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Some innocent pups face death simply for looking like pit bulls

By jim Published: December 4, 2010
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Joanie Farmer holds her former dog Shadow during a visit with him in Akron. Shadow, a black lab, was misidentified as being a pit bull by an Akron dog warden when he was picked up and taken to the Summit County Animal Control facility. (Karen Schiely/Akron Beacon Journal)

Breed-specific laws catch innocent pups

By Kathy Antoniotti
Beacon Journal staff writer

The 2-year-old Labrador retriever was the victim of a broken home. When his adoptive owners split up, he ran away at the first opportunity. The incident occurred in 2008, one year after Akron officials stepped up enforcement of a 1989 law requiring owners to register pit bulls with the city and placed a number of other restrictions on the breed.

That law, his escape and a case of mistaken identify almost cost Shadow his life and illustrate the problems with breed-specific legislation that threaten numerous dogs over nothing more than physical appearance.

Opponents of these types of laws say they do little good and often result in the deaths of dogs that aren't dangerous — and many of which aren't pit bulls.

As a 12-week-old pup, Shadow had settled nicely into his new home after a local rescue group adopted him from Summit County Animal Control.

A Labrador breeder had surrendered Shadow for euthanasia, said Joanie Farmer, intake manager for One of a Kind Animal Rescue in West Akron.

As often happens with animals and their rescuers, Farmer and Shadow formed a bond, and she decided to adopt him.

Two years later, when the family split up, Farmer's ex-spouse got custody of the dog and moved out.

Farmer is unsure whether Shadow missed her, but he soon cleared a 5-foot fence to make his getaway.

''We think he was trying to get back to his old home,'' she said.

Shadow had made it only about three blocks when an Akron animal warden picked him up and took him to the Summit County facility. The dog's fate was almost sealed when the warden decided Shadow looked like a pit bull and signed him in to be euthanized.

Luckily, the warden didn't label him vicious, which could have led to another death sentence.

What's a pit bull?

For identification, Akron's vicious dog ordinance considers pit bulls to be any ''Staffordshire bull terrier, American pit bull terrier, or American Staffordshire terrier or any mixed breed of dog'' where the characteristics of a bulldog breed are identifiable.

The American Kennel Club does not recognize the term ''pit bull'' as a breed.

It's not just pit bulls that must be registered as vicious in Akron. In 1998, the City Council added another breed: the canary dog, or presa canario, in the list of dogs that would have to meet special security requirements.

Akron's law is more restrictive in terms of labeling than state law is. Breed advocates consider Ohio the worst state for dogs because of broadly worded legislation that allows for confiscation and destruction of dogs because of their appearance.

''Ohio is the only state with breed-specific legislation that restricts the breed commonly known as pit bulls,'' said Donald Cleary, director of publications and communications for the National Canine Research Council, based in New York.

Problems arose for pit bull-type dogs when they became popular with people looking for ''macho'' dogs, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Unscrupulous breeding and negative publicity resulted in many dogs being branded vicious — not by the temperament of an individual animal but solely because of appearance.

Origin of term

Pit bull terriers are descendants of the original English bull-baiting dog that was bred to bite and hold bulls, bears and other large animals. Bulldogs were bred to hang on without releasing their grip, until the larger animal was exhausted from fighting and loss of blood. Bull baiting was banned in the 1800s.

Those characteristics are the reason Akron created breed-specific legislation, commonly called BSL, City Prosecutor Doug Powley said.

''From our experience, and anecdotally, the pit bull does stand out in the courtroom as a problem for us,'' he said.

Over five years, the number of dog bites reported to the Summit County Health Department remained fairly constant: 275 in 2005; 220 in 2006; 275 in 2007; 294 in 2008; and 269 in 2009. The agency does not break down the severity of bites, nor does it note the breeds that cause them, said Terry Tuttle, environmental health supervisor for the department.

That is a problem when communities label entire breeds of dogs as vicious, Ledy VanKavage, senior legislative attorney at Best Friends Animal Society in Illinois, says in an article published on an American Bar Association Web site. The paper, titled All Bark and Fiscal Bite, questions whether breed-discriminatory laws are effective or fiscally responsible.

John Eagon, acting customer service manager for Akron, said the city contracts with the county to euthanize the dogs it impounds for $30 per animal. In 2009, Summit County Animal Control reported 307 pit bulls were impounded and euthanized.

''The vast majority of these animals were strays that were picked up by our wardens based on citizen complaints. These animals include pit bulls and all other breeds. We don't target pit bulls; we respond to all complaints regardless of the breed.

''These animals are then held at the pound to await redemption by their owners,'' Eagon said in an e-mail.

Owners have three days to claim their dogs; however, many people won't because they don't want to pay the fine and the cost to get them back, Eagon said.

The ASPCA agrees that bad owners and negative publicity that has cited pit breeds as ''inherently dangerous'' are the problem, according to the agency's Web site.

Karen Delise, founder and director of research for the Canine Research Council, is the author of The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression, which explores the reasons for the animals' poor reputation, including sensationalized accounts of pit bull attacks on humans. Rarely reported are similar attacks by other breeds, she said.

As an example, Delise cites four fatal attacks on four children in the first week of November 2006. One involved a pit bull, and three were by other breeds, Delise said.

On Nov. 7, a CNN Headline News reporter chose the single pit bull attack to feature on a show, referring to pit bulls as ''killing machines,'' Delise said.

The three children killed by other breeds of dogs that week were not mentioned, she said.

Laws lack teeth

Studies indicates breed-specific legislation does not control vicious dog attacks; Cleary of the National Canine Research Council, said he doesn't know of any that do.

''I've never heard of one. All I've ever seen is that it's going to work only in [theory],'' Cleary said.

The American Veterinary Medical Association as well as the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association have gone on record as opposing laws that discriminate against a particular breed of dog.

A recent study by the University of Colorado School of Medicine found that dog bites are not linked to specific breeds and that children are most at risk for bites — usually from a family pet. The study was done by Dr. Vikram Durairaj, who tested 537 children treated for facial dog bites at the school's Children's Hospital between 2003 and 2008. In the majority of cases, the child knew the dog, and more than half the time, it was a breed considered ''good'' with children, such as a Labrador retriever.

In Shadow's case, luck was with him when pound officials discovered that, although he was not wearing tags, he had a micro chip that identified his owner. The agency's veterinary technician called Farmer and told her to come pick up her dog.

''They told me he was having a good time and he thought he was there on a sleepover,'' Farmer said.

Farmer paid the fees to get Shadow back and took him to her home. Two weeks later, she received a summons to appear in Akron Municipal Court on charges of failure to have proper insurance for a pit bull, failure to register the animal as a pit bull and failure to confine a pit bull.

After five postponed hearings and the loss of five days of pay, Farmer appeared before Judge Kathryn Michaels.

The judge dismissed the pit bull-related charges against Farmer after seeing a photo of the animal and after Animal Control employees sent the court a letter on Shadow's behalf, Farmer said.

Unfortunately, she said, the three misdemeanors — related to a pit bull she never owned — remain on her record. That affects her ability to get credit, and the information must be included on job applications.

But what matters most is the dog is safe today, said Farmer, who has a shared-custody agreement for the dog.

''Shadow now lives outside of Summit County, so he does not have to worry about ever being labeled a pit bull again,'' she said.

Coming Dec. 11: Even experts struggle to identify real ''pit bulls'' based on physical appearance alone.
Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or kantoniotti@thebeaconjournal.com.

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