5-Year-Old Girl's Face Mauled After Asking to Pet an 'Emotional Support' Pit Bull & Mom Is Suing

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A $1.1 million lawsuit has been filed this week after a 5-year-old was attacked by a pit bull while traveling through Portland International Airport in December 2017. The pit bull was reportedly an emotional support dog who, although leashed, was not crated or otherwise secured, Fox News reports.

  • The incident happened while 5-year-old Gabriela Gonzalez was waiting at an airport gate with her brother before boarding an Alaska Airlines flight.

    Gabriella's mother, Mirna, had only stepped away from Gate C7 for a few short minutes to grab a cup of coffee when she heard her daughter's screams, The Washington Post reports. She raced back to find Gabriella crying and bloodied. 

    The little girl had been sitting in the waiting area with her older brother when she saw the pit bull, who was accompanied by its owner, Michelle Brannan, and allegedly asked permission to pet it. But just as she was reaching her hand out, the dog bit back, leaving the 5-year-old with blood dripping down her face.

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  • Gabriella suffered numerous facial injuries as a result of the attack, and the lawsuit seeks both emotional and financial damages.

    According to the lawsuit, Gabriella suffered injuries to "muscles, tendons, bones, nerves and soft tissue of her face, eye, eyelid, tear duct and lip" that will likely leave her with permanent scarring. She also required surgery to repair "complex facial lacerations and a damaged tear duct" that led to costly medical expenses, and she may need more in the future. 

    But it's also the emotional trauma of being attacked that her mother is most worried about. Although the suit is requesting $100,000 for past and future medical expenses, the other $1 million is for any additional pain and suffering Gabriella has endured. It's been filed against both Alaska Airlines and Brannan, the dog's owner.

  • This isn't the first alarming story of an animal support dog attacking a passenger at the airport, though.

    In June 2017, an incident at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta made headlines when a man was attacked by a fellow passenger's lab mix, which was also registered as an emotional support dog. He required 28 stitches.

    And just earlier this month, another little girl was bitten in the face by an emotional support dog during a Southwest  Airlines flight from Phoenix to Portland.

  • The attacks have sparked national debate about the rules and regulations surrounding pets on planes and if they're too relaxed.

    “You have two completely legitimate public interests,” J. Ross Massey of Birmingham firm Alexander Shunnarrah & Associates told AJC last year. On the one hand, he continues, there’s “the public interest for people who need support animals to have the support animals. But the other 99 percent of paying customers on that plane have a legitimate public interest as well to know that if they are seated next to a large unrestrained animal, that they can at least feel safe that that animal is trained.”

    In an op-ed for The New York Times this month titled "It's Time to End the Scam of Flying Pets," David Leonhardt argued that the loose rules surrounding pets on airplanes appears to be nearing its end. After United Airlines barred a woman from bringing her emotional support peacock on a flight, the airline tightened its policies.

    Although Alaska Airlines may soon be following in those footsteps, it is reported that Brannan had an emotional support animal form with her to rightfully travel with her animal.

  • Reactions to this latest story have run the gamut on Facebook, with some users blaming the incident on a lack of parental supervision.

    "My question here is why wasn’t the mother caring for her 5-year-old properly, making sure she wouldn’t get close to the 'dangerous' dog that was there?" wrote one commenter on the News 4 San Antonio Facebook page. "I believe it works both ways no?"

    "It's sad that this happened," wrote another user, "but this is one reason parents shouldn’t [let] their kids approach dogs that they aren’t familiar with."

  • Plenty of others called out the owner as ultimately responsible for not properly restraining her dog.

    "All dogs can attack no matter how well trained," wrote one commenter, who added that "there are many circumstances that will provoke a dog to do so." 

    The bottom line? "When you bring a dog into public, you are 110% responsible for insuring that it will not be able to do so regardless of why it would," the person continued. "I speak from experience. A loving, good natured dog of many years injured another and I saw it with my own eyes. It changed me forever. I still love dogs and in fact they are a big part of our lives, but we respect their space."

  • But many others called out the fact that emotional support pets and service pets are not the same thing -- and shouldn't be seen as equal. 

    According to the Americans with Disabilities Act national network (ADA), service animals are individually trained over a period of time to perform certain tasks or responsibilities for their owner (e.g., guide dogs for the blind). Emotional support animals, however, are often used as part of a therapy treatment, to provide companionship, or to relieve certain conditions such as depression or anxiety, and do not receive special training.

    It's this distinction that has many questioning whether emotional support pets should be classified differently and therefore subject to more restrictions during air travel.

    "I hope this is the case that finally puts an end to all these 'emotional support' pet owners who abuse the system and regulations," wrote one Facebook user. "There should be a heightened penalty for impersonation of a service animal."

  • For now, Chad Stavley, who's representing Mirna Gonzalez on behalf of her daughter Gabriella, hopes that the suit will spark some changes.

    “There’s a lot of abuse of this emotional support animal situation,” Stavley, a personal injury attorney based in Oregon, told The Washington Post. “and folks who have legitimate service animals -- people who are blind and need guide dogs and the like -- are kind of getting thrown into the same boat [as emotional support animals]. It shines a poor light on those folks.”

  • For parents who may be concerned about letting their children around dogs who could bite, experts advise erring on the side of caution.

    Talk to your kids about pet safety starting at an early age, The Spruce suggests. Warn them against going up to dogs they're not familiar with, urge them to ask permission first if they'd like to pet, and show them how to gently approach the dog in a safe and calm manner.

    Other key safety tips for kids include never hugging dogs, avoiding putting their face close to the dog's face, and never pulling on their ears or tail. It's not always easy to predict how a dog will react in a strange situation with a person it doesn't know or what harmless kid behaviors the dog could interpret as aggressive.

  • And if you're a pet owner yourself, keep an eye out for warning signs that your dog may be uncomfortable with a stranger.

    Small body language cues such as yawning, flicking the tongue, and lowering of the head/body can signal that a dog is uncomfortable, veterinarian Ilana Reisner shared with Psychology Today.

    "Remember that dogs can quickly change their minds about interactions with people or with other dogs," Reisner wrote. "Those who seem to accept 'sitting visitor' might jump and bite 'standing visitor'. If you’re even a little uncertain about your dog’s reaction, err on the side of caution and keep some distance between him and the person about whom he’s concerned."