This article originally appeared in Vol. 18, No. 2 (Winter 2009) of PASS IT ON
All Bark and Fiscal Bite—Are Breed-Discriminatory Laws Effective?
by Ledy VanKavage A dog attacks, and city-council members want the city attorney to react—sometimes by drafting an ordinance that restricts or outlaws a specific breed of dog, most often the maligned pit bull.1 After such an ordinance is passed, authorities must then ferret out and kill any dog that slightly resembles a pit bull. Prince George’s County Maryland spends approximately $560,000 every two years enforcing its ban. Miami-Dade County impounds and kills around 800 pit bulls a year, despite a ban dating back to the 1980s, resulting in a significant fiscal impact.2
Given the tremendous costs associated with breed-discriminatory laws, are they a prudent approach to community safety or a costly red herring? With passage of such ordinances comes a host of questions such as: How do you prove in court the identity of a mixed-breed dog? What sort of training do your animal-control or law-enforcement officers have regarding breed identification? If they aren’t trained in breed identification, is a veterinarian employed to determine whether a dog is a certain breed? Now that DNA testing is available, are courts going to require the government to pay for such testing before confiscating and destroying citizens’ property (i.e., their dogs)?
Missing the Mark by Targeting Pit Bulls
Effective public lawyers counsel their clients to make decisions based on research and valid statistics, not emotion. So why the modern-day witch hunt concerning pit bulls? Karen Delise, author of “Fatal Dog Attacks” and “The Pit Bull Placebo,” examined news stories regarding dog attacks that occurred during four days in August 2007. The results are telling:
· On Aug. 18, 2007: A Labrador mix attacked a 70-year-old man, sending him to the hospital in critical condition. Police officers arrived at the scene, and the dog was shot after charging the officers. This incident was reported in one article and only in the local paper.
· On Aug. 19, 2007: A 16-month-old child received fatal head and neck injuries after being attacked by a mixed-breed dog. This attack was reported two times by the local paper.
· On Aug. 20, 2007: A 6-year-old boy was hospitalized after having his ear torn off and receiving severe bites to the head by a medium-sized mixed-breed dog. This attack was reported in one article and only in the local paper.
· On Aug. 21, 2007: A 59-year-old woman was attacked in her home while trying to break up a dog fight involving her neighbor’s Jack Russell terrier and two pit bulls. The pit bulls had broken off their chains and followed her neighbor’s Jack Russell terrier in through her dog door. She was hospitalized with severe injuries. Her dog was not injured. This attack was reported in more than 230 articles in national and international newspapers and on major television news networks, including CNN, MSNBC, and Fox.
Thus, during those four days, four dog attacks made the news—including a fatality involving a mixed-breed dog—but only the incident involving the pit bulls captured national attention.
Given the hype, it isn’t a surprise that public lawyers may be asked to research and draft ordinances to help stop dog attacks, with the focus frequently on banning pit bulls. However, a smarter approach is to examine the statistics in the community, seek citizen input and weigh the factors involved in the attacks.
Read the full story on the American Bar Association site.