On the verge of exile?


After five surgeries spanning almost three years, Mary Murphy-Smith, 49, cannot open her right hand. She can no longer deliver babies in her profession as a midwife, and her nightmares are still frequent and vivid.

After five surgeries spanning almost three years, Mary Murphy-Smith, 49, cannot open her right hand. She can no longer deliver babies in her profession as a midwife, and her nightmares are still frequent and vivid.

In Jan. 2003, Murphy-Smith was jogging in a wooded-area near her home in Chicago when she came across Anna Cieslewicz, a running acquaintance, lying on the path in front of her. Cieslewicz had left for a morning jog about an hour earlier only to be attacked by two Pit Bulls. She was dying. Before Murphy-Smith could register what was happening, the dogs set on her as well. She fought them for more than 20 minutes while they shredded the muscles in her arms and legs. As they ripped away a thick winter scarf protecting her neck, she was able to jam a stick down one's throat, fending him off and buying her a brief moment to escape.

Murphy-Smith says Pit Bulls should be banned. "You don't see other dogs maul and kill like Pit Bulls do. I mean, would you allow a lion be a family pet?"

Photo: Christof Stache, AP

It's high-profile, tragic incidents like this that are fueling a push to ban the entire breed in certain states. Leaders in organized veterinary medicine and other humane groups counter this issue would be better solved through adequate funding for animal control in municipalities and dog owner education.

"It's an owner problem, not a dog problem," says Dr. Bonnie Beaver, former president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and an expert in animal welfare from Texas A&M University.

With about a dozen dog-bite fatalities each year and some 500,000 to 800,000 bites requiring medical attention, some state legislators, academics and insurance companies are positioning breed-specific legislation as a solution to muzzling aggressive canine behavior (see related story). At the same time, humane societies, shelters and veterinary associations rail against such legislation, citing it blames an entire breed for the negligence of a few bad dog owners, resulting in thousands of euthanasias and an undue burden on shelters.

Dr. Alan Beck, professor of Purdue University's School of Veterinary Medicine, is a proponent of breed-specific legislation and has testified in Ontario's courts as an expert witness to the aggressive tendencies of Pit Bulls. Ontario has since banned the breed.

At AVMA's July 2006 meeting, Beck will be speaking on the issue in opposition to the official AVMA position. "I'm taking the other side of this because I really believe it," Beck says. "Pit Bulls were bred to be fighting dogs. We aren't surprised when herding dogs herd, so why are we surprised when dogs that are bred to fight do so?"

As far as breed-specific legislation goes, Ontario isn't alone. There are several U.S. laws in the making as well, most notably Elijah's Law. Named after a 3-year-old killed by a Rottweiler, the bill (NY HB A10169) is currently before the New York state legislature. It defines aggressive dog breeds as deadly weapons — to be regulated like handguns and daggers. Owners would be required to carry liability insurance on dangerous breed dogs over the age of 4 months, and those dogs would have to wear orange tags identifying them as aggressive. Elijah's Law would also give individual municipalities the freedom to ban breeds at will or require certain dogs to be muzzled in public.

Similar legislation is under consideration in Illinois and Oklahoma as well. Bill IL S.B. 1790, proposed by Illinois Sen. Martin A. Sandoval, says owners of dogs classified as dangerous should have to license the dogs as such and maintain canine liability insurance. Like Elijah's Law, the Illinois bill proposes orange ID tags. The law also would authorize criminal penalties for owners violating liability requirements.

While these bills are pending ratification, more than 230 cities and 32 states have some type of breed specific legislation already in place. Unable to distinguish good dogs from bad on an individual basis, legislation like Elijah's Law, which profiles dogs based on statistics, seems to many like a solution to the aggressive dog problem.

Not so, says Beaver, chair of the AVMA Dog Bite Prevention Task Force, it has more to do with proper training, seeking veterinary behavioral assistance for owners and animals and properly funding animal control efforts in municipalities.

"The Pit Bull isn't even technically a breed," she says, adding that "there are something like 40 breeds of dogs that fit the physical characteristics of the Pit Bull."

"It's unrealistic to just ban Pit Bulls when there's no specific definition," she says. "Just because a dog has certain physical characteristics, that doesn't mean they're dangerous."

To complicate matters more, Beaver says there are no reliable statistics on how many of each breed actually exist, much less mixed breeds. The numbers come from licensing, registration and rabies vaccinations — all things that responsible dog owners do — and all things that owners of dogs that bite are negligent about. And though the statistics that indicate 800,000 serious bites per year are startling, Beaver says some cities don't even report their bites, so those numbers could be way off as well. "Are we overreacting? Are we under-reacting?" asks Beaver. "We simply don't know."

While they may not be their own breed, there's no denying that individual Pit Bulls can be dangerous. Beck points out that Pit Bulls make up only 2 to 5 percent of the dog population as a whole, and yet 30 percent of all fatal bites are attributed to them. Bred from 19th Century fighting dogs and popularized for their "street cred" in the '80s, Pit Bulls have a reputation for inflicting the most damage possible with little or no provocation. They are notorious for fighting to the point of exhaustion.

As a result of this bad boy rap, Pit Bulls along with other breeds, including Rottweilers, Chows, Huskies, German Shepherds and Doberman Pinschers, have been banned or restricted in much of Western Europe, China, Ontario and several U.S. cities. Over the past 15 years, more than half the states have passed laws with stiff penalties for owners of dogs that cause serious injury or death.

Liability insurance, rather than outright ban, has been the focus of recent legislation. When dog bites make up the largest percentage of homeowners' claims and the Insurance Information Institute reports that insurers pay out more than $300 million annually, many agencies are refusing to insure dangerous breeds. This, and the reality that dog maulings regularly make front-page news, has pulled city and state legislators into the fray, some instituting a required $100,000 insurance policy on certain breeds.

But a counter culture is gaining steam. Right now, Hawaii, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Kentucky, Washington, New York, Vermont and Ohio all have bills pending that prohibit insurers from canceling, refusing to renew or charging higher premiums for homeowner's insurance based on the breed of dog. "One of the major problems is that it creates a panic mentality," says Pam Runquist, director of companion animal issues for the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights.

"If you say that you're going to penalize a certain breed, that all dogs in that breed are bad, it leads to people having to hide or move because their breed has been targeted," Runquist says.

When faced with high insurance premiums, people are often forced to choose between their dog and their insurance policy. According to the HSUS, 3 million to 4 million pets are euthanized in shelters each year. Now those shelters, already strapped for cash, might be required to take out insurance on puppies. Many refuse to even take in breeds classified as dangerous, knowing they'd be overrun with dogs they could never place.

Some instances call for compromise, though. The state of California has ratified a bill calling for mandatory spay and neuter of dangerous breeds, a breed-specific move championed by both Runquist and the AVMA. "We support spay and neuter for all breeds, so whether it's a Rottweiler or a Pit Bull, mandatory spay and neuter should be done regardless." She says the law is a good solution because it deals in broad strokes, looking at the whole population and cutting down the number of strays in shelters without being harmful to any specific breed.

Beaver agrees, but says all the legislation wouldn't be needed if communities exercised responsibility in other areas.

"Many communities do not adequately fund their animal control," Beaver says. "If they did, and the animal control officers pursued the laws that are already on the books, they would find they wouldn't have a problem."

This last issue is a sensitive one for Murphy Smith. Having seen the Pit Bulls in the forest preserve more than a month before her attack, she'd reported the dogs to the correct authorities. "I waited a month before I went running there again," she says. "I thought surely the situation would have been taken care of."

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