Thursday, July 9, 2009

VA Two-day trial challenges County's Policy on Euthanizing Pit Bulss Derek Kravitz
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

By all accounts, the three-month-old pit bull puppy at Loudoun County's animal shelter was a happy, social and gentle dog. Unlike the vicious and aggressive image that often accompanies his breed, the brown-and-white puppy regularly jumped up on shelter employees' laps, tossed around rawhide toys and loved to play. In evaluations, workers described him as "silly," "wiggly" and "very lovey."

He didn't have a name except for his county-issued identification number, 43063. And, unfortunately for him, he made a few key mistakes in two required behavioral assessments in July 2007. Most puppies would have been able to survive the gaffes, several animal rescue groups allege. But this puppy was a pit bull in Loudoun County, the only Northern Virginia jurisdiction that prohibits public adoptions of the breed. So he was euthanized.

The county's decision to put that dog to sleep, along with 213 others since January 2006, was at the center of a two-day civil trial in Loudoun County Circuit Court about whether Loudoun County violated state and local laws that give people the right to adopt the dog of their choice from a publicly funded shelter. Arguments in the case concluded yesterday.

Loudoun residents and their dogs turned out for a demonstration in front of the courthouse to protest the county's adoption policy that they say discriminates against the pit bull breed. (Erica Garman)

Owners and their dogs protest the Loudoun County adoption policy that they say leads to the euthanasia of more pit bulls and pit bull mixes than that of other breeds.
Chewy, a four-month-old pit bull mix, belongs to Lacy Warner of Middleburg.

Loudoun euthanized all abandoned pit bulls for years before changing its policy in 2007, allowing the animals to be transferred to rescue groups or shelters in other jurisdictions - so long as the dogs passed a temperament test. The change came soon after former Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) issued a nonbinding opinion saying that pit bulls taken to public pounds could not be euthanized based solely on their breed.

After McDonnell's opinion came out, Montgomery, Prince William and Arlington counties approved allowing pit bulls to be adopted after they had been evaluated, joining the District and Fairfax County. Nearby Prince George's County maintains one of the strictest policies in the nation, banning pit bulls unless they were acquired before 1997.

In May 2007, after the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors rejected a proposal to allow the public to adopt pit bulls cleared by animal behavior specialists, Animal Rescue of Tidewater, a Norfolk-based animal rights group, and Ronald Litz, a Great Falls computer security consultant who inquired about adopting a pit bull from the Loudoun County shelter, filed the lawsuit.

During Tuesday's arguments, attorneys for the plaintiffs described the county shelter as a mismanaged agency that unfairly euthanizes pit bulls that could have found loving homes. Attorneys played an audio recording of Loudoun County Supervisor Jim Burton (I-Blue Ridge), who said during a November 2007 county meeting that he had a "particular problem" with pit bulls because he had "seen them in action."

"There's an absolute clear bias based on breed," said Anthony F. Troy, a lawyer for the two parties suing the county.

Loudoun County officials argue that there is no "breed bias" but a "characteristic bias" against pit bulls, a term used for a number of different breeds that have long been associated with dogfights, gangs and deadly attacks. Assistant County Attorney Zaida Thompson said shelter staffers were doing the "best job they can" to make all adoptable dogs available to Loudoun residents.

Still, the case has presented problems for the Loudoun shelter, which operates on a 13-acre property in the affluent western part of the county. For years, officials there have been navigating a fine line between following the county Board of Supervisor's rulings on the pit bull issue and openly working with other regional public pounds to develop adoption policies for the breed.

"We're moving toward placing more dogs with rescue groups but a lot of them are full," said Tom Koenig, director of Loudoun County Animal Care and Control, in an interview shortly after the trial ended yesterday afternoon. "I follow the policy direction of the county administrator and the Board of Supervisors. I have to go with their decision. Would I like it to be different? It doesn't really matter because we are consistent with county policy."

Since the county's new transfer policy started, 122 pit bulls have been euthanized at the Waterford shelter. Data culled from evidence presented at this week's trial indicates the county euthanizes 84 percent of all pit bulls, compared to 48 percent of all other dogs.

As expected, the two-day trial featured some passionate displays, including a morning protest outside the county courthouse on Tuesday and a giant photo of a three-month-old pit bull puppy, similar to the one euthanized in 2007, being shown inside the courtroom.

Despite the emotions surrounding the case, the final ruling from Judge Burke F. McCahill, which is expected in coming days, might hinge on a technical, legal issue: whether a nonbinding opinion from an attorney general is enough to dictate county law.

"Unless that [attorney general's] opinion holds water," McCahill said during closing arguments, the county "might be free" to euthanize.

But for Litz, the plaintiff who owns a pit bull named Drew, it's simpler: "I don't understand the legal arguments, really," he said. "But I do understand dogs. And dogs are being killed."

No comments: