If there is any place in Los Angeles where you would expect to be safe from a dog attack in midday, it is on busy, posh Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley. On February 16, 2014, that is where Stephen Elliott and Howard Fox were walking with their adorable six-month-old Yorkshire Terrier, Vargas, near the Big Sugar Bakery. The retired couple, who have been together 23 years, would not have considered leaving home that day without the important little four-legged family member who happily and obediently strolled with them on his leash, close to Stephen’s feet.
Suddenly, out of a shop a few doors away, called Lush Shoes, a large pit bull bolted in their direction. Howard saw the dog racing toward them and tried to shout a warning to protect his partner and their pet. But he was recovering from serious back surgery just six weeks earlier and was in a brace. They were all helpless against the strength of the dog focused on a kill. The pit bull lunged for Vargas and grabbed the helpless puppy in his powerful jaws. Stephen was bitten as he reached down to try to save Vargas. Rusty was knocked to the ground when he tried to poke the pit bull in the face with his cane--in an effort to rescue Vargas.
“I saw my dog Vargas mauled in front of us and heard his screams of terror and pain as he was crushed in the dog's jaws,” Howard told me.
He also saw Stephen’s finger bitten off as he fought with the pit bull to save their beloved pet. Finally the dog let go and they rushed Vargas to Studio City Animal Hospital nearby, hoping some miracle would save him. Vargas was later transferred to the Animal Emergency Center, where he was stabilized and had exploratory surgery to ascertain the extent of his injuries. It was determined that the internal damage was too severe for Vargas to survive, and the kindest thing would be to put him down. Continuously through this 8- hour period—despite being on pain meds—Vargas was suffering, the veterinarian confirmed.
Stephen had left Rusty with Vargas at the Animal Hospital to go to the hospital himself because of the severity and pain of his own wounds. He later returned to the Emergency Center and was with Vargas for his last few hours. Both Rusty and Stephen were with him when he took his final breath and his gentle little heart stopped beating.
Stephen had gone to the hospital holding the tip of the middle finger of his right hand, which had been bitten off by the pit bull--the second tragedy in a day that had started out with joy and anticipation and turned into a nightmare. Doctors were able to reconnect the finger tip, but it did not take.
On March 5, Stephen was back in the hospital and lost not only the tip of the finger, but an additional section was amputated. Being right-handed, he now is severely restricted in use of his hand. It will require a long period of rehabilitation before he can do things that before were just a normal part of everyday life—such as using a computer. He now types with one hand.
The combined hospital bills for Vargas and Stephen totaled more than $10,000. The owner of the attacking pit bull is a woman who is a renter in Valley Village, a charming Valley community adjacent to Ventura Boulevard. She said she could not pay the veterinarian or doctor bills.
How Did Los Angeles City Officials Respond?
Stephen and Howard say that the pit bull is still living in the neighborhood. The only response by Los Angeles Animal Services, they say, was that the dog was quarantined in his own home for ten days to assure he did not have rabies. To their knowledge, the owner was not cited by either L.A.P.D nor Animal Services.
This week—as they wait for a dangerous dog hearing by Los Angeles Animal Services—they were told it is uncertain but will “probably be sometime in June or July.”
Howard and Stephen told their story before the meeting of the Studio City Neighborhood Council to see what actions can be taken.
Youth Board Member Jon Epstein suggested that it wasn’t the breed of the dog, but perhaps the cruel owners that cause pit bulls to be vicious. He stated authoritatively, “It’s the people not the breed.”
“No, we’ve done research and found out that these dogs will attack without provocation and are a dangerous breed,” Howard responded, “There were children at the bakery when we were attacked, what if the dog went after one of them?”
“We had heard that the Pit Bull had an incident with another dog earlier that day just a few blocks away at the Starbucks. This is a safety issue,” he emphasized.
Neighborhood Council President John Walker said, “I am truly sorry that you all went through this terrible tragedy.” Board member Lawrence Beer commented, “We are in utter horror over what you were subjected to, and I think there must be something that can be done.”
Board member Alex Izbicki surmised, “If a little terrier is raised poorly that won’t be as bad to the general public as something like this. I think there is some licensing or liability insurance that is definitely a possibility for breeds like this.”
Councilman Paul Krekorian was at the meeting and seemed genuinely shocked and disturbed about what had happened but unsure about what he could do. He told Stephen and Howard he would have his staff look into it. His deputy has been very sympathetic, stating that she also had been the victim of a dog attack, the couple says. However, subsequent calls to follow up have only received the assurance, “We have not forgotten you.”
Stephen says numerous calls and letters to other City Council Members have been ignored or unanswered.
A few days after the attack, Stephen had contacted the office of Councilmember Paul Koretz, who heads the Personnel and Animal Welfare Committee (PAW) of the City Council. Although L.A. Animal Services derives and justifies its $20-million-a-year budget as a Public Safety department, that is misleading, Koretz developed the PAW Committee during the administration of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; and, since then there has been a decreasing emphasis on protecting the public or enforcing laws. Koretz has used oversight of the department to advocate for passage of various animal-rights issues, with quiet agreement from other Council members on matters that would formerly have been the topic of fiery debate.
Gone are the discussions regarding packs of dogs that roam the streets in various areas of the city and the need for animal control officers to enforce leash-law violations and remove strays to keep communities safe. Nor has there been any concern or reports on the number of dog attacks on humans and pets. Yet, a local resident attending a recent evening of the L.A. Animal Services Commission in South Los Angeles said she and her neighbors are terrified to go out their doors and fear for their pets’ lives because of the large number of aggressive roaming dogs.
Stephen says he spoke with Koretz’ senior deputy, David Hersch, who advised him that his injury was his own fault for putting his hand down to save his dog. When he called back to see if the matter would receive any attention by the City, he says Mr. Hersch told him that he had given him more of his time than he spent on most calls and was sorry about their tragedy but “had an event to plan.”
Stephen and Howard believe that Los Angeles needs its elected representatives to have more concern about this growing problem all over the City. Recently a victim of a pit bull attack in the Hollywood area, a 29-year-old man from the Ukraine, appeared before the Los Angeles Animal Services Commission to describe how a horrifying pit bull attack had affected his life. He said that if he had not been young and athletic, the dog would have killed him.
The incident occurred when he was jogging and was attacked by an owned pit bull. Among other serious wounds, one of his testicles was bitten off by the dog, resulting in the possibility that he may never be able to have children. He described with gut-wrenching emotion the suffering and the emotional trauma that causes him to now be reclusive and fearful.
“These dogs were bred to kill, and if people get them from rescues or shelters, they don’t know what the dog’s background is at all,” Howard said, “The fact that this happened to us can mean that it could happen to others. Business owners need to realize that it will affect business along Ventura Boulevard and anywhere else an attack occurs.”
Stephen and Howard have retained an attorney, who also cannot get a response from GM Brenda Barnette or other management of Los Angeles Animal Services about the status of the dog, or if there’s any other action pending. The woman who owns the pit bull could declare bankruptcy and avoid paying any of their medical expenses, Stephen says.
Stephen and Howard would like to see a ban on pit bulls or at least some sort of liability insurance required for people who own or keep them in Los Angeles. They are interested in talking to other victims or who have lost a pet to a pit bull attack, with the possibility of forming a victims’ group to demand action by elected officials.
They said that the seeming lack of interest or concern by City officials for those who have had their lives changed forever by debilitating injuries or who have lost pets in this manner is appalling. It may take a collective voice of victims and those who care about them to get the attention of the people who have been elected and paid by taxpayers to assure that Ventura Boulevard and other city streets are safe from dog attacks. (Anyone interested in reaching them may call 323/453-1503.)
“This was the worst experience of my life," Stephen told the Examiner, "I don’t want this to happen to anyone ever again, and we want to educate people about these dangers. I want to do this in the memory of Vargas, he said, "I don’t want his death to be for naught.”