Should Florida ban pit bulls?

The Palm Beach PostJune 29, 2014 

Pit bull

A pit bull bolts from his owner’s apartment and attacks an 8-year-old boy, forcing the child to the ground and biting him on his face and legs.

The boy’s father, a mailman who says he has lived in fear of such attacks on himself for years, says those bites will scar -- and he wants his pound of flesh.

Specifically, he wants to see the breed banned from Palm Beach County.

This month, he wrote to Palm Beach County Commission Mayor Priscilla Taylor, and she is sympathetic.

“They are temperamental dogs. I think we need to look at this,” Taylor said last week. She has asked that commissioners set aside time in their Tuesday meeting to discuss the matter.

Legally, that could be a short discussion.

In 1990, Florida legislators banned any municipality from passing legislation that targets a particular breed -- laws often referred as breed-specific legislation, or BSLs. Such a ban against pit-bull type dogs survives in Miami-Dade County because the ordinance passed in 1989 and pre-dates the state law.

But as Taylor notes, “Statutes can be overturned or amended.” First, she’d like to know where her fellow commissioners, some of them dog owners, stand.

Nationally, it’s been a decades-long and contentious debate, the subject of documentaries and even comment from President Barack Obama. Hundreds of city and county governments have adopted legislation banning or specifically regulating pit bulls and sometimes other breeds. And yet, 13 states including Florida have adopted laws that prohibit such legislation.

Are there bad dogs or bad owners?

An estimated 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About one in five attacks require medical attention. In 2012, 27,000 dog bite victims needed reconstructive surgery.

Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control handles 2,000 to 2,500 animal bite complaints each year -- that includes dogs, but also cats and raccoons -- and many of the injuries are minor. Until this year, even a scratch that didn’t break the skin could prompt a bite report, said Animal Care and Control Director Dianne Sauve.

The list of maulings like the one boy in West Palm Beach suffered is smaller. Capt. David Walesky estimates the department sees seven or eight a month. Two or three of those happen outside someone’s home by roaming dogs.

Sauve was on a statewide advisory panel that pushed for Florida to prohibit breed specific legislation.

“A lot of people jumped on the bandwagon thinking if they banned a dog with a square head (a marker of some so-called pit bull breeds), they’d be saving humanity, but it didn’t take long for people to realize it really doesn’t have anything to do with breeds,” Sauve said.

“In the early days, people feared blood hounds, then it was Dobermans, then it was German shepherds. The only thing that curbs bites is management of pets by their owners,” Sauve said.

She has the nation’s health experts on her side.

The CDC recommends against breed-specific legislation. It argues that research shows bans on certain types of dogs are “ineffective and often a waste of public resources.”

When opponents of breed specific laws talk cost, they often point to a report from Prince George’s County, Maryland that was spending more than $250,000 to enforce its ban on pit bulls, but concluded “public safety is not improved as a result” of the ban and the transgressions could just as well be covered under its other codes such as its leash laws and vicious animal laws.

When Obama adopted his second dog, Sunny, the White House issued a statement saying “Breed-Specific Legislation Is A Bad Idea.” It quoted the CDC: “They found that fatal attacks represent a very small proportion of dog bite injuries to people and that it’s virtually impossible to calculate bite rates for specific breeds.”

The CDC advocates other tactics, such as laws that deal directly with dangerous dogs and hold owners accountable. It also advocates broad spay and neuter laws -- 70 percent of all dog bite cases involve male dogs that aren’t neutered.

Palm Beach County does track and enforce strict rules against offenders. Through complaints, authorities have labeled 52 dogs in the county as dangerous.

Perhaps the most memorable dog to appear on the list was Joe Namath’s yellow Labrador retriever Leo, which bit a home health care nurse in the buttocks and charged a UPS worker. After a magistrate declared Leo a menace, the dog was forbidden to roam the yard, had to walk on leash with a muzzle and had to be caged when guests visited Namath’s Tequesta home.

Namath’s Weimaraner Stella also fell under scrutiny but the case was dropped when a witness failed to testify. Pit bulls on county’s dangerous dog list

Pit bulls constitute the most common breed on the county’s dangerous dog list with 17 of the 52. The list also names seven Labrador retrievers, and four American bulldogs, but also golden retrievers, rottweilers, German shepherds, poodles and cocker spaniel.

And who is to say someone’s dog is actually a pit bull, said Rich Anderson, CEO of the Peggy Adams Animal Rescue League. There is no pit bull breed. Instead, legislation refers usually to a group of breeds and physical characteristics to define the law’s target, such as the dog’s head and body shape, Sauve said.

Miami-Dade residents had an opportunity in 2012 to ditch their pit-bull ban, but didn’t, notes Colleen Lynn, herself a pit-bull attack victim who now advocates laws that target pit bulls.

Lynn says the CDC advice is biased: “That was written with the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association).” She notes that some cities have reported positive results.

In 2000, the American Veterinary Medical Association attempted to parse out dog attacks that killed people over the past three decades. Because the deaths sometimes involved multiple dogs, and some dogs were identified as multiple breeds, it was difficult for the researchers to declare a most dangerous dog.

Instead they said, “Although fatal attacks on humans appear to be a breed-specific problem (pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers) other breeds may bite and cause fatalities at higher rates... Fatal attacks represent a small proportion of dog bite injuries to humans and, therefore, should not be the primary factor driving public policy concerning dangerous dogs.”

This is the research to which the CDC defers. And the CDC’s advice is what Florida embraced.

But when Taylor said statutes can be changed, California stands as example. The state had a ban on breed-specific legislation, Lynn notes. But when a vicious dog attacked in San Francisco, momentum moved and the state law was amended to allow San Francisco to pass a law making it illegal to own a pit bull or pit bull mix that isn’t spayed or neutered.

Lynn said while she advocates bans of pit bull ownership, she would be satisfied to see a mandatory spay-neuter law for pit bull type dogs across the land -- only those truly breeding the dogs to show would be exempt.

Palm Beach County requires all dog owners to spay their pets or pay higher tag fees to own an unsterilized pet.

The dog that attacked the boy in West Palm Beach was named JR and came from Pennsylvania. The county’s animal officers had no complaints on file for the dog or his owner. The dog was an unneutered male. His owner surrendered the dog and after 10 days in quarantine it was euthanized.

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