Long before fatal dog mauling of Longview man, loose animals were seen as problem (2024)

A truckload of students from Foster Middle School cruised around South Longview on a Saturday morning in April as part of the Love Longview Day of Service beautification event. With buckets of paint and brushes, they were ready to repaint fire hydrants needing a fresh splash of color.

But as they walked around the city’s south side, their eyes glanced back and forth constantly. Foster Middle School Assistant Principal John Washington knew exactly what they were looking for: vicious, loose dogs. And he said he understands why.

The former Longview Lobo remembers the day when, as a 17-year-old football player, he went for a jog not far off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and was chased by three dogs. All these years later, loose and dangerous animals remain a problem in the area.

“You can't just walk out of your house and run around the block,” Washington said. “That dog will kill you— chase you where you won't ever come out of that house again. They know that. Kids that grow up here, they know that.”

Other South Longview residents learned that lesson in February when 46-year-old father Kenneth Pierson was killed by a pack of dogs while he rode his bike along MLK Boulevard.

Those dogs were no strangers to the city’s animal control. Officers had issued about 50 citations to their owner, Gilbert Martin Rodriguez, who later was charged in connection with Pierson’s death.

South Longview residents say Pierson’s death could have been prevented and that dog-related problems have plagued their part of the city for years. They also say the incidenthighlights the growing need for greater animal control enforcement in a part of the community that is underserved.

Longview faces the same trend as other cities across the nation: The number of loose dogs has increased in the past five years, and so has the reported number of times dogs have bitten people. And while those problems begin with bad owners, people in affected areas say they could be lessened with stronger enforcement.

City responds to February death

The number of loose animals in Longview increased from 1,238 in 2019 to 1,839 in 2023, and the number of reported dog bites almost doubled— from 82 to 160— in the same timeframe, according to data obtained via open records requests.

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The number of dog bites reported throughout Gregg County rose from 36 in 2019 to 46 in 2023, according to data obtained from open records requests. And while the number of animals the Gregg County Sheriff’s Office impounded took a dive in 2020 and 2021, that number was 432 in 2019. In 2023, it was 526.

South Longview tends to have more loose animals because it has a greater population density— and a greater share of undeveloped land— than other parts of the city, said Richard Yeakley, city spokesman.

Pierson’s February death highlighted “a need for specific attention in that area of our community,” Yeakley said.

After Pierson was killed, city officials conducted a full review of the animal control department’s rules, regulations and practices. Since that time, animal control officers have spent more time in the city’s south side — specifically in the area where Pierson was killed along south MLK Boulevard, Yeakley said. The city traditionally has three animal control officers on duty.

“Tragedies like the one that our community experienced are exceedingly rare, both across the country and in Longview,” Yeakley said. “And so we certainly take it seriously.”

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Despite the higher number of loose dogs and dog bites citywide, those numbers don’t fully reflect the work of the city’s animal control department, Yeakley said in March. In the past 12 months, officers have written more than 300 citations regarding animals, and the Longview Animal Care and Adoption Center has taken in more than 1,200.

“More than 1,200 dogs is a substantial number of animals in our community that they have brought in ... including animals that were relinquished by owners after complaints,” Yeakley said. “So, it's work that's being done that may not be reflected totally in the way that the numbers bear themselves out.

“Our animal control officers are doing a fantastic job.”

Family: More should have been done

Linda Pierson-Carrier said she wonders if she’ll ever quit crying over the death of her son, whose body was found around 3 a.m. Feb. 1 near MLK Boulevard and Rayburn Drive. Kenneth Pierson was riding his bike down the street when a pack of dogs from a nearby home attacked and killed him.

“I don't think my life will ever be the same,” she said.

Pierson’s death was the second tragedy in a matter of months for his family. In December,Pierson-Carrier's oldest grandson, 30-year-old Michael Pierson, was shot and killed in Dallas outside the store where he worked.

Kenneth’s death, LindaPierson-Carrier said, “could have been prevented.” Her daughter, Teressa McFarland, and Kenneth's uncle, Anthony Pierson, agreed. All said they believed the city did nothing to keep it from happening.

People in the area where Pierson was killed said the dogs that attacked him had posed safety concerns for months before the fatal attack. They saw them chase a crowd of children participating in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in January, and neighbors said the dogs had chased bicyclists.

Yeakley confirmed at the time that animal control officers had written almost 50 citations since 2019 regarding those animals. And officers had taken legal action regarding the animals as recently as January.

Rodriguez, the dogs’ owner, has a lengthy criminal record and has been arrested for animal-related crimes multiple times since 2019, according to court records. In 2021, he was arrested and charged with “attack by dog resulting in SBI (serious bodily injury).”

McFarland said she questions why city officials didn’t take Rodriguez’ dogs away sooner.

"They could have went out there and picked them up," McFarland said. "They could have picked them up at the Martin Luther King parade. But did they?"

Anthony Pierson also asked whether such an incident would occur on the north side of Longview.

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“You don’t get a chance to see dogs running loose over there on the north side,” he said.

Yeakley said animal control officers have interacted with Rodriguez “many times” in the past regarding different animals he owned. He surrendered the animals that were responsible for the 2021 attack that resulted in his arrest but got more.

“His many times that animal control interacted with him were not all about the same animal. There were just like a churn of animals,” Yeakley said.

Muriel Davis— whose daughter, Petra, is the mother of Kenneth Pierson’s 8-year-old son, Kenneth “Zayden” Pierson— said she believes the city should consider making changes to municipal ordinances that might help prevent attacks in the future. She didn’t state, however, what specific changes she would like to see.

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“This should never happen to anybody,” Davis said. “Something should have been done before we got to a fatality.”

Yeakley said Longview residents have the right to speak to city leaders about changing municipal ordinances, but people hadn’t done so as of March, he said.

“The challenge here, perhaps, is that, given our context in Texas, and in East Texas, pet ownership is something people feel pretty strongly about. Property rights are things that people feel strongly about,” he said. “You don’t want one horrific and tragic incident to necessarily cause process changes that are onerous to everybody every day.”

On a recent Saturday, the Pierson family sat in their South Longview home with the front door open. The sun beamed into the dark living room, where Linda and Teressa held photos of Kenneth.

Kenneth was the creative type. He had a knack for making trinkets such as knives, and he could fix almost anything around the house, from plumbing problems to machine malfunctions. His nickname was “Schlitz” because his mother craved that brand of beer when she was pregnant with him, she said.

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He was a stranger to no one, his mother said. Yet he cared about strangers, too. He broke up fights between young men in the neighborhood, even though his mother told him not to.

Whenever Linda talked with Teressa on the phone, Kenneth would tell Linda: “Tell Teressa I love her,” Teressa said.

“Those were the words we would always say to each other,” she said.

Kenneth’s son was one month away from his 8th birthday when his father was killed. The family had started making plans the night before Kenneth was killed, said Petra Davis, and they’ve set up an online fundraising page requesting donations to help him moving forward.

Those interested in donating can visittinyurl.com/piersonfundraiser.

Petra and Muriel Davis said they’ve both heard about issues people have had with dogs on the city’s south side for some time. Some parents no longer drop their children off at bus stops because of the threats posed by dogs, Muriel Davis said. She and her daughter said they want to see change.

“If people know throughout the entire community, 'Hey, there's a problem,’ then maybe something can be addressed,” Petra Davis said.

Rusk County faces similar issues

Longview residents aren’t the only East Texans who’ve faced problems with loose and vicious dogs. In Elderville, which straddles Gregg and Rusk counties, residents complained for months to the Rusk County Sheriff’s Office about a pack of aggressive Boston Terriers that attacked a group of children and other community members in 2023.

“Who would ever guess little Boston Terriers?” asked Elderville resident Judy Rothrock.

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On Jan. 28, the dogs bit and bloodied a 75-year-old friend of Rothrock’s while she was out for a walk. She was taken to a hospital by ambulance and received 26 stitches. She also fought a serious infection for weeks afterward, Rothrock said. Photos showed her friend’s leg, arm and hand covered in blood.

Rothrock and dozens of other community members met with Rusk County Sheriff Johnwayne Valdez to discuss the issue. Like others, Rothrock questioned why the sheriff’s office didn’t confiscate the dogs before her friend was harmed.

“They knew that they were attacking people,” Rothrock said. “They didn't put them down until this happened. And she could have been killed.”

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Valdez, however, said he’s equally frustrated by the problems loose dogs pose in his county.

Rusk County doesn’t have its own animal shelter, and the city of Henderson has a list of roughly 3,500 animals waiting to be surrendered to it. He’s spoken with shelter officials as far away as Dallas and Houston, but all said their shelters are full. Even if deputies seize animals, he asks, where would they take them?

“We've had complaints all over the county,” Valdez said. “That's one of our largest, if not the largest, complaint that I have since I've been sheriff is stray dogs. And our blanket response to that has been, ‘We have nowhere to put 'em’ because we don't.”

Rusk County’s animal control officer position is unfilled, Valdez said, because the sheriff’s office doesn’t have enough deputies on the street. And while the county does have a leash law that applies to the Elderville area, it doesn’t include any provisions for assessing fines, Valdez said.

To that end, Valdez said residents have the right to defend themselves, their property and their animals against dangerous animals. He said his office won’t pursue criminal charges against people who shoot such animals “if they can prove that’s what they did.”

“Everything that we can possibly do to help with problem animals or crimes that are being committed with animals, we've jumped on those quickly,” Valdez said. “This is just one of those things where— I hate to use the term my hands are tied, but they are, because I've got nowhere to put them.”

If a lack of funding is the solution to the county’s animal enforcement issues, Rothrock said that should be addressed. So does the root of the problem: irresponsible pet ownership.

“Animal owners need to be held to account for neglecting and abusing their animals, and the harm they cause to others,” she said. “Accountability is so important or they have no incentive to stop their abuse and neglect, and more people will get hurt or killed.

“I just think that that's very, very important that everybody works together to try to make our community safer, whether it's in Gregg County or Rusk County or wherever.”

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Struggling to keep up

Rothrock and other residents in Longview and East Texas acknowledge that the region’s animal safety issues begin with unethical and careless pet ownership. But like other people across the country, they’re calling for greater animal control efforts to respond to those issues.

The rising tide of dog attacks in Longview is a trend shared by other cities in Texas, other states and even other countries.

Between 2006 and 2022, fatal dog bites doubled in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leading to 96 deaths in the last reporting year. In California, a study by that state’s Department of Health Care Access and Information found dog attack hospitalizations doubled during the same period, leading to 48,600 emergency room visits in 2022.

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While Texas does not track dog bite hospitalizations — and a bill aimed at doing so was shot down in 2021 by the Legislature — there is evidence the problem is severe.

Texas ranked second in the nation for dog attacks on U.S. Postal Service employees, according to a news release published last year. Four hundred and four dog-related incidents were noted in the survey, most of which were concentrated in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.

A number of explanations are emerging for the rise in attack cases— and why a sharp increase appeared following the pandemic.

Animal behaviorists have theorized that dogs born and raised during the pandemic lockdown were deprived of socialization during a key phase in their development, which could lead to aggressive behavior as they mature.

A simpler explanation is that there’s more dogs than ever. Nearly 20 percent of American households adopted an animal during the pandemic, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

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Whatever tangle of factors is driving the trend in the United States, Texas’ animal control laws, though tougher than some other states, have remained unchanged for almost two decades.

“I've never had the sense of, ‘Oh, my gosh, state law is really poor.’ I don't think that's the case at all,” said Colleen Lynn, president and founder of Dogs Bite, an Austin-based national advocacy group for dog attack victims. “I just think that some states do a little bit better.”

“What's unique about our law is that we do have a felony dog attack statute that passed in 2007. Very few states have one. You could see criminal charges pressed on an owner if their dog commits an unprovoked attack. So, at least there’s that,” Lynn said.

One area where Texas law falls short compared with states such as New Mexico, Lynn said, is by limiting dangerous dog designations to attacks on humans. She explained that attacks on other animals and pets typically precede the mauling of a person.

“But there are things cities can do, too,” she said.

San Antonio, Dallas and Austin all have passed laws that create a second tier designation for aggressive dogs that kill or injure pets and livestock. Owners who receive either designation are generally required to secure the animal at home with a fence or leash, add signage around their property, obtain liability insurance and other actions, such as attending pet ownership classes.

San Antonio created a three-tiered aggressive dog policy where animals registered through the system are identifiable on a map.

Still, Lynn said the bureaucratic and legal burden to make such designations means they’re exceedingly rare: “The designations are a pain. They really are.”

Yeakley, the city of Longview spokesman, agreed.

“If you have an animal that is problematic that the city wants to take, traditionally, it doesn't make a lot of sense to fight that,” he said. It’s easier for the owner and the city to have the animal voluntarily relinquished, even if the owner continually purchases and raises aggressive dogs.

“You can simply go get another animal. Between the state and the city's rules, there's not much prohibiting that,” Yeakley said. He added that Longview animal control officers have seized more than 1,000 dogs in the past five years, but none of them were officially declared dangerous.

Lynn said the state should update its health and safety code to shut the revolving door for owners who repeatedly raise dangerous animals or fail to contain them on their property.

“As it stands, there’s no accumulation for repeat offenders,” Lynn said. “So, you have to go through this whole process with each new dog, as opposed to saying, ‘No, you are a problematic owner. You can’t purchase a new animal for a year or two.' ”

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The notion of irresponsible dog ownership becomes more complicated when applied to areas such as South Longview, where bites and strays are overwhelmingly concentrated— and so are poverty and property crime.

Dogs, even small ones, have a substantial deterrent effect on burglaries, according to multiple studies. Perceptions of insecurity in one's neighborhood or home can inform the kinds of dogs that owners purchase, how those dogs are raised and whether they’re left unsecured to patrol a property.

“This idea of having a dog to guard my stuff, guard me— we see that in disadvantaged neighborhoods everywhere in the U.S.,” Lynn said.

Nevertheless, South Longview is where the majority of stray dogs roam, Yeakley said, and the city can only do so much to reduce those numbers when owners fail to secure animals or get them spayed and neutered.

Yeakley said the city has taken steps to empower residents to be more responsible pet owners through initiatives such as the Spay it Forward program, which has distributed 1,500 vouchers to get pets spayed and neutered.

The growth of the voucher program— on top of three free vaccination and microchip events that Yeakley said were well-attended— “show that most residents want to love their pets well,” he said.

“Where we can reduce the factors that might cause a resident to not be able to fully care for their animal, I think those are steps in the right direction,” he said.

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Hope for the future

As the Foster Middle School students helped repaint fire hydrants in April, Washington— the school’s assistant principal— compared South Longview to other places he’s lived: place where people can freely walk around outdoors and not worry about the presence of vicious animals, he said.

But until things change in South Longview, people of all ages will continue to live with the concerns those animals pose.

“People are saying these things, but it's not getting to the right cliques,” he said. “And you'll never know this unless you have some experience with both sides.”

Samuel Shaw is a Report for America corps member for the News-Journal, covering East Texas’ rural to urban transformation. Reach him at sshaw@news-journal.com .Jordan Green is a Report for America corps member covering underserved communities for the News-Journal. Reach him atjgreen@news-journal.com.

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