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DANGEROUS DOGS OR DANGEROUS PEOPLE?By Suzanne Brannan
Each year across the country nearly 4.7 million people, mostly children, are bitten by dogs. While statistics may indicate that pit bulls, Rottweilers or German Shepherd Dogs cause many of the fatalities, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Rather than blaming specific breeds, a significant number of fatal attacks can be directly related to gross human negligence, criminal intent, physical abuse, irresponsible caretaking or even encouragement of attack behavior. The conditions leading up to a lethal attack are usually a combination of events such as learned and inherited behaviors, reproductive status (unaltered males), socialization, physical condition, environmental stress and owner irresponsibility, just to mention a few.
With the New Mexico Dangerous Dog Act, legislators have put the emphasis on owner responsibility, while giving dogs the same due process that humans would receive in court. The intent is to actively reduce the number of state-wide dog attacks. Under the new law, when the court has declared a dog to be dangerous or pose a threat to public safety, the guardian of the dog will be held responsible for adhering to strict housing and handling requirements, rather than authorities impounding any dog that has bitten someone.
The new law will work like this: At the time local animal control officers determine a dangerous dog situation they can apply for a warrant to seize the dog and within fourteen days bring the responsible person to court. The court must then find “that in addition to exhibiting the behaviors defined as dangerous or potentially dangerous,” the dog must also “pose a threat to public safety.” The dog’s guardian will be allowed to keep the potentially dangerous or dangerous dog, but will be held accountable to follow through with the requirements as prescribed by the local jurisdiction. Local animal control will be responsible for setting the fees, the nature of fines and enforcement.
Examples of the conditions that the dangerous dog’s guardian must meet would be restricting potentially dangerous dogs to secure enclosures, but not chaining them up; leash, muzzle and having the dog under control when out of the secure location; and mandatory spay or neutering and reporting immediately the escape of a dangerous dog to the local animal control agency.
Ironically, Bob Schwartz, Governor Bill Richardson’s former crime advisor and the author of the Dangerous Dog Act, was attacked while in bed last October by one of his own dogs, Axel, an American bulldog. Bulldogs are not considered a particularly dangerous breed. However, after an evaluation by an animal behaviorist, who found that the dog suffered from “status-related aggression”, Schwartz felt he had no choice but to have Axel euthanized for public safety reasons and because it was his “responsibility under the law.”
When a dog has been encouraged to exhibit dangerous behavior and the guardian is held responsible, they oftentimes don’t want to pay the fines imposed or make the necessary changes and will instead relinquish ownership, thus eliminating a potentially tragic situation.
By not perpetuating the false assumptions regarding specific breeds of dogs, New Mexico’s legislators have recognized that the responsibility lies squarely on a dog’s caretakers. Ultimately it is us, as caretakers, who need to create a healthy, happy and safe environment for humans and animal companions alike.
DENVER PIT BULL BAN UPDATE
by Regina Klapper
Eighteen months after Denver’s pit-bull ban was reinstated, opinions about whether the ban is having an effect are divided along predictable lines. City officials claim it’s working, while opponents of the ban say it’s ineffective.
As the debate rages, hundreds of dogs have been impounded and euthanized, and other municipalities in Colorado have either passed similar bans or are considering it.
Denver is just one in a long list of cities and states that have enacted some form of breed-specific legislation (commonly called BSL) over the past few years. In Denver’s case, the banspurred by a series of pit-bull attackswas in place as far back as 1989. The state reversed the ban in April 2004 with a law prohibiting BSL. But Denver, which is a home-rule city (meaning it has the right to self-government), filed suit against the state, contending that the Colorado law violated the city’s home-rule authority. The Denver District Court re-established the ban in May 2005.
While nobody knows for sure how many people have brought the breed into Denver since the ban’s reinstatement, animal advocates say the high number of pits is evidence that the original ban wasn’t successful. Estimates put the number of pit bulls that lived in Denver until recently at 4,500. “Obviously the ban wasn’t working, because in the one year the ban was not in place, there couldn’t have been even close to that many new pits coming in, so they were already here,” said Toni Phillips, director of Mariah’s Promise, a shelter in Divide, CO. “And during the time the ban was lifted, a lot of who people moved here with pit bulls didn’t know about this situation.”
“Breed-specific legislation does not work,” said Glen Bui, vice president of the American Canine Foundation (ACF), a nonprofit group that promotes responsible dog ownership. “It does nothing but exterminate dogs and cause overpopulation at shelters.”
Indeed, between May 9, 2005 and January 11, 2006, the city destroyed 725 dogs, according to advocates who got those figures directly from the Division of Animal Control. (The division’s director, Doug Kelly, did not return calls for comment.) And Phillips, whose no-kill shelter is located in her house, says her space has been very crowded these past few months. “I’ve taken about 100 pit bulls from Denver, not counting some dogs that were deemed to be pits, but weren’t. I didn’t think they looked like pits at all, so I don’t know what the authorities were thinking,” she said. “I had to house dogs outside for the first time in almost 15 years. Luckily, it hasn’t been too cold lately.”
Phillips had raised enough money to build a real shelter this year, but had to put her plans on hold when the pit bull crisis happened. “Right now, taking care of these dogs has to be the priority,” she said.
On a slightly happier note, most of the pit bulls she’s taken in have been adopted, sent to other shelters that have more space, or their owners have moved to another city so they could keep their dogs. “I have 19 of those pitbulls left, although I do expect that more will be coming,” Phillips said.
Sonya Dias, an organizer of Pit Bull BAND (Breed Awareness, Not Discrimination), a grass-roots advocacy group in Denver, is one dog owner who sold her house and moved to a suburb so she could keep her Staffordshire Bull Terrier (one of the three breeds that is lumped under the “pit bull” categorythe others are the American Pit Bull Terrier and the American Staffordshire Terrier). “Quite a few people have moved or are going to be moving,” she said. “We’re getting lots of calls and e-mails about it”
But the city has little sympathy for pit-bull owners. “The state’s overturning of the ban was just a temporary suspension. Because we’re a home-rule city, it was technically not legal,” said Kory A. Nelson, Esq., Assistant District Attorney for the city of Denver. “So people still didn’t have a right to bring pit bulls into Denver or keep them here. The way we see it, they were illegally brought here in the first place, since our ban had been in place since 1989. We believe we are within our rights to impound the dogs.”
Rosemary Rodriguez (D-District 3), president of the Denver City Council, thinks the ban is working. “We had an attack on a policeman during the year the ban was lifted, and no attacks at all during all the years the ban was in place,” she said. “We also haven’t had any incidents since the ban was reinstated.”
Rodriguez said the city’s position is that the breed does not belong in Denver. “It’s not compatible with life here,” she said. “It may be different in suburban and rural areas, but in the city the houses are close together, and there is more opportunity for an attack to happen.”
In an article Nelson published in Municipal Lawyer, he wrote that the pit bull’s combination of strength, aggressiveness, tenacity and pain tolerance made it more likely than other breeds to inflict serious injury. “The justification [for a ban] is based on the clear evidence that, as a group, pit bulls, compared to other breeds, generally have a higher propensity to exhibit unique behavioral traits during an attack. These behaviors have a higher likelihood of causing more severe injuries or death.”
But many say neutering, not breed, is one of the real issues. According to statistics from the American Veterinary Medical Association, between 70 and 76 percent of all dog bites are from unneutered males. Jan McHugh-Smith, president of the Colorado Federation of Animal Welfare Agencies (CFAWA), uses this statistic when her organization talks to local governments and community groups. “We talk about proper training and socialization of dogs, and we also talk about sterilization,” she said.
Although the problem seems to be most acute in Denver, other Colorado cities are joining the anti-pit crusade. Most recently, Lone Tree and Aurora passed a ban on new pits with restrictions on existing ones. Others, including Lakewood and Centennial, are considering pit prohibitions. Because ban opponents are not expecting anything to change in the cities that have adopted legislation, they are focusing their efforts on the communities that haven’t decided. The Coalition for Living Safely with Dogs, formed in October 2005 to address this issue, is meeting with government and community leaders and trying to calm fears, said Jayme Nielson-Foley, a Coalition spokesperson and Director of Public Relations at the Denver Area Veterinary Medical Society. The Coalition is also sending out an information packet that includes its position statement; frequently asked questions about dog bites and breed bans; and links to websites with statistics, relevant articles and other information.
“I do think we’re making some progress” said David Gries, executive director of the Animal Assistance Foundation, which is a member of the Coalition. “For example, Lakewood just had a hearing on the issue and decided to study it further, so at least they haven’t passed anything yet. We’re disseminating the Coalition’s information to as many people as we can, so we can all spread the same message.”
In addition to educating citizens, many organizations are rallying around pit owners to give them any assistance they need. Pit Bull BAND, for instance, is helping people who need to sell their homes so they can keep their dogs. “I’m a mortgage broker, so I’m helping out with that end of it,” said Dias. She also found a real-estate agent who will reduce her fee, and she is coordinating information about insurance, which some municipalities require pit owners to have.
Because nonprofits are prohibited from directly lobbying on any issue, they are limited in what they can do to influence the law. In the meantime, they can continue educating people in the hope that their efforts will pay off. “One problem with this type of legislation is that it can have a cascade affect,” said Nielson-Foley. “The question is, where does it stop?”
by Nancy Marano
Usually when municipalities tout breed specific legislation (BSL), it is in direct response to well-publicized incidents of people being bitten or mauled by a loose dog. While these gut-level responses are understandable, they may not be best for the public or the dogs.
Many countries have strict BSL. These include Great Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Poland, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Sweden.
Britain passed the Dangerous Dog Act in 1991 in response to a series of dog attacks. The offending dogs were alleged to be Pit Bulls. After the passage of this law, Pit Bulls needed to be “…registered, muzzled in public, microchipped, tattooed and insured. Any Pit Bull type that was unregistered was liable to seizure and could be destroyed,” according to Nick Mays of Our Dogs.
Mays also points out that the worst part of the law was that the burden of proof was reversed. The dog was assumed to be guilty and had to be proved innocent. The owner had to prove that the dog did not bite and was not dangerous.
Germany also passed harsh BSL in response to dog attacks in that country and hopes their policies will be adopted by other European Union countries. Nationally Germany prohibits the import, breeding and unlicensed ownership of the American Staffordshire Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, the Bull Terrier and the American Pit Bull Terrier. Owners must muzzle these breeds in public.
Germany’s 16 provinces have also put out their own lists of banned dogs. In addition to the Bull Terrier breeds, Westphalia, the largest province, has included seven other breeds, mostly varieties of mastiffs, in those dogs deemed as highly dangerous. These are known as Appendix I dogs.
There are 26 other breeds of dog in Appendix II that need special state approval before they can be owned. These include popular dogs such as Dobermans and Rottweilers. Appendix III puts restrictions on any dog that is taller than 15.7 inches and weighs over 44 pounds. Interestingly enough the German Shepherd Dog, which is almost a national mascot, appears exempt from these laws although they definitely fit several of the categories.
Once thought of as a dog-friendly country, Germany seems to have taken a big step backward. There have been reports of citizens being attacked by other citizens when they walk bull terriers in public even on a leash and muzzled. Many have been yelled at and some have been hit with bats, or other handy weapons. These owners now feel persecuted and some say they are considering moving to a different country.
Canada, our friendly neighbor to the north, is not quite as friendly to the dogs living within her borders, especially if they are pit bulls. Many provinces including Alberta, Quebec and Ontario include counties that have banned pit bulls and Rottweilers by name, while others have more general dangerous dog laws, which can include any breed deemed dangerous.
Amid much hue and cry from the citizenry, Ontario passed strict laws against pit bulls in August 2005. Pit bulls already in the province, or born within 90 days of the ban taking effect, could remain as long as they were sterilized and muzzled when outside. The maximum penalty against the owner of a dangerous dog who was running loose was doubled to $10,000 (Canadian funds.) The law also made it easier for policemen to enforce search-and-seizure warrants on dangerous dogs.
While individual cities and counties have had various Pit Bull bans before, Animal People Info Services points out that the Ontario ban is the first BSL in the United States or Canada that went beyond a single city or county. Canada seems to have taken a cue from Germany in this legislation.
In the latest United States dog-bite fatality statistics from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control it is reported that in the 20-year period from 1979-1998 there were 238 dog bite-related fatalities. Pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers were involved in more than half of these deaths. However, the study pointed out that it is impossible to have a totally accurate calculation of breed-related bite rates because people fail to register their dogs and none of these statistics factor in owner-related issues. Owners who want to foster aggression in their dogs may be drawn to particular breeds.
To enforce BSL, you need to be able to determine what breed a dog is. Even experts find it difficult to say with certainty what breeds some mixes include and descriptions of various breeds are vague. Also, breeds responsible for the most dog bites change over time.
The study’s suggestions included: 1) enforce leash laws, 2) enforce laws against dog fighting, 3) educate owners on breed profiles, 4) have dogs spayed or neutered and 5) teach owners the importance of socializing and training their dogs.
Worldwide attempts to pass BSL of varying severity seem doomed to failure in the long run. They are difficult to enforce and miss the point that the owner is responsible for his dog’s actions. It is the owner’s responsibility to train, socialize and sterilize his dog while preventing the dog from roaming freely. Dangerous dog laws that emphasize these elements would be more effective in preventing dog attacks than BSL.
The 130th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show took place at Madison Square Garden in Feburary. The show’s highlight was the crowning of the dog who would be this year’s Best in Show. This year’s top dog, Rufus, the Colored Bull Terrier, claimed that honor.
While many people object to dog shows and cat shows as beauty contests that perpetrate needless breeding, many others see value in trying to achieve the best aspects of a particular breed. No matter where you stand on that argument, one very ironic fact is true. This year’s top dog would not be allowed to put a paw in 20 states where cities have officially banned bull terrier breeds! He would have to be muzzled in Boston and stands the risk of being picked up as a felon in Denver.
Pit bulls and pit bull mixes are the dogs most likely to be named in breed specific legislation. This includes American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers and dogs who are simply “look alikes”. Spuds McKenzie and the Target mascot might be popular in advertising, but not in your city. Dogs with stout, muscular bodies and egg-shaped heads may be great in the show hall and on the TV but don’t put them in your backyard.
Once we start labeling and persecuting particular breeds, we are on a slippery slope that could eventually include any breed that someone decides has the wrong temperament. Let’s remember that the person who owns the dog is responsible for the dog, which means socializing, spaying or neutering, training and caring for the dog for life.
BREED-SPECIFIC LEGISLATION POSITIONS
A number of national organizations concur that breed-specific legislation is the wrong approach to dealing with dog attacks. The following statements about BSL are extracted from their websites:
American Humane Association (www.americanhumane.org)
American Humane understands that any breed of dog can bite, and as such, believes that breed-specific legislation does not effectively protect the community from dangerous animals. Legislation banning particular breeds can unnecessarily discriminate against dogs that are not dangerous, and does little to protect the community from dog bite incidents. American Humane supports local legislation to protect communities from dangerous animals, but does not advocate laws that target specific breeds of dogs.
American Kennel Club (www.akc.org)
The American Kennel Club supports reasonable, enforceable, non-discriminatory laws to govern the ownership of dogs. The AKC believes that dog owners should be responsible for their dogs. We support laws that: establish a fair process by which specific dogs are identified as “dangerous” based on stated, measurable actions; impose appropriate penalties on irresponsible owners; and establish a well-defined method for dealing with dogs proven to be dangerous. We believe that, if necessary, dogs proven to be “dangerous” may need to be humanely destroyed. The American Kennel Club strongly opposes any legislation that determines a dog to be “dangerous” based on specific breeds or phenotypic classes of dogs.
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (www.aspca.org)
There is little evidence that breed-specific laws- which can be incredibly expensive and difficult to enforce- make communities safer for human families or for the companion animals who are a part of so many households. Recognizing that the problem of dangerous dogs requires serious attention, the ASPCA seeks effective enforcement of breed-neutral laws that hold dog owners accountable for their animals’ actions.
American Veterinary Medical Association (www.avma.org)
The AVMA supports dangerous animal legislation by state, county, or municipal governments provided that legislation does not refer to specific breeds or classes of animals. This legislation should be directed at fostering safety and protection of the general public from animals classified as dangerous.
Humane Society of the United States (www.hsus.org)
The HSUS opposes legislation aimed at eradicating or strictly regulating dogs based solely on their breed for a number of reasons. If the goal is to offer communities better protection from dogs who are dangerous, then thoughtful legislation that addresses responsible dog keeping is in order. Legislation aimed at punishing the owner of the dog rather than punishing the dog is far more effective in reducing the number of dog bites and attacks. Well-enforced, non-breed-specific laws offer an effective and fair solution to the problem of dangerous dogs in all communities.
National Animal Control Association (www.naca.org)
Dangerous and/or vicious animals should be labeled as such as a result of their actions or behavior and not because of their breed.
Any animal may exhibit aggressive behavior regardless of breed. Accurately identifying a specific animal’s lineage for prosecution purposes may be extremely difficult. Additionally, breed specific legislation may create an undue burden to owners who otherwise have demonstrated proper pet management and responsibility.
The following animal rights groups favor a different approach. They believe that breed-specific spay/neuter legislation and confiscating fighting dogs from breeders would be effective deterrents to dog attacks.
Animal People (www.animalpeoplenews.org)
Animal People believes . . . . that effective breed-specific legislation must target breeding. Animal People does not favor killing or confiscating pit bull terriers or any dogs who have authentic homes, although we would favor confiscating pit bulls and other dogs of “fighting” breeds from breeders, as well as from people who abuse and neglect them.
Animal People does not consider breed-specific legislation a success if it does not actually stop the reproduction of problematic breeds, stop dogfighting and speculation on fighting bloodlines, curtail shelter intakes of pit bulls and other “fighting” dogs, end shelter killing of dogs of all kinds to make room for the rising influx of pit bulls, and stop dog attacks on people and other animals.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (www.peta.org)
Few good homes are open to dogs who are perceived as overly aggressive. Breed-specific spaying and neutering legislation is an important tool in ending the tragic exploitation of these breeds. We must prohibit the breeding of fighting dogs, for their own protection as well as ours, and spay or neuter existing dogs.