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Laws on pit bulls take heat from dog owners

By jim Published: December 19, 2010
Steve Carey with his 8-year-old female pit bull named Harmony at his home Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2010 in Akron, Ohio. (Karen Schiely/Akron Beacon Journal)

Advocates say breed-specific rules meant to curb bites are ineffective, unfair. Canada provides new approach

By Kathy Antoniotti
Beacon Journal staff writer

Published on Saturday, Dec 18, 2010

Akron City Council members have discussed the issue of vicious dogs for more than 20 years.

In 1989, the council passed an ordinance naming specific breeds whose owners must comply with stricter requirements in order to keep their pets. In 2007, enforcement of that law was increased.

Debate over the past two decades often could be summarized this way: Can a poodle be as vicious as a pit bull?

''That's the thing we struggled with,'' said At-large Councilman Jeff Fusco, who introduced breed-specific legislation, singling out pit bulls and their mixes, that would become part of Akron's law.

''We worked hours and hours on [the legislation] and pulled every bit of legislation in the United States,'' in an attempt to find the right formula to appease constituents and provide for their safety while taking the rights of the animals' owners into account.

Fusco remembers the 1987 incident he called ''an unprovoked attack on a pregnant teenager'' by a dog labeled a pit bull. It roused 700 people in an East Akron neighborhood to sign a petition demanding council take action against all pit bulls.

News reports indicate dozens of breed advocates attended meetings, warning council of the legal hassles that would stem from discriminating against pit bulls, while concerned citizens lined up to lobby council members to ban them.

The debate was so heated the Akron Beacon Journal sponsored a readers' poll about the issue. The results showed that four out of five Akron residents favored banning pit bulls.

While council did not ban pit bulls, the city approved legislation that singled out certain breeds as vicious.

Mounting evidence, however, shows that breed-specific legislation is not effective. It is costly to enforce — and defend in court — and does little to prevent attacks by vicious dogs.

Animal advocates say breed-specific legislation removes the responsibility of a dog's behavior from its owners.

''Dog attacks are not a breed-specific problem, but a human-specific problem,'' said Jean Keating, president of the Ohio Coalition of Dog Advocates.

Also, in the era of dog DNA testing, communities should think twice before euthanizing a dog that has the outward appearance of a ''bully breed'' but not the genetic makeup of a pit bull.

''The genes that control the physical appearance of a dog have absolutely nothing to do with its temperament,'' said Keating, whose group has been instrumental in dropping breed-specific legislation from Toledo's vicious dog law and is currently helping Cleveland City Council do the same.

Court challenges

''Pit bull'' is a generic term for dogs that have certain physical traits. Akron's legislation governing such a dog includes American pit bull terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers or a mix of any of those dogs. The canary dog is also on the list.

A warning that the legislation would not hold up in court was dismissed later that year when Judge Ted Schneiderman ruled Akron's pit bull ordinance was constitutional.

In 2007, a similar Toledo law was upheld after a Lucas County court case was appealed in the Ohio Supreme Court.

Recently, however, Municipal Judge Michael Goulding ruled Toledo's pit bull law was unconstitutional because it, like Akron's ordinance, is more restrictive than Ohio law. Goulding said the city's law conflicts with state law and is vague.

Ohio is the only state that singles out ''pit bulls'' in its legislation as vicious dogs.

The judge wrote that the city law cannot lump ''pit bull mixed breed'' dogs with ''pit bulls.''

Toledo resident Hugh Smith, who was charged with 13 violations of the ordinance, sued when the dog warden classified his animals as vicious and impounded the dogs after receiving a complaint that they had been involved in a fight with another dog. The warden cited Smith for not having the dogs muzzled, not being adequately insured and improperly confining his ''pit bulls.''

The judge agreed with Smith that the three dogs aren't pit bulls. They are cane corsos.

An appeal of Goulding's ruling was dropped when Toledo City Council changed its law and adopted breed-neutral legislation.

In some ways, Akron's ordinance mirrors Toledo's old law, Keating said.

She said Goulding ruled that not giving owners the option of leashing or muzzling their dogs while outdoors, as state law permits, is unconstitutional.

Road to recovery

In Summit County, the Humane Society of Greater Akron is charged with caring for all animals — from puppies to pot-bellied pigs. But in order to find refuge at the Twinsburg facility, animals first must be rescued from people who abuse or neglect them.

Summit County Animal Control, by contrast, is a law-enforcement agency charged with protecting citizens. It contracts with Akron and other Summit County communities to euthanize vicious animals.

The National Animal Control Association does not support discriminatory measures that target pit bulls or any other breeds.

Although employees at the pound successfully adopt out hundreds of stray animals each year, old and sick animals are put down — as are pit bulls.

Harmony was one of the ''lucky'' dogs that avoided that fate, said Steve Carey of Akron, Harmony's owner and a volunteer at the Humane Society.

The 5-year-old Staffordshire terrier and American bulldog mix was found covered in blood and locked in a bathroom in an abandoned apartment.

Humane Society officer Shannon O'Herron rescued the ''pit bull'' and took her to an animal hospital for treatment. Afterward, Harmony spent two years at the agency's Quick Road facility in Peninsula, when Carey began fostering her for a Cleveland-based pit bull rescue group.

''She just integrated herself into my life,'' said Carey who takes the dog to work each day.

Today, Harmony is awaiting paperwork that will certify her as a therapy dog after passing temperament tests and behavior assessments through the Delta Society, Carey said.

Costly initiative

Best Friends Animal Society, a national advocacy group, began an initiative called Saving America's Dog to restore the pit bull's image and challenge breed-specific legislation across the country. Best Friends rescued 22 pit bulls seized in a 2007 raid in NFL quarterback Michael Vick's dogfighting ring.

One element of the program is to help determine the cost an average city can expect to pay to enforce breed-specific legislation. Best Friends contracted with economist John Dunham in 2009, who prepared a study titled The Fiscal Impact of Breed Discriminatory Legislation in the United States.

After determining ''the number of dogs in an area based on demographic data about population (number of households, population, area, structural type of housing, gender, poverty rate, ethnicity and married rate), the model evaluated the average proportion of pit bull-type dogs to total dogs to estimate the number of dogs affected by BSL,'' wrote Ledy Van Kavage, lead attorney for Best Friends in a 2010 report for the American Bar Association magazine, The Public Lawyer.

Breed-specific legislation adds costs related to animal control and enforcement, kenneling and veterinary care, euthanasia and carcass disposal and litigations from residents appealing or contesting the law and DNA testing.

The report cites the difficulties in enforcement because of the complexity of issues surrounding these cases in the age of DNA testing.

''Municipalities that enact BDL (breed discriminatory legislation) have the burden of proving that a dog is of the outlawed breed either through a preponderance of the evidence in most civil cases or beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal cases,'' wrote Van Kavage and her colleagues, Katie Barnett and Lauren Gallagher.

The potential annual cost to Akron residents and taxpayers to enforce BDL is $342,450, according to Dunham's formula.

'Calgary Model'

In contrast to Ohio's law and local breed-specific legislation, the ''Calgary Model'' — breed-neutral animal control bylaws in Alberta, Canada — often is hailed as a huge success.

Through a program that stresses education, tougher licensing and stronger enforcement, attacks by aggressive dogs are at their lowest level in 25 years despite a steady population growth, said Bill Bruce, director of animal and bylaw services in Calgary.

''You will find a remarkable correlation to dogs that bite and their owners,'' he said.

''We actually have an incredibly hard line on dog aggression,'' he said.

The fact that dog-bite statistics have not been reduced in places that have breed-specific legislation proves those laws don't work, Bruce said.

Calgary, with 1.1 million residents, reports a 90 percent license-compliance rate, which allows officials to keep better track of animals. The program is seen as a service, and roaming animals are returned to their owners through the city's ''License Is My Ticket Home'' program.

The 45-member department, which includes 24 officers, is self-funded through adoption, license and impound fees, and fines.

''Our residents know that the money goes back into animals and not to fixing pot holes,'' Bruce said.

Cats as well as dogs must be licensed in Calgary, and owners of unlicensed animals face stiff fines. Licenses are discounted for spayed or neutered animals and may be purchased by check, cash, debit or credit cards by mail, at the Animal Service Centre or online.

The Calgary Responsible Pet Ownership bylaw is based on four principles: licensing to provide permanent identification; spay and neuter; providing training, physical care, socialization and medical attention for pets; and not allowing pets to become a threat or nuisance, Bruce said.

Vicious animal incidents dropped from 2,000 a year 20 years ago to 300 in 2009. Only 58 incidents involved actual bites, Bruce said.

''It's not one or two things we are doing, but a hundred. [The law] is based on standard business-model practices,'' he said.

To read more about the Calgary Model, go to http://www.calgary.ca/docgallery/bu/cityclerks/23m2006.pdf

To calculate the fiscal effect of breed-specific legislation on a city, go to http://www.guerrillaeconomics.biz/bestfriends

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Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or  kantoniotti@thebeaconjournal.com.
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