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February 12, 2013

Can't Judge a Bull by the Cover, Page 2: Misguided Ruling Affects Pit Bulls and Owners

Breed-specific decision paints all "pit bulls" with the same brush

All Animals magazine, March/April 2013

  • Brian George/Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter

The court ruling wasn’t the first breed-specific policy in the U.S.; Denver and Miami-Dade County have banned pit bull ownership, for example, and Maryland’s own Prince George’s County has banned pit bulls for years. While the ruling didn’t expressly ban pit bulls, its de facto effect could be just as harmful. And the court was bucking a national trend that’s seen about a dozen states prohibit local governments from passing breed-specific legislation.

The HSUS opposes breed-specific policies, noting they’re ineffective at reducing bites, difficult to enforce, and often based on flawed statistics. Breed is only one factor that determines whether a dog poses a danger; others include training, socialization, whether the dog is spayed or neutered, and being chained in the backyard. Communities are safer when policy emphasizes responsible pet ownership, and people can also help avoid bites by practicing safety measures such as not leaving children unattended, being aware of canine body language, and never petting a dog without letting him see and sniff you first.

The Maryland ruling stemmed from a case in which a dog identified by the court as a pit bull bit and badly injured a child. The child’s parents sued the dog owner’s landlord, though Maryland law at the time said the landlord, to be held liable, would have needed a reason to suspect the dog was dangerous, such as a previous bite.

But the appeals court decided to declare pit bulls inherently dangerous because of their “vicious nature” and ability to inflict harm. The court also extended liability far beyond the owner to landlords and other third parties, such as veterinarians, boarders, and groomers.

Eric Bernthal, a lawyer and Maryland resident who chairs the HSUS board, says the decision reminds him of an old saying: Hard cases make bad law. He believes the ruling was “rooted in ignorance” and not based on sound fact-finding. “You had a couple of judges … just casually pontificating about their views of pit bulls, gratuitously,” he says. “… They didn’t think about what the impact would be on thousands and thousands of innocent, law-abiding families and loving, sweet family dogs.” Adds Stacey Coleman, executive director of Animal Farm Foundation, a rescue and advocacy organization based in New York state, “Even if you’re not a dog owner, you should really be outraged and concerned by this particular ruling because it shows … the court’s willingness to prejudge. It’s based on stereotype instead of fact.”

"I got what is a purebred boxer surrendered because the landlord thought it looked like a pit bull. How do you fight that?"

In August, the court modified its ruling to exempt “cross-bred pit bulls” (dogs who are “part pit bull and part some other breed of domestic dog”)—a change that advocates say would offer little relief. “The whole thing is bizarre,” notes Tami Santelli, HSUS Maryland state director, because “pit bulls” aren’t actually an official breed and the court didn’t define the term.

Owners who can document that their dogs are mixed breeds could be helped by the court’s reconsideration, but fears persist that landlords still might exclude pit bull-type dogs, or maybe even all dogs, because they don’t want to risk a lawsuit or get into the hassles of DNA testing. In any case, many owners don’t have the resources or know-how to prove their dogs’ genetic backgrounds, and Wisdom Panel Insights, a leading canine genetics test, doesn’t even have a pit bull DNA profile.

Visual identification can be just as problematic. “I got what is a purebred boxer surrendered because the landlord thought it looked like a pit bull,” Brause says. “So how do you fight that?” A recent study by the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program showed that even shelter workers and other dog experts frequently misidentify breeds based on appearance.

The confusion “is a particular problem for pit bulls because the stakes are so high,” says veterinarian Julie Levy, who directs the Maddie’s program; in Miami-Dade County, identification as a pit bull amounts to a “death sentence.”

In Maryland, it seems that cooler heads will eventually prevail. In January, members of the state General Assembly introduced a compromise bill that would reverse the breed-specific rule and remove the strict liability for third parties. The bill was expected to pass in early 2013.

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