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Can't judge a bull by the cover

Maryland 'pit bull' ruling spotlights problems with breed-specific legislation

From Animal Sheltering magazine March/April 2013

Many of Jonathan Mazzetta’s friends and neighbors have met and played with his two pit bull mixes, Sunny and Samantha. His “girls,” he says, are energetic, loving, perfect hiking buddies, and unlikely to show aggression toward any creature except the occasional squirrel.

But one day last April, Mazzetta’s landlord in Baltimore County gave him a week to get rid of his dogs. Maryland’s highest court had just declared pit bulls “inherently dangerous,” stipulating that owners and landlords can, without a showing of fault, be held financially liable for damage done by the animals.

Mazzetta, who runs a small business from his home, was unable to persuade his landlord to let him keep the dogs, so he placed them in foster homes. “I personally think the entire thing’s ridiculous,” Mazzetta says.

Animal advocates have blasted the ruling as an example of an impractical, ill-advised breed-specific policy that unfairly targets a type of dog based on appearance and reputation rather than a proven tendency toward bad behavior. Before the state legislature got involved, they worried the Maryland Court of Appeals decision would force thousands of pets to be surrendered to already overcrowded animal shelters.

News of the decision spread “like wildfire” and sparked confusion among landlords and dog owners who were unsure how it would affect them, says Jennifer Brause, executive director of Baltimore Animal Rescue & Care Shelter. In the months after the court ruling, her shelter took in about 40 dogs surrendered specifically because of it. She fears a Baltimore housing complex’s ban on pit bull-type dogs following the ruling could prompt the surrender of another 500 dogs.“I’ve seen grown adults come in, just really devastated,” Brause says. “… They get the whole lobby of guests and customers crying with them, along with our staff, because it’s just so hard, and they don’t have any other options.”

She recalls one couple with a newborn baby who surrendered their dog because they couldn’t risk losing their home by fighting their landlord. “It’s punishing good people,” Brause says of the ruling.

The Maryland SPCA in Baltimore has experienced a 20 percent increase in the number of pit bull-type dogs being surrendered, says executive director Aileen Gabbey.

“We adopted out this big, beautiful, blue-gray pit bull named Geronimo,” she recalls. “And the woman had talked to her landlord ahead of time and let him know, ‘I’m getting a dog; this is the kind of dog.’ She brought him home. The landlord took one look at him and said, ‘Take him back.’ So the same day, Geronimo had to come back, which was really sad for everybody.”

Misguided Ruling

The court ruling wasn’t the first breed-specific policy in the U.S. (Denver and Miami-Dade County have banned pit bull ownership, for example, and Maryland’s own Prince George’s County has banned pit bulls for years). While the ruling didn’t expressly ban pit bulls, its de facto effect could be just as harmful.

The HSUS opposes breed-specific policies whenever they surface, noting that they’re unnecessary, ineffective in reducing bites, difficult to enforce, and often based on flawed statistics. Communities are safer when legislation emphasizes responsible pet ownership; the likelihood of a dog biting depends not on breed but on such factors as training, socialization, and whether the dog is spayed or neutered. Breed can be a factor in a dog’s temperament, but cannot be used to predict his likelihood of biting.And Maryland’s ruling bucks a national trend that’s seen about a dozen states prohibit local governments from passing breed-specific legislation. Eric Bernthal, a lawyer and Maryland resident who chairs The HSUS’s board of directors, says the court’s ruling reminds him of an old saying: Hard cases make bad law.

The ruling stemmed from a case in which a dog identified by the court as a pit bull bit and badly injured a child. The child’s parents sued the dog owner’s landlord, but a trial court did not find the landlord responsible. Maryland law at the time said the landlord, to be held liable, would have needed a reason to suspect the dog was dangerous—such as a previous bite.

But the appeals court decided to declare pit bull-type dogs inherently dangerous because of their “vicious nature” and ability to inflict harm. The court also extended the liability for pit bull-type dogs far beyond the owner to landlords and other third parties, which could include veterinarians, boarders, and groomers.

Bernthal believes the ruling was “rooted in ignorance” and not based on sound fact-finding. “You had a couple of judges … just casually pontificating about their views of pit bulls, gratuitously,” he says. “… They didn’t think about what the impact would be on thousands and thousands of innocent, law-abiding families and loving, sweet family dogs.” Adds Stacey Coleman, executive director of Animal Farm Foundation, a pit bull rescue and advocacy organization based in New York state, “Even if you’re not a dog owner, you should really be outraged and concerned by this particular ruling, because it shows … the court’s willingness to prejudge. It’s based on stereotype instead of fact.”

In August, the court modified its ruling to exempt “cross-bred pit bulls” (dogs who are “part pit bull and part some other breed of domestic dog”)—a change that would offer little relief. “The whole thing is bizarre,” notes Tami Santelli, Maryland state director for The HSUS, because “pit bulls” aren’t actually an official breed (see sidebar at right), and the court didn’t define the term.

Owners who can document that their dogs are mixed breeds could be helped by the court’s reconsideration, but fears persist that landlords still might exclude pit bull-type dogs, or maybe even all dogs, because the landlords don’t want to face the risk of a lawsuit or get into the hassles of DNA testing.

The chance of confusion is great. “I got what is a purebred boxer surrendered because the landlord thought it looked like a pit bull,” Brause says. “So how do you fight that?” Many owners don’t have the resources or know-how to prove their dogs’ genetic backgrounds, and a recent study by the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program demonstrated that even shelter workers and other dog experts frequently misidentify breeds based on their appearance.

“You can’t even DNA test dogs and know if they’re a pit bull,” says Julie Levy, a veterinarian who directs the Maddie’s program. “It is a particular problem for pit bulls because the stakes are so high.” In Miami-Dade County, where pit bulls are banned, identification as such amounts to a “death sentence,” she adds.

Bad Science

The idea that breed-specific legislation will lead to fewer dog bites “is absolutely a fallacy—it’s just not going to happen,” Coleman says. There’s no scientific evidence that one kind of dog is more likely than another to bite or injure people, and breed bans in several cities have not reduced reports of dog bites, according to the National Canine Research Council, which funded the Maddie’s study.

Breed-specific policies are similar to profiling people based on their color, height, or style of clothes, Brause says. “You’re looking at an animal, and by its looks you’re saying it’s going to bite you, and that’s not true. It’s just not a fact.”

Gabbey adds that bites tend to occur when un-neutered dogs are allowed to roam free. Dogs are less likely to bite when they’re spayed or neutered, properly trained, and brought into the home rather than chained in the backyard. People can help avoid dog bites by practicing safety measures such as not leaving children unattended, being aware of canine body language, and never petting a dog without letting him see and sniff you first.

One type of dog or another tends to be perceived as dangerous at any given time; Dobermans, rottweilers, and German shepherds have all gone through periods when they were seen as the ultimate “tough” dog, and that reputation heightened public fears. “Unfortunately, we’re in the decade of the pit bull,” Brause notes, “and it’s going to be another dog after this.”

Policymakers sometimes base their decisions on those perceptions rather than facts. In Maryland, a few dozen of an estimated 70,000 pit bull-type dogs have been responsible for reported bite cases, says Bernthal. “Breed-specific legislation dramatically impacts the 99.9 percent who have done absolutely nothing wrong.”

Adds Coleman: “The overwhelming majority of pit bull dogs—whatever it is you’re calling a pit bull—live companionably and unremarkably in just regular homes. … But yet we hear a story about a human-canine bond that has gone wrong, or somebody has been injured by the dog, and that becomes the loudest voice. That becomes the thing that we base law on, even though that is really an exception to what truly happens on an everyday basis.”

After the court decision, Maryland shelters experienced a smaller influx of surrendered animals than feared, Santelli says, but that may be because the ruling was temporarily put on hold when the court was asked to reconsider it, and some landlords may not have realized the ruling’s implications for them.Brause says the number of calls and surrenders at her shelter slowed down as everyone waited to see what the legislature would do. (Geronimo was adopted out to a new home, and Mazzetta’s landlord allowed him to retrieve his dogs after the court decided to exclude pit bull mixes from its ruling.)

But the injustice of the decision isn’t far from Brause’s mind. “Most of what we deal with are mixed, shorthair, stocky dogs—call them pit bulls if you want—and most of them are extremely friendly and loving. And we’ve placed thousands of them—thousands of them—into homes, wonderful homes, with children, with adults, with all different kinds of people,” she says. “… To turn around and say, ‘But they’re vicious,’ it makes me sad, and it shocks me. It’s like, how can you say that when we know otherwise?”

About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.