Rep as Killer Drives Up Demand for Presa Canario
March 17, 2002
As the mauling trial
of two San Francisco lawyers nears its conclusion, breeders of the type
of vicious dogs that killed lacrosse coach Diane Whipple are caught
in a paradox. Business has never been better--but for all the wrong
The massive, boulder-headed Presa Canario is gaining in popularity as
a result of the publicity surrounding the gruesome attack. They are
the dog of choice for those who want the most explicit symbol of ferocity
the pet kingdom has to offer, breeders and trainers say.
As with pit bulls, Rottweilers and German shepherds before them, some
say it is a question of whether man's best friend is being bred to be
man's worst enemy.
"They're looking for that designer weapon that could make them look
tougher," said Tracy Hennings, a breeder in Cleveland who is the president
of the Dogo Canario Club of America. "They want that tough, macho, big
dog at the end of the chain, lunging and charging."
As a result, the Whipple case is drawing interest and concern from law
enforcement officials, already alarmed by both the growing number of
aggressive dogs and dog-bite cases.
"A gun doesn't have a mind of its own," said San Francisco Police Sgt.
Bill Herndon, the city's vicious-dog hearing officer. "With a dog, the
owner has to be even more vigilant."
Lawyers Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel, who housed the powerful dogs
that killed neighbor Whipple, are on trial for involuntary manslaughter
and keeping a mischievous dog. Knoller, who was with the dogs when they
attacked Whipple in the hallway outside her apartment in January 2001,
also faces a second-degree murder charge.
Closing arguments are set to begin Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court,
where the trial was moved because of a torrent of pretrial publicity
in San Francisco.
People Are Looking for 'Killer Dogs'
The case has served as a perverse advertisement for Presa Canario dogs,
which were first imported to North America a little more than a decade
ago. Breeders say they are receiving dozens and dozens of calls, faxes
and e-mail messages requesting information about the 120-pound canine
titans. Most, they add, are not exactly from people looking for a family
"They want those 'killer dogs,' " said Dan Wilson, a Presa Canario breeder
in Canada. "As soon as the dog killed that woman, they wanted them."
Wilson says Presa Canarios, which are loyal and not overly aggressive
if purebred, are likely to be long stigmatized as a result of the gruesome
San Francisco case.
"These dogs are going to be ruined," said Wilson, owner of Vulcan Kennels
near Toronto. "It's going to catch on with lunatics before it gets a
good base with serious owners."
Presa Canarios, which have large heads, muscular necks and low-slung
bodies, were brought to America from the Canary Islands. Originally,
the dogs were bred from English mastiffs and the now-extinct Bardino
Majero. Long ago, they were used by butchers to hold down cattle and
bulls while they were being slaughtered, and by farmers to pull heavy
carts and for other tasks.
Since their arrival here, the breed has not been recognized by the American
Kennel Club. But some breeders continue to produce only purebreds, saying
they have superior coloring, size and temperament.
Others, however, are cross-breeding Presa Canarios with such aggressive
canines as pit bulls and mastiffs. Those dogs, Hennings and others say,
are larger, stronger and more violent.
Dogs Can Weigh Up to 140 Pounds
North American breeders are now producing crossbred males that weigh
120 to 130 pounds. In some cases, they weigh as much as 140 pounds and
can cost $1,500 and up. Bane, the dog that attacked Whipple, weighed
about 123 pounds; the second dog that participated in the mauling, Hera,
weighed 112 pounds.
Although the killing of Whipple is the only known human death attributed
to Presa Canarios, the case is drawing attention from authorities concerned
about an increasing number of attacks by ferocious dogs.
The Los Angeles County health department say about 170,000 dog bites
a year are reported in the county, 153,000 of those to children under
the age of 12. Officials believe, however, that the true numbers are
far higher because many bites are never reported.
From 1979 to 1996, there were 300 dog bite fatalities across the nation,
according to a study by the Humane Society of the United States. Of
those, Rottweilers were the most commonly reported breed involved, followed
by pit bull-type dogs. Together, those two breeds were responsible for
60% of the deadly attacks.
"When you have dogs like pit bulls who are not trained or not well trained,
it's like having a loaded gun," said Jackie David, spokeswoman for the
Los Angeles Department of Animal Services.
In response, authorities are increasingly turning to force themselves.
Last year, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County
Sheriff's Department shot 53 dogs.
Bane and Hera, who were eventually euthanized, were crossbred Presa
Canarios. Bane's ancestry included mastiffs and Great Danes. Knoller
and Noel cared for the dogs after taking them from a farm where authorities
believe they killed livestock and ripped fences.
Knoller testified last week that when she first saw the dogs, they were
chained outdoors. Hera was barking and Bane, she said, was acting "like
a wild animal."
Animal-care experts and others say Presa Canarios require rigorous training
well before they turn 1 year old. In that way, they can be controlled
and their aggressive tendencies reduced.
In the case of Bane and Hera, however, several experts said it was clear
they did not receive adequate socialization or training in their early
lives. Rather, authorities allege, the dogs were being raised illegally
as part of a breeding ring of fighting dogs owned by two inmates in
Pelican Bay State Prison.
"The monsters were created before they ever came into the hands of the
defendants," said Richard H. Polsky, a Los Angeles animal-behavior specialist
who was hired by the defense in the Whipple case but never testified
Still, even those who say responsible owners will provide their dog
with proper training and socialization acknowledge that Presa Canarios
are powerful, territorial animals.
On one Presa Canario Web site, photos are shown of the dogs with infants.
But a cautionary note adds: "The Presa Canario is a very tame dog with
the family. . . . However, he may not be a 'baby-sitter dog.' If the
Presa is introduced in a family with children, it is necessary to teach
the children how to treat and respect the dog for preventing any unfortunate
Another breeders' Web site-- BraveHeart Kennel in North Carolina--also
acknowledges the reputation of the breed.
"With the naming of our dogs, we are not implying that our dogs are
overly aggressive, loaded guns, lethal weapons or attack dogs. They
are just firm guard dogs with Brave Hearts."
Fear, Excitement Said to Incite Dog's Biting
Breeders warn that Presa Canarios should not be wrestled with nor allowed
to play tug-of-war games in which they grab rags and shake their heads
vigorously. Such activities, in the words of breeder Tracy Hennings,
can "build up the dog's bite drive."
To Hennings and others, Bane and Hera displayed classic aggressive tendencies.
Hera appears to have been a fear biter, Hennings said. "They take real
weak bites with the front of the mouth. They snap, they bite and they
release." Authorities say Hera shredded Whipple's clothes in the attack.
Bane, however, appeared to be motivated by excitement, Hennings and
others said, and was virtually unstoppable. Authorities say Bane bit
Whipple's throat and was responsible for the most serious of the 77
bites on her body.
Breeders across the country, who are closely monitoring the trial, say
it appears obvious that Knoller did not know how to properly handle
her dogs, a prescription for potential disaster.
When Knoller encountered Whipple in the apartment hallway, she acknowledged
in court, she "could not stop him [Bane] from doing what he
Said Canadian breeder Wilson: "She walked out with 250 pounds of dog
on a leash. The thought of someone walking around like that blows my
mind. It's sickening."
Breeders say well-trained Presa Canarios can serve as loyal guard dogs.
Richard Kelly, who owns Show Stopper Kennels in Middlesex, N.J., says
many of his calls for the breed come from families in which one parent
is traveling and the spouse needs protection.
Several Presa Canario owners say their dogs are loving and well-behaved
with their children. They would not attack unless someone was attempting
to hurt them, the owners say.
But police, animal regulation officials and others say such large, aggressive
dogs are also often used by gang members, drug dealers and others to
protect them as they undertake their illicit activities.
"This breed," said Polsky, the animal-behavior specialist, "is increasing
in popularity, and undoubtedly, this breed will fall into the wrong
2002 Los Angeles Times
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