Pit Bull Bans: Public Safety or Breed Bias?

9 years ago

In my city, Denver, it is a crime to own a specific breed of dog - a pit bull. (The 'pit bull' term may include the American Pit Bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier and Staffordshire Bull terrier, among others.) Implemented in 2005, the ban decrees that owners have the choice of moving out of the city or having their dog(s) put to death. Though I have no personal experience with pit bulls, this seems outrageous to me - like some sort of weird animal racism. (Breedism?)

At first, I figured my city must have some unique grudge against these dogs but a little bit of research revealed that Denver is not unique. At least 12 nations (icluding Canada, UK, France and Italy) have similar bans. Here in the U.S., there are at least 18 cities/counties with some version of the ban in effect with seven proposed bans currently pending. Is this widespread fear justified?  

In the Denver suburb city of Aurora, dog owner Florence Vianzon Sasek is currently challenging rules that force her to pay the city $200 a year for a license, muzzle or lock the dog up when traveling and keep a 6-foot fence around her property. Evidently, the rules apply to pit bulls and several breeds with "the same physical traits as pit bulls." Huh?

A lawsuit filed in federal district court by the American Canine Foundation on her behalf contends the ban is unconstitutional, vague, and unnecessary. (Trial is scheduled to start Monday.) The ban applies to Sasek's 5-year-old American Staffordshire terrier, but she was allowed to keep it under a grandfather clause. Sasek maintains her dog is not violent and has never bitten anyone.

Aurora city records show eight attacks on humans by dogs covered by the ban in 2006 and 11 in 2007. Interesting to note that "all other dogs" accounted for 123 attacks on humans in 2006 and 150 in 2007.

In trying to understand both sides here, I have to admit upfront that I was attacked by a dog as a child. (I don't recall the breed but it was damn scary.) I must also admit to being afraid of pit bulls or any other dog that looks like he/she could rip my arm off. Not sure if that is the media's fault or my own instinct but I'm all about full disclosure. (I should also admit that I love to fly, adore snakes and spiders and am genuinely turned on by the idea of public speaking. My only fear? Being eaten alive by an animal. There, I said it.)

Also, I was a resident of San Francisco when a young woman, Diane Whipple, was attacked and killed by two neighboring dogs at the door of her apartment. In that case (which went on forever and was widely discussed locally and nationally), the breed was Presa Canario, also known as Canary Island Fighting Dogs. To my knowledge, this breed has not been banned outright anywhere though it may fall under the 'pit bull' mantle. Disturbingly, the case sparked a surge of breed interest from sicko creeps everywhere. Said Dan Wilson, a Presa Canario breeder in Canada, who fielded tons of calls post-attack: "As soon as the dog killed that woman, they wanted them."

Perhaps it's not so much a dog ban that we should be enforcing but a ban on irresponsible asshole owners? For every loving, committed, responsible pit bull owner (and there are many, thank god), there is the angry, creepy guy on the corner with the dead lawn and the chain link fence who likes to encourage a pit bull's fighting instinct. (Why? My guess is Small Penis Syndrome.) In fact, many of these unsavory pit bull owners deliberately choose to not to spay or neuter their pet specifically to encourage an aggressive nature.

The hard statistics, unfortunately, do not help the pit bull case. Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People, conducted an unusually detailed study of dog bites from 1982 to 2006. The study reveals the number of serious canine-inflicted injuries by breed.

According to the Clifton study, pit bulls, Rottweilers, Presa Canarios and their mixes are responsible for 74% of attacks that were included in the study, 68% of the attacks upon children, 82% of the attacks upon adults, 65% of the deaths, and 68% of the maimings. In more than two-thirds of the cases included in the study, the life-threatening or fatal attack was apparently the first known dangerous behavior by the animal in question.

Clifton states:

"If almost any other dog has a bad moment, someone may get bitten, but will not be maimed for life or killed, and the actuarial risk is accordingly reasonable. If a pit bull terrier or a Rottweiler has a bad moment, often someone is maimed or killed--and that has now created off-the-chart actuarial risk, for which the dogs as well as their victims are paying the price." 

Pit bulls and Rottweilers are accordingly dogs who not only must be handled with special precautions, but also must be regulated with special requirements appropriate to the risk they may pose to the public and other animals, if they are to be kept at all."

For awhile there, it seemed like the negative pit bull headlines were nonstop. A quick search reveals a few current samplings:

"Alleged pit bull attack leaves 2 dogs dead, owner facing charges"
"Pit bull owner pleads not guilty in SeaTac attack"
"Child attacked by pit bull remains hospitalized"

Of course, there are also defending headlines, which don't get as much play:

"Monroe City Hall Jammed With Defenders Of Pit Bulls"
"Dogs aren’t the problem, owners are"
"Pit bulls have a bad reputation. Is it deserved?"

Yes, well, let us not forget the October 2000 death of a 6-week-old baby, which was killed by her family's dog - a Pomeranian. The average weight of a Pomeranian is about four pounds, and they are not thought of as a dangerous breed. (However, that they were bred to be watchdogs.) The baby's uncle left the infant and the dog on a bed while the uncle prepared her bottle in the kitchen. Upon his return, the dog was mauling the baby, who died shortly afterwards.

No word yet on a Pomeranian ban.

Some links on this issue:

A National Geographic video on the rehabilitation Michael Vick's dogs.

An excellent and informative site from a groovy batch of humans: Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls (BAD RAP)

NoPitBullBans: A site founded in 2003 as a result of breed-specific legislation (BSL) being proposed in Chicago and surrounding areas.

Meanwhile ...

The KC Dog Blog is fired up about this issue and offers an insightful viewpoint in the post, "Maybe they're not reading their own press clippings?" An excerpt:

"Never mind that such policy has never been effective at minimizing dog bites in cities. Oh, people will point to a decrease in 'pit bull' bites and say that it's working, but it just shifts the bites to other breeds of dogs that were owned by the same irresponsible owners that caused the problems in the first place.  This type of policy has caused the total number of dog bites in Aurora to go up by 43% in two years following the policy.  Scotland saw a 150% increase in dog bites over a 10 year period following their Dangerous Dog's Act.  The UK has seen a 50% increase in dog bites over the past 10 years with their law. When San Francisco passed their mandatory sterilization law for pit bulls, their dog bites doubled the following year.  And Cincinnati, OH found their law to be so difficult for animal control officers to enforce, they are now using police officers to help with the enforcement of the law.  Never mind that Cincinnati has the 8th highest murder rate in the US." 

A Houston Chronicle story about a dog fighting ring quoted Harris County prosecutor Belinda Smith: "These dogs were bred specifically to fight and they were inbred back and forth. They are not pets." The reactive 'post' on Our Pack, Inc. features Leo, a former Michael Vick dog and now (surprise!) a loving pet who (non-aggressively) challenges this mindset:

"I think I make a very good pet. I love my mom and my sister Hailey and my brother Dexter and I even try to be nice to Daisy who isn’t always too thrilled to have me around but she tolerates me. I work very hard at the Cancer Center helping the patients forget their troubles for a few minutes at a time And I’ve even gone to school to visit some kids. Have I done it too well? Did people forget where I came from? Didn't they learn anything from my case? I wasn’t 'raised' to be a pet, but I’ve tried really hard to become a good one. Why won’t these other dogs get the same chance? Didn't we make a difference at all?"

And finally, a dose of unmitigated reality from Lindsay Biddle at the Pit Bull Blog in her March 2008 post, "Blunt Honesty, or Telling People What They Want to Hear?":

"I have the benefit of some years of experience to rely on, and my experience tells me that disregarding the driven, potentially aggressive side of the breed does not make it go away ....The truth is that these are incredible dogs.  They have funny personalities, short coats, and make great companions for children.  The flip side — but still the truth — is that they have the capacity to deal great damage or even death to other animals.

You can manage aggression, but only if you acknowledge it and not refute it.  The best and most suitable homes for this breed are those that are well-versed in its history, and who don’t mind a few rules to keep the situation safe and harmonious .... Accepting the breed for what it is, and preparing for aggression, does not constitute an acknowledgement that the breed is somehow faulty."

I normally don't beg for comments but like I said, my own experience is lacking. I'd really like to hear from folks on either side of the chain link fence on this issue.

~ClizBiz

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