Advocates on all sides of the pit bull debate seem to agree that something needs to be done about pit bulls. Their numbers are growing, and so are their vicious attacks on citizens.
Advocates on all sides of the pit bull debate seem to agree that something needs to be done about pit bulls. Their numbers are growing, and so are their vicious attacks on citizens. The real dispute is how to handle the problem. There are plenty who point the finger at the dog-they're deadly and should be illegal, goes the argument in a number of propositions, from the hodge-podge of local ordinances to a current House Bill proposing a statewide ban of the beasts. Outlaw pits and only outlaws will own them, counters another school of thought, comprised primarily of pit bull owners who love their pets and advocate on behalf of the dogs-and responsible ownership. Sounds curiously like another debate-on gun control. It's no coincidence. Lawmakers have quickly come to realize that, in the wrong hands, pit bulls indeed can become deadly weapons. A recent spike in pit bull incidents has prompted Rep. Tyrone Yates, a Democrat representing inner-city Cincinnati, to step up the war against fearsome dogs. On May 23, Yates introduced H.B. 586 that would ban pit bulls statewide. "A person who owns, keeps, or harbors a pit bull dog on the effective date of this section shall surrender the dog to the dog warden. Not later than ten days after receiving the dog, the dog warden shall euthanize the dog," the proposed legislation reads. "Pit bulls are becoming more of a challenge in the urban areas," Yates said. "It appears to me from long years of observing this phenomenon that pit bulls have become increasingly numerous and denser in their populations." And Yates acknowledges those owners aren't raising house pets. Yates characterized the dogs as "an inner-city cultural pet in the same way that sagging pants and untied gym shoes have become a symbol." He points to recent pit bull attacks in Ohio-a postal carrier attacked in Columbus and a boy mauled in Youngstown-as his motivation to curb pit bull ownership. Statistics from Franklin County Animal Control show that while pit bulls account for only about one percent of licensed dogs in the county, they are responsible for one-third of all bites. The dogs are bred and trained to be strong, fierce and loyal, and unlike most other breeds, they don't necessarily wait to feel threatened before they attack. Pit bulls notoriously are not afraid to take the offensive. On June 5, a pit bull attacked a mail carrier walking her east-side route on Woodland Avenue. She suffered wounds to her arms, legs, abdomen and face and was treated at Grant Hospital. The dog remains in Animal Control's custody. Two days earlier, the Whitehall City Council rejected a ban proposed by councilwoman Jacquelyn Thompson, who described the dogs as "tools of terror." People from all over Central Ohio crammed into the usually calm Whitehall council chambers to voice their opinions on the proposed ban before it was defeated. Last August, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled on a case out of Toledo that maintained any city's right to enact laws banning specific breeds of dangerous dogs. It had the effect of upholding bans already in place in Bexley and Reynoldsburg. In the course of the legal proceedings for the case, the dog warden from Toledo noted that more pit bulls are fired upon by law enforcement in Toledo than people. Yates admits his initial proposal of a statewide roundup probably is unrealistic, in light of an immediate and loud opposition. "I have learned since having introduced the bill that it is better to take a step back and look for compromises," he said. "But I wanted to begin to do something legislatively to raise the discussion." He said he still intends to make only slight adjustments and forge ahead with a bill dealing specifically with pits. Such laws, known as breed-specific legislation or simply BSLs, are opposed by those who believe the owners, not the dogs, should bear the responsibility. Canine advocates view such laws as doggie discrimination, making targets out of an individual breed, rather than the irresponsible owners of all breeds. Lisa Dudley works with pit bulls in Marysville and runs the website pittiesplace.com, dedicated to locating responsible homes for pit bulls and educating owners and the public about the breed. Dudley said she has placed more than 200 pit bulls in homes throughout Central Ohio without incident. She says breed-specific laws end up targeting the wrong people. "It's going to take people who are law-abiding dog owners and turn them into criminals," Dudley said. "Who's going to go and license their dog if someone can then come knock on their door and take it away?" Dudley's friend, Lynn Hayes, also is a pit bull owner. She works at Blendon Kennel in Westerville and teaches courses in pit bull ownership. She, too, said BSLs target responsible owners, while doing little to combat the problem of people owning unlicensed, misused dogs of all breeds. "As responsible owners, we don't need to be victimized," Hayes said. "People who are going to violate are going to violate." Hayes said, because of her work, she has personally interacted with thousands of pit bulls and has never been attacked. The pit bulls that pose the threat, she said, are those that are poorly trained or mistreated, and that it's the owners-not the breed-who should be held responsible for the behavior of their dogs. Hayes and Dudley say breed-specific legislation forces animal control officers to concentrate specifically on pit bulls, thus ignoring other potentially dangerous dogs like bulldogs, boxers, Rottweilers, German shepherds and Australian shepherds. Neither side, however, is against regulating pit bull ownership. Both agree that, in the wrong hands, pit bulls are weapons. Hayes said repeat offenders of pit bull regulations should be treated like people on probation who get caught with a gun. Perhaps surprisingly, she advocates, among other things, that owners of designated dangerous dogs must not live in apartment or other multifamily dwelling, must be at least 25 years of age, be certified through a class on responsible ownership and have a clean criminal background. Hayes takes a strong stance believes bad owners give pit bulls a bad name. Unfortunately, even the basic licensing rules that apply to every dog breed already are being broken frequently by pit bull owners. Stricter regulation does not necessarily guarantee increased compliance. "The number of calls we get on them in relation to the number of licensed pit bulls there are is unfathomable," said Joe Rock, a field supervisor for Franklin County Animal Care and Control. "It's hard to believe there are that many of them. It's probably close to 50 percent of the enforcement division and the shelter's time on this one type of dog." Few people have Joe Rock's front-line perspective of the breed. "I've responded with police where they've been shot several times and they're still in aggression mode. That's not like any other dog," he said. "The bites are more severe than any other breed. They'll do it resiliently and without fear." But, as with any other complicated issue, more knowledge brings more questions. Rock doesn't view the pit bull problem in black-and-white, but rather in nuanced shades of gray. "When they're raised properly, they're the most loveable, adorable dogs there are," he said. "When they are in the wrong hands, they are the most fearsome, aggressive thing you'll see. They will stop at nothing to get to you." It's tempting to categorize the uproar over pit bulls as media-fed paranoia, with overdone stories about mailmen and kids being attacked. Rock, however, said there's no over-hyping the extent of the problem. "Don't be na´ve about it. It's a very real problem," he said. "We get numerous calls on them every day." "These dogs seem to attract individuals who have low self-esteem or are involved in criminal activity," Rock said. "They're ideal protection for whatever criminal activity they're conducting." Again, not exactly the kind of person who worries terribly about playing by the rules. There are already statewide laws on the books that specifically address pit bull ownership. In 2000, the General Assembly amended the Ohio Revised Code, requiring that all unleashed pit bulls be confined to a fenced-in yard or a holding pen with a top and a lock. When taken off the owner's property, they must be muzzled and attached to a metal chain shorter than six feet. Pit bull owners are also required to carry $100,000 worth of liability insurance in the event of an attack. A major trait of breed-specific legislation-one that opponents don't point out-is that the laws are proactive. They attempt to address a problem before someone gets hurt. Laws targeting irresponsible owners often only come into play after an attack takes place. But even Rock, who deals with the trouble owners and the trouble dogs on a frequent basis and has been attacked and bitten by pit bulls several times, opposes a statewide ban, favoring instead the breed-specific legislation. "I would love to sit down with lawmakers and recommend some type of education class for people who want to own these dogs," he said. "When people want to own a gun, they have to go through a process. The responsible owners, I don't see why they would have a problem with this. What they would be doing is protecting their breed." But anything involving dogs is an emotionally charged issue. Remember the national furor over the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and his dog-fighting case (those were pit bulls, by the way). Responsible pit bull owners are a small segment of all dog owners, but like the rest of their dog-loving peers, they have strong attachments to their pets. Hayes fears what might happen if legislators get too bold. "I don't want our police departments and sheriffs collecting our dogs," she said. "I've heard people say, 'I'll run out of bullets before I let you take my dog.' And they mean it."