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June 24, 2010

Veterinarian takes on pit bull breed ban vs. 'damage by dog' laws

By Patty Khuly Special for USA TODAY

I have a new foster dog. I took her in last week after she was liberated from a foodless, waterless, shadeless yard in southern Miami-Dade County, Fla. She was pokey rib-thin, crawling with mange, her excoriations festering with bacteria and yeast. Hairless, too. With the bad manners of an incorrigibly friendly jumper and a penchant for kitchen counter trolling.

Her bright pink hairlessness coupled with her cotton candy disposition earned her the name, "Pinky." How could a veterinarian resist? Trouble is ’ get this ’ she's a pit bull mix. Which means she's 100% illegal where I live. Ever heard the term "BSL"? It stands for "breed specific legislation" (AKA, breed ban or, more coloquially, "pit bull ban"). Municipalities all over the U.S. have adopted these laws in a misguided effort to reduce dog-related violence. Trouble is, there's no evidence they've ever managed to work.

Despite 30 years of statistics that show breed bans don't curb canine violence, a Florida state representative from Plantation, Rep. Perry Thurston, is sponsoring a new bill to amend Florida's existing "Damage by Dogs" statute. Currently, this Florida law keeps municipalities from banning breeds ad libidum. Instead, it seeks to hold individual owners of dangerous dogs liable for the damage their pets do. Rep. Thurston would see this limit on breed banning lifted so that individual municipalities can newly elect to ban specific breeds.

Make no mistake, Florida's "Damage by Dogs" law is a good one. It takes the enlightened view that individual humans must be made responsible for their dangerous pets. By limiting breed banning, it recognizes that such blanket constraints on individual property rights are not only intrusive, unfair and costly to implement, they also do little to decrease the risk of dog-related violence.

Rep. Thurston's bill would make way for more municipalities to adopt these regressive laws.

While it seeks to amend the existing "Damage by Dogs" law with greater restrictions, his bill (HB 101) does nothing to address the fact that there's currently little to no enforcement of its key provision: holding owners responsible for their individual dogs' behavior.

Predictably, this new bill has stirred up debate in the local and national media with big groups taking sides. For this party, PETA has been on hand to pass out hats and light the candles while the HSUS (Humane Society of the United States), AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) and the Florida Animal Control Association are rallying their minions against the festivities.

Veterinarians, animal welfare groups and animal control organizations are speaking out ever loudly against breed specific bans for their biased infringement on property rights, their failure to stem the tide of canine violence and their short-sighted approach to the problem of unwanted behaviors. Good laws, like Florida's current "Damage by Dogs" law, already exist. Enforcing them is the obvious solution proposed by this new bill's detractors.

True to form, PETA supports breed specific legislation. Though its rallying cry references pit bulls and curbing blood sports altogether (which all animal advocates support), PETA's track record with shelter pets seems to suggest it'll leverage any excuse to keep dogs out of human hands altogether.

Earlier this year, my local daily, The Miami Herald, weighed in on the debate with an article quoting those on all sides. Surprisingly balanced, it pointed to the lack of statistics on dog bites and the questionable impact of Miami-Dade County's 20 year-old pit bull ban. In its final paragraphs it quoted Palm Beach County's animal control czar, who reported that Shepherd, Lab and Chow mixes were his area's biggest offenders.

Hmmm ... I'll wager Palm Beach won't be banning German shepherds, Labrador Retrievers or Chow Chows anytime soon. If the forbiddingly named, thug-evoking pit bull topped the list, however, I'd bet high against their surviving the year without a breed ban levied against them. This, because of popular culture and their abuse by those within it who would fight them ’ not because pit bulls are any more innately violent than these other dogs on Palm Beach's list.

The "jaw locking" thing? A myth. Pit bulls' jaws are not anatomically or physiologically different from any other dogs' in this respect. Neither are pit bulls behaviorally special, save their infamous, terrier-ish drive to kill small prey. Indeed, anyone who owns a Jack Russell or bull terrier (of "Spuds MacKenzie" fame) would recognize the same outsized drive.

The recognition of this fundamental unfairness is why after 20 years of a painful breed ban that's hurt only the most responsible pet owners among us and sent hundreds of dogs to their needless deaths every week, Miami-Dade County residents are finally getting sick of breed bans. In fact, last year, one judge ruled the ban unconstitutional in the case of one dog. (Which means that maybe ’ just maybe ’ Pinky will get a reprieve should she ever get hauled in.

Hmmm ... maybe a great picture in her new collar would help. Barring that, maybe I'll buy one of those newfangled breed tests. One blood test or buccal swab mailed to the lab and maybe we'll learn she's no pit bull at all. Viszla mixed with Boston terrier? Who knows?