Proposal takes aim at pit bull maulings

But Balto. County bill meets criticism

October 08, 2007|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN REPORTER

Dominic Solesky was playing tag behind his family's Towson rowhouse on a spring afternoon when he heard his friend scream. The 10-year-old boy remembers running down the alley to help his pal. He heard a rattle from a nearby cage -- and then saw a brawny dog jump a fence and head his way.

The attack's toll: two surgeries for Dominic and more than two weeks in the hospital.

Now, a Baltimore County lawmaker says Dominic's suffering shows that more must be done to protect the public from pit bulls.

"The damage they can do to a human or another animal is much worse than what other breeds can do," said County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Towson-Perry Hall Democrat.

"It's like the difference between having a .22 handgun and a semiautomatic," he said. "A semi is a gun just like a .22, but it can do a lot more damage if it's not controlled."

Gardina's legislation, up for debate at a council work session tomorrow, would require pit bull owners to muzzle their dogs in public, keep them in cages at other times and post warning signs outside their homes. It joins a series of efforts across the country to address maulings by pit bull terriers.

A recent attack on a 7-year-old girl in Baltimore prompted a City Council member to propose legislation to control dangerous animals. But the Baltimore County bill -- like a law in Boston and other legislative efforts to single out pit bulls -- has drawn particularly ardent criticism from some dog owners and animal rights groups, who say the approach is not only unfair but also is ineffective and costly.

"People that are irresponsible are not going to follow these types of laws," said Marcy Setter, education director for the Internet-based Pit Bull Rescue Central. "What we need to do is focus on irresponsible ownership, regardless of breed. That's where the issue lies, and that's what the research tells us."

For years, government officials and animal rights activists have debated the fairness and effectiveness of breed-specific laws. At least 12 states have banned such laws.

There is no such ban in Maryland, where three locales -- Prince George's County and the towns of Port Deposit in Cecil County and North Beach in Calvert County -- prohibit the ownership of pit bulls.

Supporters of pit bull legislation point to studies showing that the dogs are responsible for an inordinate number of attacks. According to a report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of 238 dog-bite-related deaths from 1979 to 1998 in which the breed was known, pit bulls accounted for 66, more than any other breed.

In 2004, the city of Boston passed a law requiring pit bull owners to spay or neuter their dogs, muzzle their dogs in public and post warning signs outside their homes.

Stephen Crosby, deputy director of Boston's property and construction management department, which enforces the law, said pit bull attacks have fallen since the restrictions were put in place, although he attributed the decline to a number of factors.

"There are folks who will say that `I know good pit bulls,' and there are," Crosby said. "Unfortunately, it's a breed that has a tendency to have more problems than perhaps some other breeds. They always led Boston with the most dog bites."

A recurring concern about pit bull legislation is how exactly to define a pit bull, a term that can refer to several breeds. Animal rights activists point out that many dogs are mistakenly identified as pit bulls.

Crosby said that Boston's animal control officers have had few problems identifying pit bulls.

Gardina's proposal would apply to the Staffordshire bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the American pit bull terrier and any mixes that include those breeds, regardless of whether the animal has shown any signs of being a problem. The restrictions would also apply to dogs with violent histories that are deemed "dangerous" or "menacing" by the county.

The bill would require owners to keep the dogs in a cage with a concrete base, muzzle them outside the cages and post property signs that read "Pit Bull Dog" or "Beware of Dog." Violators would face a fine of up to $1,000.

Gardina said late last week that he was considering an amendment that would remove the muzzle requirement because of concerns that muzzles would agitate the dogs.

The county's health officer has opposed the bill, pointing out that a task force on dangerous animals recommended this spring against breed-specific laws. At least three of the seven council members have also voiced concerns about the legislation, including Kenneth N. Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat who initially co-sponsored the bill but said he changed his mind after researching the matter.

The authors of the CDC report on dog-bite-related deaths pointed out that breed-specific laws have prompted constitutional questions involving dog owner's rights to equal protection under the law and due process.

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