Riverside County supervisors today authorized the Department of Animal Services to proceed with drafting a proposed ordinance requiring owners of pit bulls to sterilize their dogs, with some exceptions, for the sake of public safety.

"We're not asking you to ban the breed," Animal Services Director Robert Miller told the Board of Supervisors. "We're asking for reasonable regulations to help us encourage people to do the right thing."

Animal control officers are called out to capture and impound all manner of vicious dogs, Miller said, but pit bulls are by far the worst type.

 In just the first three months of 2013, at least three serious pit bull attacks have been reported countywide. One of the victims was mauled to death. All of the victims were women over 75 years old.

Supervisor John Tavaglione said he urged the Department of Animal Services to draw up proposed regulations targeting pit bull owners after an 84-year-old Jurupa Valley man was killed by a family pit while sitting in his wheelchair last year.

"I have no doubt there are many responsible dog owners," Tavaglione said. "But there are many in our communities who are not responsible with their dogs. Those are the ones we need to go after."

Miller said the pit bull population countywide ranged into the tens of thousands, while the total number of pit bulls licensed in the county is around 120.

"The population is out of control," he said. "Twenty percent of the dogs we impound are pit bulls and pit bull breeds. We deal with a lot of `powerhouse' breeds. But pits do the worst damage."

He noted that the dogs are "over-muscular" and typically have "over-developed broad jaws" that allow for clamping down on a object or person for "a half-hour or hour."

According to Miller, the adoption rate on pit bulls in county shelters is the lowest of any breed. The vast majority are euthanized.

Beaumont City Councilwoman Brenda Knight told the board she had been attacked by pit bulls in two separate incidents.

"Something that doesn't get mentioned enough is that these dogs bite differently. They're like sharks," Knight said. "They rip, tear and shred. The attacks can be brutal."

Riverside-area resident Michelle Randall recalled how her Aussie shepherd was savaged by a neighbor's pit bull, which inflicted permanent injuries from which the woman's dog suffered for months before dying.

"Pit bulls are genetically engineered to fight," she told the board. "They may be `just the sweetest thing,' but at their genetic heart, they're bred for one purpose."

Pit bull owners countered that the dogs can be trained to be more aggressive, and it was unfair to broad-brush the breed as inherently vicious.

"You can sensationalize any breed," said Riverside resident Aurora Chavez. "It's not right to blame an innocent dog. Go after the owners. It's their responsibility to control the dog's behavior."

Michelle Chavez of Riverside, a pit bull breeder, said imposing mandatory sterilization would "promote underground dogs."

"People will hide the dogs or they'll dump the dogs," Chavez said. "We understand there's a problem. But there needs to be more education."

Each supervisor indicated he was amenable to an ordinance aimed at controlling the pit bull population. However, several supervisors insisted that any proposed regulation contain language specifically exempting some pit bull owners from a mandatory spay/neuter requirement, including individuals who use the canines as service dogs to cope with disabilities.

Supervisor Marion Ashley sought a "model ordinance" that cities might follow. A county ordinance would only apply to unincorporated communities.

"We'll come up with it and then go sell it," he said.

Any proposed ordinance would be the subject of at least two public hearings before the board.