Pitbulls in South Africa have featured heavily in the news, following several fatal dog attacks involving the breed.
Pitbulls can have beautiful, gentle natures. When they don’t, it’s often a result of the behaviour of their owners or of other people. Nonetheless, people need protection too – and many victims of dog attacks are young children.
So what are the facts, and where to from here?
A spate of pitbull attacks in South Africa
Over recent years, a number of pitball attacks have resulted in fatalities. Others have led to extremely serious injuries.
In April, a five-year-old boy died after being mauled by two pitbulls as he made a 10-minute walk from his grandmother’s house to his mother’s home. Zibele Liyakhanya Mthi was running between the two homes to take a bath ahead of a Good Friday church service.
The dogs attacked him in a street in Dyamala village outside Alice in the Eastern Cape. Zibele’s mother found him wounded on the road halfway between the houses. He died in hospital two days later. The dogs were believed to have escaped from their home.
In March, an 88-year-old woman, Olga Grill, was mauled to death by a neighbour’s two pitbulls as she hung the washing out in her yard. The dogs jumped over a fence between the properties in Bonteheuwel, Cape Town.
In November 2022, a three-year-old boy was mauled to death by two pitbulls in Phomolong, Free State. Keketso Saule was playing with friends in a neighbour’s gated front yard where the dogs were usually caged. That day, they were roaming free. Keketso died at the scene.
In the same week as Kekesto’s death, a 15-month-old toddler was attacked by a pitbull in the Eastern Cape. He later died from his injuries.
Also in November, an eight-year-old boy, Olebogeng Mosime, died after being attacked by an escaped pitbull belonging to neighbours in Vista Park, Bloemfontein.
In October 2022, a 10-year-old boy, Storm Nuku, was mauled to death by his family’s two pitbulls at his home in Gqeberha, Eastern Cape.
Are pitbulls naturally aggressive?
The answer is complicated. According to advocacy group the Pit Bull Federation of South Africa (PBFSA), the American pitbull terrier is the “…most misunderstood breed in the world”.
American pitbull terriers, commonly referred to as pitbulls, actually comprise a number of breeds with a similar appearance. While individual dogs that are well trained may not be inherently aggressive, historically the pitbull has been bred to be aggressive.
According to Professor Sandra Swart of Stellenbosch University, who specialises in the history of dogs in society, this originally started in England, where they were bred for bull-baiting (a blood “sport”). After being imported in the 1970s to South Africa, they have been bred as guard dogs and for illegal dog-fighting rings.
Prof Swart told The Conversation, “Their training is often derelict or intentionally aggression-inducing – as they are often used as extensions of toxic masculinity, as status symbols with teeth.”
Pitbulls have also been bred to have high pain thresholds.
“Their behaviour is perhaps 60% genetic but remember, dog behaviour is flexible and can be drastically modified by training and experience, especially between three and 12 weeks,” said Prof Swart.
Animal behaviour expert Dr Quixi Sonntag, a lecturer at the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria, told Business Tech that the dogs were not originally bred to be human-aggressive – just “dog-aggressive”.
Calls to ban pitbulls – where to from here?
Given the number of fatal attacks, it’s unsurprising there have been calls to ban pitbulls as pets in South Africa. Organisations including the trade union federation COSATU and the National Council of SPCAs have backed calls for the breed to be banned as pets.
In April 2023, the Sizwe Kupelo Foundation handed over a petition with more than 139,000 signatures to Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development Minister Thoko Didiza calling for a ban on pitbulls as domestic pets.
The minister said the government is working on a way to identify short-, medium and long-term approaches to promote people’s safety. She said stakeholders, such as the Pit Bull Federation of South Africa and Centre of Applied Pet Ethology International, are working to create a joint task team.
The team is planning a comprehensive DNA analysis of pitbull and pitbull-type dogs to assist with the identification of problem animals. “This exercise will also investigate aggression behaviour and will assist in identifying the pitbull and pitbull-type dogs that may be developed through indiscriminate crossbreeding,” the minister has said.
While the call for a ban is understandable, it may not be the solution to the problem, says Prof Swart. Historically, there’s no evidence to suggest that banning a specific “aggressive” breed eradicates the problem. Legislation is almost impossible to enforce fairly and a banned breed can simply be renamed or go underground.
Working to break the dog-fighting rings would go a long way to eliminating the problem, says Prof Swart. “Once dog fighting is stopped for good, there will be less incentive to breed for aggression, and more money in breeding pitbull lines that are family friendly.”
Responsibilities of dog owners
Inevitably, dog owners must face the responsibilities of owning pitbulls.
The PBFSA says responsible ownership of pitbulls is crucial for the safety of both dogs and communities. The PBFSA encourages sterilisation and is “totally against the fighting of dogs” and “strongly opposes the breeding of unregistered pitbull terriers”.
In its mission statement, the PBFSA says, “When owners are educated about proper care, training, and socialisation of their dogs, they are more likely to raise well-behaved, well-adjusted dogs that can live happily and safely with their families and the community.”
The National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has said owners are responsible for researching and understanding the type of animal they own.
Many owners do understand the risks – and fears – their pitbull poses. Following the fatal attack of eight-year-old Olebogeng, 49 pitbulls were reportedly handed over to the SPCA in Bloemfontein.
The rights of dog attack victims
Minister Didiza has said the department is working with the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development to amend the Animal Matters Amendment Act of 1993 to ensure that citizens are protected from any harm and that owners of such animals are held accountable for whatever damages are caused by power dogs and other animals.
If you’re attacked and injured by a pitbull, you have the right to claim compensation from the owner. The amount of compensation usually covers medical costs incurred, loss of earnings and general damages for pain and suffering.
Like most personal injury claims, dog bite claims can be complex. The factors affecting the outcome include where the attack took place, the severity of the injury, the age of the plaintiff and the circumstances of the attack.
Judges in South Africa can enforce “actio de pauperie”, a legal maxim that provides that “the owner of a dog that attacks a person who was lawfully at the place where he was injured, and who neither provoked the attack nor by his negligence contributed to his own injury, is liable, as owner, to make good the resulting damage”.
Dog bite claims are covered by the principle of strict liability. This means the dog’s owner is legally responsible for the damage or loss caused by the dog. There’s no requirement that the claimant prove fault, negligence or intention. In order to challenge this ruling, an owner must prove the dog was provoked or was defending itself from abuse.
How to claim compensation for a pitbull attack
If you believe you have a valid dog bite claim, schedule a consultation with a personal injury lawyer. An experienced attorney will tell you if it’s worth pursuing your claim.
To do this, you will need to present all the relevant evidence, including witness statements, photographic evidence, medical records and reports, including a case number from the police.
How DSC Attorneys can help
At DSC Attorneys, we specialise in personal injury cases and have considerable experience in handling dog bite cases, including attacks from pitbulls in South Africa.
We can assess your claim, help prepare supporting evidence and represent you in legal proceedings, giving you the best chance of receiving the compensation you deserve. We work on a no-won, no-fee basis.
Contact us for the very best legal support and representation.