Ohio appeals court strikes vicious dog laws


Toledo, Ohio - More than a year after the Ohio Supreme Court quashed part of the state's vicious dog laws, an appeals panel finds another section of code as well as a Toledo ordinance targeting Pit Bulls unconstitutional.

TOLEDO, OHIO — More than a year after the Ohio Supreme Court quashed part of the state's vicious dog laws, an appeals panel finds another section of code as well as a Toledo ordinance targeting Pit Bulls unconstitutional.

Proponents of the repealed laws announced last month they're taking the case to the Ohio Supreme Court. In March, the 6th Ohio District Court of Appeals reversed a statewide statute defining vicious dogs as those commonly known as Pit Bulls. The 2-1 opinion also struck down a Toledo ordinance based on the same breed identification process described by court judges as vague.

The ruling marks the latest countermeasure against a growing movement to profile Pit Bulls and other large dogs as dangerous — a distinction that often carries ownership restrictions. The divide has split the veterinary profession with the majority of leaders fighting breed-specific laws while some DVMs cite a need for increased breed-control measures (see related story). At presstime, breed-specific ordinances were being considered among municipalities from Minnesota to Missouri. The California General Assembly opened the door for San Francisco's recent adoption of a Pit Bull sterilization mandate when legislators repealed the state's ban on breed-specific laws. Los Angeles County plans to follow with a broad proposal to require the spaying or neutering of most dogs in unincorporated areas (see related story).

While the debate carries emotion — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 4.7 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year resulting in a dozen annual fatalities — media reports of maulings and deaths linked to Pit Bulls are countered by expert opinion that aggressive dogs are not tied to breed. They are a product of heredity, early experience, socialization and training, medical and behavioral health and victim behavior, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) says.

Pit Bull isn't even a breed, veterinary experts contend.

Extensive reach

Yet a number of DVMs cite "inherent dangers" associated with owning Pit Bulls, most often used as a generic term describing American Staffordshire Terriers or a variety of bull-terrier mixes. The emerging attitude shift has stakeholders eager to see how the Ohio Supreme Court handles the Toledo case, should justices slate it for review.

Jack Advent, executive director of the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association, considers the implications "huge." Before the appellate ruling, Toledo's ordinance capped Pit Bull ownership at one dog per household, required owners to carry $100,000 in liability insurance, muzzle the dogs while off personal property and confine them at all times. Dogs could be confiscated and violators issued citations and fines.

The appellate decision negates those mandates in the 6th District that covers Toledo and eight northwest Ohio counties. The Supreme Court's support of the ruling would render every ordinance in the state that discriminates against breed invalid.

It's also likely to have implications beyond Ohio's borders, says Advent, who expects the Supreme Court's decision to carry national weight.

"You can't prove with certainty that a lot of these dogs are Pit Bulls," he says. "When push comes to shove, it's a very judgmental thing by a dog warden who may not have had training on breed determination."

ID miff

In case the Supreme Court goes the other way, Rep. Shawn Webster, DVM, has followed with House Bill 533, which removes the stipulation in Ohio law that automatically identifies Pit Bulls as vicious. The bill echoes the appeals court's contention.

Six weeks into its introduction, Webster, a Southern Ohio practitioner, reports positive reaction.

"I understand why Pit Bulls have such a reputation; they're associated with drugs and gangs," he says. "But I think it's wrong to cast a net clear across the state on a breed. The bill also affirms that local control can play a definite role in animal control, and the locals can pretty much set a standard. However, it does not include doing something unconstitutional. It takes it out of statute."

The appeals court brief dispels the mythology tied to Pit Bulls, Webster adds, and highlights the fact that there's no science-based evidence of massive, locking jaws, inordinate muscular strength or aggressiveness. "We are troubled by the lack of an exact statutory definition of a Pit Bull, the evidence presented that more than 10 non-Pit Bull breeds look very much like Pit Bulls and the highly subjective nature of the identification process," the court says.

Behind the appeal

Tom Skeldon isn't convinced. As head of the Lucas County Dog Warden Department, he can no longer enforce Toledo's municipal ordinance. That's a problem, he says, considering Pit Bulls now make up a larger portion of the nation's dog population. According to the department, Skeldon's office picked up 50 to 100 Pit Bulls a year in the mid-1990s. Toledo-area dog wardens confiscated roughly 900 Pit Bulls last year, he says.

"Now people can have as many Pit Bulls as they want; they don't have to muzzle them, confine them or insure them," Skeldon says. "Dog wardens hands across the state are tied. Public parks in Toledo, Ohio, this spring and summer are going to be dangerous places."

That safety issue has Toledo Law Director John Madigan trying to convince the Supreme Court to side in the city's favor.

"This is an important case with constitutional implications," he says. "I think the Supreme Court will look at it quickly and decide that the appellate ruling should not be upheld. We're prohibiting the concentration of Pit Bulls in residential neighborhoods that threaten people, police and fire personnel."

Science to establish lethal probability

Such sweeping statements shouldn't be applied to entire breeds, many veterinary leaders say, but Purdue University researcher Dr. Larry Glickman argues otherwise. Scientists do not need to know the mechanism causing a particular breed to be more vicious than others to recognize that it's more dangerous, he says.

In the coming months, Glickman and his colleagues plan to publish a paper comparing the likelihood that Pit Bulls will seriously injure people at an incidence rate higher than other breeds. Those numbers will be compared to population data and trends.

"We'll clearly show from a scientific standpoint that the Pit Bull is more dangerous than other breeds," he says. "One of the criticisms we hear is that deaths are only a small fraction of all bites. Well, I don't care about all bites. We know a Chihuahua isn't going to kill anybody."

The report also will dispel misinformation regarding the shortcomings of breed-targeting initiatives, he adds.

"It's a matter of knowing what the facts are, and veterinarians should be knowledgeable because they're often asked to comment," Glickman says. "There's no question that Pit Bulls are more likely to kill people, particularly children, than other breeds."

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