Clear and present danger?

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The breed most associated with serious dog bites changes with its popularity.

COLUMBUS, OHIO — Canine advocates want Ohio Supreme Court justices to reconsider a unanimous ruling that deems state law and a Toledo ordinance branding pit bulls inherently vicious constitutional.

If a rehearing is rejected, American Canine Foundation officials and the dog owner originally named in Toledo vs. Tellings promise to seek appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court. At the same time, state Rep. Shawn Webster, a veterinarian, plans to introduce legislation designed to remove language in a 1987 Ohio statute defining vicious dogs as "those commonly known as pit bulls."

The high court's decision, issued Aug. 1, overturns a ruling from Ohio's 6th District Court of Appeals that struck down the state statute and Toledo's authority to enact a breed-specific law restricting pit bull ownership to one per household. In addition, city law requires owners to carry special liability insurance and muzzle or confine pit bulls when off home property. Dogs can be confiscated and violators are issued citations and fines.

Toledo's ordinance might appear radical — it led to the seizure of a record 998 dogs last year — but Chief Justice Thomas Moyer writes, "Evidence proves that pit bulls cause more damage than other dogs when they attack ... We hold that the state of Ohio and the city of Toledo have a legitimate interest in protecting citizens from the dangers associated with pit bulls and that (the laws) are rationally related to that interest and are constitutional."

Media attention

The Ohio Supreme Court's decision speaks more about the state's home-rule authority than breed discrimination, legal experts say.

But the verdict, opponents argue, bolsters a mounting trend to profile pit bulls as dangerous — a distinction that usually carries ownership restrictions.

A major problem with anti-pit bull laws, veterinarians say, is that no such breed exists. Dogs generically labeled pit bulls tend to be an amalgamation of several large breeds such as Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, American pit bull Terriers and Staffordshire Bull Terriers.

Still, when it comes to breed profiling, such facts often yield to more emotional debate. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show dogs bite 4.7 million Americans each year. As organized veterinary medicine gets louder concerning its stance that breeds are not innately vicious, pit bulls' negative reputation is compounded by an apparent surge in dog fighting's popularity in urban areas and highly publicized mauling-related injuries and deaths.

Reports concerning dog-related violence hits on public-safety issues as well as the public's compassion for animals — both high-profile topics for media. Mix in celebrity scandal, and the centuries-old blood sport climbs in news significance. As fallout from football star Michael Vick's federal conspiracy case illuminates underground dog fighting, it also feeds pit bull stereotypes and discrimination, veterinary leaders contend. The result is a rush of Capitol Hill lawmakers promising new federal anti-dogfighting legislation.

Ohio Rep. Webster is concerned about the negative attention.

"As veterinarians, we don't believe the bologna that's out there; pit bulls are not inherently vicious," he says. "I believe making them outlaws is only going to bring pit bull numbers up. We're seeing a culture that has a macho attitude regarding pit bulls; inner-city gang members are fighting them for money. Whatever happens to Michael Vick, maybe it will bring people to their senses."

Public-safety standpoint

Lucas County dog warden Tom Skeldon, who covers Toledo, holds little hope that the Vick case will reduce fighting dog numbers, considering pit bulls are what he describes as the "cash cow of the city."

A champion of the city's ordinance, Skeldon describes his authority to seize pit bulls as an unfair but necessary tool to combat the tough reality of street dog fighting. It not nearly as limiting as Denver's outright ban, he says, which has led to hundreds of pit bull seizures and deaths and made national headlines last year.

"We know that not everyone's pit bull is going to rip someone's face off," Skeldon admits. But this year, the dog warden expects to pick up 1,300 animals. Roughly 60 percent will be euthanized, he says.

"This market is driven by two factors: You have an insatiable appetite for the pit, fueled by drug money, and it's the entertainment of choice for gang members and drug dealers," he explains. "These dogs have become a red flag for law enforcement that there's likely to be other felonious activity. This is what's going on in every major city in the United States."

For that reason, Toledo Law Director John Madigan promises the city will defend its ordinance even if the case goes up for federal consideration.

"I think it's a law that works and makes neighborhoods a bit safer," he says. "No veterinarians have said anything against the ordinance in this area."

Stereotype vs. reality

That doesn't mean local practitioners have no opinion.

Dr. Debbie Johnson, who works for the Toledo Area Humane Society, rails against Skeldon's pit bull roundup, which she hopes will end with the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It makes me sick that our dog warden uses every opportunity he has to condemn the breed instead of educating the public that it is the owner, not the breed, that is the problem," she says.

That's exactly American Canine Foundation founder Glen Bui's sentiment. Named in the decision, the foundation lobbies on behalf of appellee Paul Tellings, who brought the original case after being convicted in 2003 of owning three pit bulls, one of which was seized and destroyed.

Bui claims the Ohio Supreme Court's decision is "tainted." He backs a motion for reconsideration, based on allegations that Toledo officials purposely failed to enter evidence showing Ohio's record of fatal dog attacks.

"Those numbers reveal pit bulls aren't the problem and that this law is clearly unconstitutional," Bui contends. "Everybody's still in shock. We're still trying to figure out what happened."

Fine line

Like most practitioners, Webster tows organized veterinary medicine's line against breed discrimination. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the breed most associated with serious dog bites changes with its popularity. In the 1980s, German Shepherds held the title. Just a few years ago, Rottweilers were the dog du jour. Even Ohio Supreme Court justices contend there's no real evidence that pit bulls are prima facially vicious, the opinion states.

But the small-animal practitioner from southern Ohio recognizes both sides of the argument. He knows street reality regarding pit bulls often fails to mirror the breed's image as family pets. And he says citizens can't expect law enforcement to determine the difference.

"I think there are areas where there's a line of crack houses in this state that are full of fighting pit bulls," Webster says. "Yes, the problem is so bad some cities need to do something. Maybe those areas need to ban them altogether. But to pick on one particular breed and say it's vicious from the day it's born is ridiculous."

That's the basis for House Bill 71, still in a draft stage at press time. While Webster's bill does not counter the Toledo ordinance, it seeks to amend the state statute that names pit bulls vicious (see related story).

It's a distinction that's failing to resonate with a portion of the public that fears pit bulls, Webster says, considering the number of angry e-mails and phone calls he gets.

"I've been accused of being subservient to the pit bull lobby," he says. "What is that? I think if you look at my financial records you will not see Michael Vick as one of my campaign contributors."

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