Breed-Specific Banning? Not A Chance

By Kim Wolf (Philadelphia Weekly)

“They are just dogs. I repeat: They are just dogs.” This description of pit bulls was repeated by Donald Cleary of the National Canine Research Council during a panel discussion held March 8 at Drexel Law School titled, “The Importance of Creating Safe & Humane Communities for All People & Animals.” But judging by PW ’s March 9 editorial, “Banishing Acts: It’s a Pitty; Maybe it’s time for Philly to consider outlawing pit bulls,” this message still needs repeating.

Despite significant increases in both human and dog populations, Philadelphia has seen a dramatic decrease in the number of reported dog bites, including those inflicted by pit bulls. In 1971, Philadelphia had nearly 8,500 reported dog bites, compared with about 1,100 in 2006, according to the National Canine Research Council.

And although more than one in four Philadelphians currently has a dog, the unfortunate incidents that took place last month represented Philadelphia’s first fatal dog attack in more than a quarter century. A tragedy indeed, but hardly comparable to the 300-plus homicides our city had in 2009 alone. Not even close to the number of Philadelphians killed by cars, falling construction debris, bad weather or even bad food.

And who are these pit bulls anyway? Simply put, there is no such breed. Rather, the term “pit bull” describes an ever-expanding group of dogs that includes American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, American Pit Bull Terriers, Cane Corsos, Dogo Argentinos, bull terriers, bulldogs, boxers and bullmastiffs, as well as any mixed-breed dog presumed by a dog warden or a cop, on the basis of appearance, to be a “pit bull.”

That being said: We do have a problem. However, the problem is not the “pit bull” belonging to Jacob Lambert’s neighbors—the dog he described as “friendly and enthusiastic” and “sits when he is told and generally heeds his master.” The problem is the system.

Philadelphia has failed to address the real villains who threaten our public safety— not the dogs, but the negligent humans who are responsible for them. These are the people who obtain dogs for unsavory tasks (e.g., guarding, fighting); who chain them in backyards or basements; who do not spay or neuter (a symptom of irresponsible ownership and one of several factors overwhelmingly correlated with dog attacks); who deprive them of adequate food and vet care; or who fail to exert control over their animals (and their children).

 Why aren’t politicians enacting anti-tethering laws? Why isn’t City Council providing more public support for spay and neuter facilities? Why don’t judges sentence dogfighting ring leaders and animal abusers to the fullest extent? A large part the problem, quite frankly, is the media.

 Contrary to what they’ve led us to believe, pit bulls are not inherently vicious, unpredictable, ticking time bombs. In fact, it wasn’t long ago that America embraced pit bulls as “America’s dog.” Remember Petey, the famed pup from Little Rascals? How about Sergeant Stubby, our nation’s beloved World War I mascot who was honored by three U.S. presidents? When the news portrays a particular breed or type of dog as “dangerous,” there is an immediate increase in the number of sub-standard owners who obtain those dogs and subsequently keep them in environments that are ripe for disaster. We’ve all seen the guy with a Napoleon complex who paid $1,500 for a “Broad Street Bully” with big balls and cropped ears. I adopted one of these “time bombs” (he was rescued by humane law-enforcement officers from a fighting operation). Where is that dog now? He’s a certified therapy dog who visits nursing homes and elementary schools. And he’s neutered.

So should Philadelphia consider outlawing pit bulls? For one, it’d be legally impossible, thanks to a Pennsylvania statute that preempts any local ordinance attempting to prohibit or otherwise limit a specific breed of dog. Paying for it presents another challenge. Best Friends Animal Society estimates that the annual cost for Philadelphia to enact breed-discriminatory legislation, which would impact an estimated 26,330 pit bull-type dogs, would be a cool $2,275,020.

And what do the experts say? It’s unanimous: The American Veterinary Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Animal Control Association, the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and almost all animal-welfare organizations oppose breed-specific regulation.

Finally, history holds too many examples of humans using certain traits (e.g., skin color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, country of origin) as the basis for categorizing the “differentness” of another group to justify the subjugation, abuse or annihilation of that population. This psychological ploy is now being used against pit bulls, and both the dogs and their human companions suffer the tragic effects. And regardless of one’s feelings toward pit bulls, please think carefully before granting government officials the power to enter a person’s home, seize his property and then kill that property— which is precisely what happens when cities outlaw pit bulls.