While many readers may associate fatal animal attacks in North America with wild species such as bears, alligators or cougars, the reality is that dogs are responsible for far more deaths annually than the others combined. Generally, between 30 and 50 people are killed in fatal dog attacks in the US every year. In the UK, where fatal wild animal attacks are almost unheard of, three fatal dog attacks were recorded in 2019.
The Perro de Presa Canario is a large mastiff, originally bred in Spain, originally used to protect cattle from wild dogs. They were also frequently used for dog fighting until it was banned in the 1950s. Given their relative rarity, only five fatal attacks involving the breed or crossbred Canarios have been recorded in the US in the past thirty years. However, one of those has become one of the most well-known fatal dog attacks in America, redefining US law on what it means to own a dangerous dog. After the attack, the owners of the two Canarios were ultimately found guilty of second-degree murder.
Diane Whipple was a talented lacrosse player, twice earning All-American honours during high school and appearing for the US at the Women’s Lacrosse World Cup. She later accepted a role as lacrosse coach at Saint Mary’s College of California, living in an apartment in the Pacific Heights area of San Fransisco with her partner.
Her neighbours Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel had recently taken in a pair of Presa Canarios. The dog’s true owner was Paul Schneider, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood imprisoned at Pelican Bay, who had become familiar with Knoller and Noel through their work as attorneys. The pair comprised 140lb male Bane and 113lb female Hera.
On 26th January 2001, Whipple was returning to her apartment at the same time that Knoller was leaving with the two dogs. On seeing Whipple, Bane broke free from Knoller and attacked her. After a sustained attack, Whipple died in hospital from blood loss. She had suffered bite injuries to every part of her body apart from her scalp and the soles of her feet. Whether the attack was just by the larger Bane or if Hera participated as well has never been definitively proven.
Bane was put down immediately after the attack, while Hera was also euthanised a year later. Knoller was indicted by grand jury of second-degree murder, while Noel faced a charge of involuntary manslaughter. Knoller argued that she had attempted to prevent the attack, however multiple witnesses testified that the couple had repeatedly refused to control their dogs, even failing to apologise after acquaintances were bitten.
Both were convicted, based primarily on the premise that the pair knew the dogs were dangerous and failed to take appropriate precautions. It later transpired that owner Schneider had purchased the dogs with the intent of using them to establish an underground fighting ring. Knoller and Noel were both initially convicted of manslaughter, despite Noel not being present when the attack took place.
Knoller was later convicted of second degree murder and is currently serving a sentence that will run until at least 2022. Crucial to her conviction was the ruling that her failure to address the behavioural problems of her dogs constituted ‘implied malice’, defined as the defendant having sufficient foresight to know that such an event might occur and not taking steps to prevent it.