The North Sacramento house was unfit for a dog, the city decided. Garbage was strewn across its grassless yard on El Camino Avenue, pieces of the house’s facade were deteriorating and a broken fence allowed a pit bull named 49er to escape into a neighbor’s yard.
That’s what happened in November 2016, when 49er bit a 31-year-old man on the arm and wrist, forcing him to go to the hospital for treatment, according to city records. The victim’s father said he had been bitten by the dog before, and during a third attack, 49er and a Rottweiler had come into his backyard and killed a cat.
Hundreds of people are bitten by dogs in Sacramento each year, often bad enough to require medical attention, and the attacks happen in North Sacramento more often than in any other part of the city, The Sacramento Bee found in an analysis of about 2,800 bite reports made from May 2012 to May 2017.
Out of the 23 ZIP codes included in the analysis, two contiguous ones – 95815 and 95838 – had the most bite reports, with a total of 647 that make up one-fourth of all reports to the city. The area runs from the American River to the northern city boundary and from the city’s eastern boundary west to Steelhead Creek.
Ross Hendrickx, president of the Del Paso Heights Community Association, said his group met with city officials about dangerous dogs in North Sacramento earlier this year, and were told animal control lacks funding “and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“You have to be careful out there because there are a lot of stray dogs on the street,” he said.
Gina Knepp, who is responsible for the city’s animal-control efforts as manager of the Front Street Shelter, said the city’s ability to respond proactively to the problem – before people get injured – is limited, because it has only six animal-control officers. That means there’s never more than two on duty at any time. The city recently had a backlog of 275 complaints from residents about dogs and other animals.
Knepp said the Bee analysis mirrors a November 2013 report by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals showing where Sacramento’s impounded dogs originated.
“Where there’s crime and blight, you see an increase in animal-control activity,” she said.
In the report, researchers looked at dogs and cats impounded at shelters run by SPCA, the city and Sacramento County and identified the areas where the animals came from. The areas with the highest concentrations of impounded dogs were in and around Del Paso Heights and Oak Park.
Knepp took the data from that report and overlaid it onto a map of city building-code violations. She found that the hotspots for animal-welfare problems were the same areas with high numbers of building-code violations. Poor housing maintenance, particularly when it comes to fencing, allows dogs to roam unsupervised, she said.
In higher-crime areas, owners are more likely to have dogs for security, and such dogs are usually kept in backyards and get less socialization than other dogs, Knepp said.
Pit bulls were by far the most common breed identified in Sacramento dog-bite reports, accounting for more than a third of the reports. However, Knepp and some other animal-welfare officials say the statistics are misleading, in part because pit bull is not a breed but a collection of breeds.
Dog bites have significant medical and financial effects. Nationwide, 4.5 million people are bitten each year, and 20 percent of the bites require medical attention, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Dog bites accounted for one-third of all homeowner insurance liability payments nationwide in 2014, according to the Insurance Information Institute. In California that year, about 1,900 claims were made, with an average payment of $34,000.
Dog attacks can also prove traumatic for the owner, as the city must quarantine the dog to see if it has been vaccinated. In some cases, such as when the dog has a history of attacks and the owner can’t provide proper shelter, the city must euthanize the dog. That’s what happened to 49er.
Assigned to North Sacramento, animal-control officer Julian Reynaga says poverty often gets in the way of proper dog ownership. Reynaga has been an animal-control officer in Sacramento for 11 years and in San Jose for six years.
Such limitations were on display during a recent animal-control call on Silver Eagle Road. Reynaga received a report that a dog had been killed in the street next to a rental property.
While the dog was injured and not killed, Reynaga found problems with his care. He needed medical attention and proper shelter.
A woman at the house told him the dog had been hit by a car, but she had not brought it to a veterinarian.
“I’ve got five kids and two dogs – it’s too expensive for us to go to the vet,” she told Reynaga.
Reynaga said the dog needed a kennel. Under city code, dogs must be kept in a shelter with food and water.
In poorer parts of the city, those requirements can be tougher to meet, Reynaga said. Residents often keep dogs in garages instead. In the case of homeless people living along the American River, the requirements can be impossible to meet. Some homeless people try to secure dogs by tying them to trees, but that’s illegal, too.
Homeless people often own dogs for protection and companionship. Some of the dogs have attacked bicyclists and homeless campers. In 2014, a 52-year-old homeless woman was severely injured when she was attacked by a pit bull named Crash. She told an animal-control officer she had gone to a campsite on the American River Parkway to ask the dog’s owner if she could use her cellphone.
The woman said she called out to the owner because she knew Crash was “defensive.” Before the owner could restrain Crash, the dog bit her on the leg and arm, causing lacerations and punctures that required hospitalization, according to a report by the officer.
Pit bulls were identified as the breed in 922 bites in the five years covered in the Bee analysis, compared to 225 for Chihuahua, the second-most identified breed. Victims and animal-control officers identified 125 breeds involved in dog bites during the 5-year period.
Knepp said looking at bite trends by breed isn’t fair, in part because the statistics are based on owner identifications that are often incorrect.
But some of her employees think pit bulls have earned their reputation for violence.
Reynaga said pit bulls tend to be more violent than other dogs. In 2014, when he was responding to a report about a child bit by a pit bull, he was attacked by two other pit bulls in the child’s backyard. He used a metal clipboard and pepper spray to try to fend off the dogs, but was still bit on the leg by one of them and had to get care at the hospital.
“People want a scary, crazy dog to protect them,” said Jace Huggins, the city’s chief animal control officer.