Pet food bowls lie scattered throughout the sprawling front yard of a North Flannery Road home, the driveway to which is obstructed by two panels of a chain link fence sporting signs warning outsiders: “BEWARE OF DOG.”
Animal Control officer Anna Catalanello, joined by fellow officer Frank Shaffer, grabs a catch pole, slips through a sizeable space between the fence and a small clump of trees, and disappears behind the house, reappearing minutes later steering a stout and curmudgeonly looking mutt toward a white East Baton Rouge Animal Control van parked by the road.
The pair are responding to reports from residents that a group of unruly dogs are running loose through the area, terrorizing motorists. Classified by the agency as a “dangerous animal” call, the address is a familiar one to Catalanello.
Despite claims by the property owners that the canines are strays, the dogs “basically live here on the property,” Catalanello said. “But because the fence isn’t complete, they get out on the road all the time and are usually semi-aggressive. We show up and they run back behind the fence and into the woods.”
Last year, East Baton Rouge Animal Control received 363 calls — nearly one a day — from residents concerned about a dangerous dog in their area.
Though the dogs in question are not always determined by officers to be acting aggressively, the numbers point to a pervasive problem for the parish.
From 2016 to 2021, there was an average of one dog per year deemed “dangerous,” records show. But in 2022, seven dogs were deemed “dangerous” and an eighth deemed “vicious,” a higher level on the danger scale. Local law required officials to euthanize the vicious dog.
There are three levels of classification: potentially dangerous, dangerous and vicious, said East Baton Rouge Animal Control director Daniel Piatkiewicz.
“It’s usually determined by officer discretion — how they feel about the complaints or how many times they’ve been called for an animal,” he said.
If a dog is classified as dangerous, owners have 30 days to comply with a list of requirements handed down by the parish or risk losing custody of their pet.
Earlier this month, the parish was rocked by two separate dog attacks, one of which resulted in the death of a 7-year-old girl.
Sadie Davila, a first grader at Woodlawn Elementary, was playing outside a family member’s home on Kendalwood Road when she was critically injured in an attack by a neighbor’s unleashed pit bull, according to the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office.
The girl was transported to a hospital but died hours later. The dog was taken into custody by EBRAC and euthanized.
Medical staff at the facility where Sadie was treated told detectives that she suffered from “numerous dog bites to her face and substantial damage to her skull.”
The dog’s owner, identified in court documents as Erick Lopez, 20, told investigators he wasn’t home at the time of the incident. He further admitted he often allowed the dog to roam the neighborhood unrestrained.
Lopez was arrested and booked on a count of negligent homicide. The judge who set Lopez’ bail at $7,500 also ordered him to move away from the neighborhood.
Four days after Sadie was killed, a pair of pit bulls reportedly attacked two East Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputies who had gone to a Highland Road apartment complex to arrest a man accused of violating a protective order.
EBRSO spokeswoman Casey Rayborn Hicks said that when law enforcement arrived at the apartment’s front door, the individual they were seeking — identified as Richmond McNeal, 48 — opened the door and unleashed the dogs on the deputies. Hicks said one of the pit bulls attempted to “latch onto one of the deputies with [its] teeth,” leading the officer to shoot and kill the animal.
The other dog, as well as a third that also lived in the apartment but was not involved in the attack, were taken into EBRAC custody.
Piatkiewicz expressed frustration that both incidents appeared to stem from dogs that hadn’t been properly restrained by their caretakers, pointing out that a large percentage of the dangerous dog calls his officers respond to are for pets that aren’t leashed or otherwise restrained as required by parish law.
“Generally it’s owner neglect, or the owner not being able to control their dog,” Piatkiewicz said. “It’s not really the dog that’s the main issue.”
Cheryl Michelet, a BREC spokeswoman, previously told The Advocate that her agency never received any complaints about dogs running loose in the neighborhood where Sadie was killed.
However, a neighbor of the girl’s relative had said the area frequently experienced problems with unleashed animals roaming the streets. Animal Control records show that prior to the attack the agency hadn’t received a single call for a dangerous dog on Kendalwood Road since at least 2018.
Nearly 200 miles away, another Louisiana town just east of the Texas border is taking more drastic measures to reduce its dangerous dog incidents.
In December, the town of Merryville in Beauregard Parish attempted to reinforce a pit bull ban following what Mayor Sheila Smith said were multiple complaints involving the breed from residents.
Many dog owners were soon outraged when they were given notice by the Merryville Police Department that they had just 48 hours to rehome their pets, KPLC News reported. In response to the backlash, town officials agreed to put the 48-hour deadline on hold pending a public meeting. The fate of the ordinance is now slated to be determined at a public hearing in February.
Back in Baton Rouge, Emily Lemoine, director of grants and communication for Companion Animal Alliance, which takes in the majority of animals picked up by EBRAC, said there are options for families struggling to care for their dogs.
Six years ago, CAA teamed with Pets for Life — a nationwide nonprofit aimed at providing pet care resources for households in disadvantaged areas — to bring affordable animal medical care and education to five of the parish’s most underserved ZIP codes.
The idea, Lemoine said, is to make responsible pet ownership easier and more accessible for everyone, regardless of income level.
Piatkiewicz, meanwhile, urges dog owners to ensure that their pets and everyone around them are safe.
“Everyone needs to know the animal laws in the parish and abide by them,” he said. “Not only is it better for you, but it can also help your animal.”