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Can't Judge a Bull by the Cover: The Fight for Pit Bulls in Maryland

A Maryland court ruling labeled pit bulls as "inherently dangerous." Owners and advocates are fighting back.

All Animals magazine, March/April 2013

  • Maryland resident Jonathan Mazzetta and his "girls." Jon Mazzetta

by James Hettinger

Many of Jonathan Mazzetta’s friends and neighbors have met and played with his two pit bull mixes, Samantha and Sunny. His “girls,” he says, are energetic, loving, perfect hiking buddies, and unlikely to show aggression toward any creature except the occasional squirrel.

But one day last April, Mazzetta’s landlord in Baltimore County gave him a week to get rid of his dogs. Maryland’s highest court had just declared pit bulls “inherently dangerous,” stipulating that owners and landlords can, without a showing of fault, be held financially liable for damage done by the animals.

Mazzetta, who runs a small business from his home, was unable to persuade his landlord to let him keep Sunny and Samantha, so he placed them in foster homes. “I personally think the entire thing’s ridiculous,” Mazzetta says.

Animal advocates have blasted the ruling as an example of impractical, ill-advised breed-specific policy that unfairly targets a type of dog based on appearance and reputation rather than a proven tendency toward bad behavior. Before the state legislature got involved, they worried the Maryland Court of Appeals decision would force thousands of pets to be surrendered to already overcrowded animal shelters, where they’d face the possibility of euthanasia.

Indeed, news of the ruling spread “like wildfire” and sparked confusion among landlords and dog owners about how it would affect them, says Jennifer Brause, executive director of Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter. In the following months, her shelter took in about 40 dogs surrendered as a result of the decision. She fears a Baltimore housing complex’s subsequent ban on pit bull-type dogs could prompt the surrender of another 500.

“It’s punishing good people,” says Brause, recalling one couple with a newborn baby who surrendered their dog because they couldn’t risk losing their home by fighting their landlord. “I’ve seen grown adults come in, just really devastated. … They get the whole lobby of guests and customers crying with them, along with our staff, because it’s just so hard and they don’t have any other options.”

The Maryland SPCA in Baltimore has experienced a 20 percent increase in the number of pit bull-type dogs surrendered, says executive director Aileen Gabbey.

“We adopted out this big, beautiful, blue-gray pit bull named Geronimo,” she recalls. “And the woman had talked to her landlord ahead of time and let him know, ‘I’m getting a dog; this is the kind of dog.’ She brought him home. The landlord took one look at him and said, ‘Take him back.’ So the same day, Geronimo had to come back, which was really sad for everybody.”

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