Prince George's reviews law dooming all pit bulls

July 13, 2004|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

FORESTVILLE - Moses is a good dog. But the 40-pound pooch with big brown eyes is on doggy death row here in Prince George's County for one simple reason: He was born a pit bull.

In the seven years since a rash of vicious attacks led Prince George's to outlaw the breed, the county has seized and euthanized more than 6,100 of the squat, muscular terriers.

But some officials in this densely populated Washington suburb are having second thoughts. A county task force denounced the ban as costly to taxpayers and unfair to responsible dog owners. And the County Council is now considering a repeal, renewing a charged debate over the best defense against dogs that maul.

"There's no question that some pit bulls ought not be a part of our community, and no question that some people with pit bulls ought not be a part of our community," says Councilman Thomas R. Hendershot, who is leading the push for repeal. "But we ought to focus on them, and not take perfectly decent pets from perfectly decent people."

The issue is one for which local governments across the country have found no easy solution. Many euthanize dogs only after a vicious attack. Some have enacted "potentially dangerous dog" laws that let officials impose restraints such as cages and muzzles at the first glimpse of aggression.

But no approach has ignited more debate than the breed ban.

Supporters say such bans are a common-sense measure against breeds, such as pit bulls, long bred as fighters. They point to the steady decline in pit bull bites in Prince George's County, to 71 last year, from 108 in 1996. The pit bull, once the county's biggest biter, now ranks second to the German shepherd.

Carolyn DePhillip cried in a recent interview as she recalled watching a neighbor's pit bull snap its chain, leap a fence and kill the family sheltie that her 4-year-old son had been walking in Clinton.

"There is nothing good about that breed," she said of the pit bull. "Afterward, my son was afraid of dogs for many years. He was terrorized."

But critics say the ban drives bad owners underground and good ones out of the county. The pit bull, they say, is a victim of the same media hype that in earlier decades had demonized the Rottweiler, the Doberman and the German shepherd.

The county's "vicious animal" ordinance and leash law, they say, give officials more than enough tools to deal with savage dogs and careless owners.

Adrianne Lefkowitz, of the Maryland Dog Federation, an advocacy group, said pit bull owners have gone to great lengths to hide their beloved pets from the law. They have built tall fences and taught their dogs to urinate on paper indoors. "All it takes," she says, "is a neighbor dropping a quarter on somebody."

Prince George's animal control officials say that some residents are simply replacing the pit bull with other fearsome dogs not subject to the ban.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blamed pit bulls for the deaths of 66 people from 1979 to 1998, more than any other breed. But other studies have found German shepherds just as lethal.

Two small Maryland towns-North Beach and Port Deposit - have outlawed pit bulls in recent years. But Prince George's, population 839,000, is the only Maryland county with a ban. The Baltimore City Council gave preliminary approval to, but then dropped, a pit-bull ban in 2001, saying the city lacked the resources for enforcement.

A State House bill this year to add Maryland to the dozen states that bar local governments from enacting breed bans never made it out of committee.

"What I said in the hearing was that a dog shouldn't be condemned because of the color of his coat, the point of his ears or the wag of his tail," says the bill's sponsor, Del. Richard K. Impallaria, a Middle River Republican. "Well, of course, that just got laughter."

The Prince George's ban outlaws pit bulls and pit bull mixes and gives owners two choices: Surrender your pet or face arrest, a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail. Either way, the offending beast is put to death. Appeals rarely succeed.

The measure now before a council committee - and unlikely to face a full council vote until the fall - would replace the ban with a "potentially dangerous dog" law with no breed distinctions.

It would allow county officials to take action against an owner whose pet so much as chases or nips a person or animal.

County Executive Jack B. Johnson has avoided a public stance on repeal. But he says he likes aspects of the broader legislation, particularly the idea of more accountability for dog owners and higher fines.

The fate of the repeal bid is far from certain. Its key opponent, Councilwoman Marilynn M. Bland, says many constituents won't stand for a return to the days when pit bulls roamed free. "People could not be comfortable in their own neighborhoods," she says.

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