WAXHAW, N.C.-- For years, the dog leash law in this small town has gone largely unenforced. Officials halted animal control service because there weren't enough complaints.
But the fatal mauling Wednesday of 5-year-old Makayla Woodard by two loose pit bulls has prompted a push for new restrictions and renewed debate about the dangers posed by pit bulls.
On Friday, a county commissioner said he wants to ban the breed in Union County, saying they are a threat to public safety.
Waxhaw Mayor Daune Gardner said town leaders will meet on Monday to discuss possible new ordinances, including forcing pet owners to register potentially dangerous animals with the police.
"We will be looking at what we can do to make our community safer," Gardner said.
The attack took place in a town 12 miles southeast of Charlotte, where rapid population growth has transformed a formerly rural area with virtually no pet law enforcement into a bedroom suburb.
Waxhaw had agreed before the attack to reinstate animal control service later this year to handle complaints because population has doubled to about 7,000 in the last decade, said Michael McLaurin, town manager.
"We've had a lot of growth, and we've got all of the related issues," McLaurin said.
Makayla, a kindergartner at Waxhaw Elementary School, died Wednesday after the attack, which took place between her home and a neighbor's property where the dogs lived on Rehobeth Road.
Her 67-year-old grandmother, Nancy Presson, told police she let Makayla outside to play in the snow and heard dogs barking. She went outside to find two dogs attacking the girl and flung herself over Makayla's body to try to protect her, according to a police report.
The dogs also attacked Presson, who suffered severe lacerations to her right hand, arm and shoulder, police said.
It remains unclear whether the dogs were left loose Wednesday or got off their chains before the attack.
A floral arrangement of daisies and carnations was outside Makayla's home Friday.
No one answered the door at the dog owner's house Friday afternoon.
Waxhaw Police Chief Michael Eiss told the Observer he expected to file charges soon against the dogs' owner.
Eiss would not divulge any new details about the attack but said the dogs' owner was not at home when it occurred.
Waxhaw's leash law requires that dogs be kept on their owner's property unless they are on a leash. Dogs can roam their owner's property as long as an adult is outside with them and in control of the dogs.
Authorities said neither the Union County Sheriff's animal control division nor Waxhaw police had received complaints about the pit bulls.
But a neighbor who lives across the street said she called animal control on the two dogs about two months ago - not because they had behaved aggressively, she said, but because she feared they were being neglected.
Cyndi McCoy said one of the dogs wandered over to her house in November. She fed the dog because she said it looked malnourished. Then she called 911 and spoke to animal control.
"She looked like a dead dog walking," McCoy said. "She was just pitiful."
She said animal control told her there was nothing it could do. Although Waxhaw has a leash law, Union County does not. County officers cannot enforce town ordinances.
McCoy said one dog was usually chained in her owner's yard, while the other was often left unrestrained but usually stayed in the yard.
She said she never saw either of the dogs behave aggressively in the neighborhood, where dogs often roam. She said neighbors have had issues with dogs chasing children playing along the street.
But she said she fears the two dogs had been abused and that it may have led to Wednesday's attack.
"You put any dog under those circumstances, and they'll snap," she said.
McCoy was home when Makayla was attacked Wednesday.
"I keep hearing those screams," she said. "I can't get that out of my head."
Waxhaw stopped providing animal control service five years ago because there were so few complaints, said McLaurin, the town manager.
According to town ordinances, a first violation of the leash law is $10. Eiss said the amount is not enough of a deterrent. He said hiring an animal control officer would lead to better enforcement.
Now, Waxhaw leaders say they will look at implementing new ordinances.
The death of Makayla puts the issue "on the front burner," said Martin Lane, town commissioner.
Union County Commissioner Jonathan Thomas said he looked into whether the county could ban pit bulls. Thomas said he was told state law would prohibit such a measure but he says it would protect residents.
"You should get rid of all of the pit bulls," Thomas said. "You have to mitigate threats."
The Humane Society of the United States has opposed breed bans, said Kim Alboum, director of the North Carolina branch.
"Breed can't alone predict behavior," she said.
Some Waxhaw leaders indicated they would not support a ban on pit bulls, saying it is too difficult to separate breeds that are dangerous from those that are not.
But Mayor Gardner vowed officials would find out "what we can and cannot do."