linebacker James Harrison, became agitated when the toddler began crying last Wednesday at their Franklin Park home and bit the child. James III was released from Children's Hospital of UPMC and is now home. The child's mother, Beth Tibbott, and a friend also were injured as they tried to separate dog and boy. Both women have recovered. Mr. Harrison was not at home during the attack.

The dog was taken to Animal Control of McKees Rocks, and Mr. Harrison said he would have him put down after a 10-day quarantine.

A number of people responded to the planned euthanization by saying there were organizations that might take the dog. Mr. Harrison's agent, Bill Parise, said yesterday that they were seeking an alternative for Patron.

"I'm a dog lover, and I don't know what I'd do if I lost [my dog]," Mr. Parise said. "James was that close with Patron. One of the things James and I talked about was that this was a real tragedy -- the injury to his baby, and the baby's mother, and the loss of the dog. It's hard."

   
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The responsibility to the family obviously had to come first, Mr. Parise said, and there was the issue of whether Patron could ever be trusted with people.

But with James III's improvement -- "the baby was actually walking [Monday], there is no muscle or nerve damage, no infection," Mr Parise said -- Mr. Harrison wanted to see whether there was a way to avoid putting Patron down.

"I just got done talking to James," he said yesterday afternoon, "and he would love to find a home for him, but only if it was a home that would provide maximum security. This decision is not being made lightly, and it would have to be in the best interest of the welfare of the animal as well as of people."

It won't be an easy task. Many shelters won't take dogs that have bitten people.

"No reputable rescue organization will take a dog that has bitten a person," said Daisy Balawejder of Hello Bully, a local group that rehabilitates and places pit bulls.

"When a dog is in the media, everyone wants to save that dog," she said. But her organizations and many like it are overloaded with dogs that are well-socialized and have no problems with people, she said.

Best Friends, the organization that has taken in former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick's fighting pit bulls, said space is severely limited.

"Some dogs can be rehabilitated with training," said Ledy VanKavage, legislative analyst for Best Friends. "But so many healthy dogs are being put down. If we had room, we would [take dogs that bite people], but we're pretty full. Unfortunately there aren't enough sanctuaries out there."

A spokeswoman for Animal Friends in Ohio Township said her organization considers animals on a case-by-case basis.

"That's such a sad story, especially since pit bulls are always getting such a bad reputation," said Jolene Miklas, director of communications.

Some dogs might have a particular problem related to their background, she said.

"It may be a dog has been a stray and is now aggressive around food. In that case, that might be something that can be managed. We might say this dog is not good for a household where little kids might grab during feeding time."

If Patron were brought to the shelter, she said, he would work with the behavior team. If the group didn't believe there was any way to find a home for him, it would be one of the "sad instances in which we do consider euthanasia."

All of the shelter representatives contacted yesterday said breed-specific rules don't make sense.

"Any dog can bite," said Ms. VanKavage of Best Friends. "We had a woman killed by dachshunds in Florida, a child killed by a Pomeranian. Any dog can bite and kill."

Mr. Harrison hopes his dog will get a second chance, his agent said.

"This dog -- it's first time in his life he ever did attack," said Mr. Parise. "It's hard. I think what happens, when you try to get away from emotion, which is almost impossible, you have to weigh your responsibilities."


Lillian Thomas can be reached at lthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3566. First Published May 27, 2009 4:00 AM


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