Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) has been bandied about in several legislative arms of the United States government including the local and state levels for decades. In particular, pit bulls as a breed have recently come under fierce attack due to a plethora of news stories which highlight attacks on humans and the use of the breed for fighting purposes. Municipal ordinances seek to either ban ownership of specific breeds such as pit bulls, curb ownership of these animals or impose unreasonably strict responsibilities on those who choose to care for pit bulls such as keeping the animal confined and requiring hefty insurance supplements.
Such legislation, unfortunately, does nothing to address the real problem which begins with the owner himself, not the dog, whose breed has been proven not to be unpredictably aggressive. Instead of laying the blame with owners who are irresponsible or those who use them for fighting, BSL legislation targets pit bulls for simply being what they are, and the rights of citizens to own their choice of dog breed. Definition of the Pit Bull Breed and BSL
The term “pit bull” refers to “a type of short-coated large terrier, anywhere from 40-80 pounds, characterized by a wide skull, powerful jaws, and a muscular, stocky body” according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) but it is not technically a breed recognized by the American Kennel Club. For the purposes of this paper, we will use this term to denote any variety of what is commonly known as a pit bull.
The pit bull was brought to the United States from England for use as an “animal baiting” dog whereby it would be trained to attack a large animal such as a bear and hang on with its teeth until the animal was brought down. When this was judged to be illegal in the 1800’s, many pit bull owners began to train the animals to fight each other instead. Thus, the fighting instinct was nurtured and eventually bred into the dog. According to the ASPCA (aspca. org), citizens need to be aware that “even though a breed may be characterized by a certain pattern of behaviors, individuals within a breed can vary tremendously”.
According to Diane Blackman (“Breed Specific Legislation”, 1995), BSL is defined as “ordinances [which] may regulate or prohibit certain breeds regardless of the temperament or behavior of the individual animal”. The problem with this definition is that it refers to a specific breed, which must be narrowly defined to make such an ordinance enforceable. There are many varieties of pit bull dogs available, many of whom have been mixed with other breeds. Are all pit bulls, then, at the center of this controversy or is there a particular recognized breed that legislatures are aiming to control?
Such definitions must be clearly defined before enforcement becomes even remotely practical. Ineffectiveness of the Legislation BSL legislature has been proven to be ineffective and unconstitutional in municipalities where it has been enacted in the past. In the 1980’s BSL first started to appear in cities such as Hollywood, Florida, Cincinnati, Ohio and a small town in New Mexico. These were followed by legislation at the state level in Michigan, Ohio and Florida. All of these ordinances specifically targeted pit bulls as being inherently dangerous to society.
What has happened in each of these communities and states is that either owners continue to keep pit bulls in their care but do so illegally or they switch to a different breed of dog and train it to be aggressive because that was the original purpose in obtaining the pit bull in the first place (Weiss, 2001). Weiss quotes Brittany Wallman of the South Florida Sun-Central as stating “Officials in Prince George, Maryland are considering a repeal of the community’s BSL, arguing that the legislation has simply encouraged owners of vicious dogs to either ‘go underground’ or ‘get fighting dogs not covered by the ban’.
” Many municipalities which have imposed BSL were later declared to be unconstitutional in restricting a specific breed of pet. According to Weiss, quoting the ruling in Hearn vs. City of Overland Park: “The Kansas Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s findings that (1) the ordinance was not unconstitutionally vague or overbroad; (2) the ordinance did not violate the state or federal due process rights of the plaintiffs; and (3) the ordinance did not violate the plaintiffs’ equal protection rights under the United States and Kansas Constitutions.
” In Dade County, Florida, a group of dog owners protested the BSL ordinance based on grounds that it was discriminatory and did not sufficiently define the breed. The District Court found the definition of a pit bull satisfactory but did uphold that enforcement of the ordinance could be “applied in a discriminatory fashion” (Weiss, 2001), thus unfairly targeting certain pets. Currently, there are many laws on the books pertaining to pet ownership, such as leash laws, but most are rarely enforced.
Imposing a law based on breed, which, as previously discussed, is certainly difficult for an enforcement officer to pinpoint, will do nothing to stop problems such as dog bites from occurring. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that an ordinance banning pit bulls “depends for enforcement on the subjective understanding of dog officers of the appearance of an ill-defined ‘breed’” (Weiss, 2001). When encountering dogs of mixed breeds, it is nearly impossible to make a solid determination; according to Blackman (“Breed Specific Legislation, 1995) “a part boxer dog can easily be mistaken for a part pit bull”.
Clearly, one of the biggest problems with enforcing BSL is creating a definition of a pit bull that is easily recognizable by enforcement officers, non-discriminatory and does not unfairly target animals of mixed breeds. Creating legislature based on a dog’s breed also adds a burden to municipalities of prohibitive cost and providing extra manpower to enforce the ordinance. A ban on pit bulls in Cincinnati, Ohio was eventually overturned due to the excessive cost of enforcement.
The statute had been on the books for nine years with no success until the city began to take enforcement more seriously. When Ohio Valley Dog Owners protested, the courts found that with “dozens of dogs in custody and court cases to decide” it was unreasonable and placed a great burden on enforcement agencies as well as the courts to keep BSL on the books (Weiss, 2001). Instead, the court system ordered that all pit bulls in Ohio be registered with the local police department, “marked with tattoos and microchips, photographed, confined, and insured” (Weiss, 2001). Alternative Solutions
A better way to address the problem of aggressive dogs and their violent behavior is to target the owners, not the animals, through educational initiatives and enforcement of existing laws directly related to the owners of pets who have been proven to have dangerous tendencies. Legislature that addresses this focus is just beginning to be recognized as a viable alternative to BSL. The state of California recently proposed a bill that “gives prosecutors power to press felony charges against ‘any person owning or having custody or control’ of a dangerous dog, even if the person is not the dog’s owner” (Weiss, 2001).
In Indiana, prosecutors are allowed to find owners of pets responsible if these animals exhibit violence toward any employees of local government or utility companies in the commission of their job. Owners need to be aware, through educational programs, that the training of their pet is the biggest key to affecting its behavior. Classes that promote safe handling without the use of violence can be effective and would be a natural extension of local animal control agencies and Humane Societies. Programs aimed at children and raising their levels of safety awareness are also beneficial.
Laws that are already in place regarding dangerous animals and hold owners accountable their dogs’ actions regardless of breed need to be vigorously enforced. Rather than targeting a specific breed, animal enforcement agencies need to collectively focus on violent or aggressive behavior in any dog, not just pit bulls. Upholding leash laws will certainly help as keeping any animal under the owner’s control in all situations is vital in the prevention of attacks. Conclusion Pit bulls are often associated with the breed’s history as being violent and aggressive due to their training.
It is not, however, advisable to relate all dogs of one breed as distinguished by these traits. According to Cox (2002), “any dog can be dangerous”. Humans are an integral part of the equation of pit bulls equal violence. Only when pet owners are properly educated and current laws regarding responsible ownership enforced will there be a reduction in the amount of attacks instigated by dangerous dogs, no matter their breed. Legislation at the state and city levels needs to focus on owners as the responsible parties and let go of the idea that pit bulls as a whole are a menace to society. Works Cited
American Society for the Prevention Cruelty to Animals. “Pit Bull Information”. Retrieved November 13, 2007 from the ASPCA Website: http://www. aspca. org/site/PageServer? pagename=pets_pitbull. Blackman, Diane. “Practicality Of Breed Specific Legislation In Reducing Or Eliminating Dog Attacks On Humans And Dogs”. Breed Specific Legislation, 1995. Retrieved November 13, 2007 from the Dog-play Website: http://dogplay. com/Articles/MyArticles/pitbull. html. Cox, Rachel. “Breed Specific Legislation”. InterNetWorkers: April, 2002. Retrieved November 13, 2007 from the Ibiblio Website: http://lists.
ibiblio. org/pipermail/internetworkers/2002-April/005220. html. New Leash on Life. “Breed Specific Legislation”. Retrieved November 13, 2007 from the NLOL Website: http://www. nlol. org/chicago/bsl. asp. Real Pit Bull, The. “Breed Specific Legislation”. Retrieved November 13, 2007 from the Real Pit Bull Website: http://www. realpitbull. com/laws. html. Weiss, Linda S. “Breed-Specific Legislation in the United States”. Animal Legal and Historical Web Center. Detroit College of Law: 2001. Retrieved November 13, 2007 from the Animal Law Website: http://www. animallaw. info/articles/aruslweiss2001. htm.