Attendants at the Howard County Animal Control facility have grown fond of Damien, a 2-year-old Rottweiler in their care since last November.
The quiet dog, considered by many who know him to be a good-natured playmate for children, has been ordered destroyed, however, for attacking a 10-year-old boy almost a year ago and inflicting wounds that required 100 stitches.
Damien's case, stretched out over almost a year because of the appeals process, unfolds in the wake of recent, highly publicized dog-biting incidents in the area and illustrates the difficulty animal control officials face in trying to balance the rights of domestic pets and their owners with the public's right to safety.
Brian and Theresa Miller, of Arbutus, who own Damien, have appealed an initial ruling that their pet be destroyed, on grounds that the attack occurred when the dog was in a state of shock, having just been hit by a car.
County animal control officials say the dog's destruction is a matter of protecting the community from "a vicious and dangerous animal."
The case is one of a growing number of dog-bite incidents in the region. Two weeks ago, a Rockville woman and her 3-year-old son were attacked by three 100-pound Rottweilers.
The woman required 150 stitches in her legs and thighs. A few days later, a District resident was hospitalized after being attacked by a pit bull.
In the fiscal year ended June 30, Montgomery County reported 749 dog-bite incidents, up from 688 the previous year. Prince George's County reported 429 cases through July, and the climbing caseload may push the year's total past last year's 720. Howard County reported 240 cases of dog bites in the fiscal year ended June 30. Figures on the previous year were unavailable.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, 1 million to 3 million dog-biting incidents are reported nationally each year.
Animal control officials say improper training is the chief reason for dog attacks, which can involve any breed.
While the Millers and Howard County animal control officials argue about what to do with Damien, both sides agree on the following: The dog was popular with neighborhood children, who often would untie him from his runner to romp freely with him.
Last Nov. 20, the dog ran from the Millers' yard on Furnace Avenue into the path of a car traveling about 25 mph. The car struck the dog, knocking it to the ground. Damien, who was 18 months old at the time, got up, ran in back of the Millers' house and sat down next to his mother, Roxie, the Millers' other Rottweiler.
Charles Shifflet, a 10-year-old who had played frequently with the dog, followed Damien, and when he approached, the dog bit him repeatedly until a neighbor pulled the dog away.
Neighbors of the Millers' told the Animal Matters Hearing Board last December that they were shocked to learn of the attack. Several testified at a board hearing that neither they nor their children had ever been threatened by Damien, and that the dog was friendly and safe.
Animal control officials painted a different picture. A county animal warden told the board that she had investigated a complaint in April 1989 of Damien's chasing a magazine salesman over a fence, causing the salesman to injure his hand.
Another warden testified that the dog growled and acted menacingly toward him as he responded to a complaint about a dog running loose.
As a result of the November attack, Charles's mother told the board, her son has suffered mental trauma and has trouble sleeping.
While the appeals process continues, Theresa Miller claims the large dog isn't exercised enough at the Animal Control facility in Columbia and calls his 10-month caging unfair.
"I would not want this dog back if it was going to be a problem," she said. "I don't need people suing me every month."
County Animal Control adminstrator Tahira Williams concedes that the Damien case has taken "quite a long time," because of the Millers' decision to appeal. In the meantime, Damien is receiving good care, she said.