The Baltimore City Council unexpectedly gave preliminary approval last night to a ban on pit bulls, voting narrowly for a measure that supporters said "sends a message," even though it may not be enforceable.
The 11-8 vote occurred almost four months after a savage pit bull attack on a 7-year-old girl, which prompted West Baltimore Councilwoman Agnes B. Welch to propose the ban on ownership of pit bulls and other dogs "trained to attack." Violators would face a fine of up to $1,000 and 12 months in jail, though council members are discussing amending the bill to exempt current owners.
The O'Malley administration opposed the measure, arguing that such bans are unenforceable and have been deemed failures in other jurisdictions, including Prince George's County. Though a City Council committee had recommended against the ban, some members said it was important to signal to the public that it's unacceptable to breed and own vicious dogs.
"It's a bill that sends a message," said the Rev. Norman A. Handy Sr., a 6th District councilman, as he cast the deciding 10th vote in favor of the bill. "Even though we don't think as a body that this will succeed."
The bill is set for a final vote as early as Monday and would go on to Mayor Martin O'Malley if passed. An O'Malley spokesman said last night the mayor would wait until the final vote to comment, but administration sources said that he would probably sign the bill if it reaches his desk.
The administration, however, does not believe the ban will work if passed.
"How are we going to find [the pit bulls]? It's just going to drive it under ground," said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city's health commissioner. "The bad guys could care less. They're already not taking appropriate care [of their dogs]."
A Prince George's County task force deemed a similar ban ineffective and recommended that it be repealed. And Baltimore's Health Department, whose Bureau of Animal Control would enforce the law, might not have the money to properly enforce the proposed ban.
In recommending rejection of the bill at a meeting last week, members of the council's Housing, Health & Environment Committee argued it would cost as much as $750,000 for additional staff, shelter space, carcass disposal and transportation.
Beilenson has said his department's 17 animal control officers are overburdened, and with the city's bleak budget outlook, new funding seems unlikely.
Beilenson proposed legislation requiring that all new dogs, including pit bulls, be neutered or spayed -- and be implanted with a microchip as confirmation.
A ban on pit bulls may spark an emotional reaction in Baltimore, where city officials estimate that there are 5,000 to 6,000 pit bulls in the city.
The issue came to the forefront after the Jan. 12 mauling of Kasey Eyring in Southwest Baltimore.
The dog escaped its owner's back yard through a hole in the fence and latched onto Kasey's face, dragging her back and forth across the street as family and neighbors frantically kicked the dog and beat it with sticks and rocks.
"This dog did not let go," the girl's mother, Kelly Eyring, said in testimony at a council hearing on the issue in March. "I watched my daughter's face get ripped off. ... This dog wanted to kill her."
Neither police nor the dog's owner, Norman Jenkins, were able to free Kasey. The dog finally loosened its grip when the girl's father repeatedly stabbed it. The girl underwent five hours of surgery to her face that night.
Bureau of Animal Control officers captured and destroyed the dog. The city issued 10 citations against Jenkins, who lives in the same block as the victim's grandparents.