For some, proposed ordinance is the pits

July 27, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

The proof is in the pit bull.

If a dog is a Staffordshire bull terrier, an American Staffordshire terrier, an American pit bull terrier, an American bulldog or a bull terrier - or has "the appearance of being predominantly" one of those breeds - it "poses a special threat and a unique hazard to the public safety," according to a proposed city ordinance in Hagerstown.

The ordinance would require pit bull owners to register, muzzle, fence, leash and insure their dogs - or risk a $1,000-a-day fine.

Dog owners say the city is barking up the wrong tree and should go after dangerous dogs and their owners, not breeds. Some pit bulls may be dangerous, but others are not, which is true of many breeds.


"Punish the deed, not the breed" has become a battle cry.

If owners train their pit bulls to be nasty, Austin Gross of Virginia Avenue said at a recent Hagerstown City Council hearing, "let's treat them like a sex offender and make them register, not the dog."

The American Temperament Test Society in St. Louis says at its Web site that of the 24,000 dogs it tested for behavior as of December, 80.7 percent passed. Four of the five pit bull breeds covered in Hagerstown's ordinance had an above-average rate of passing.

Breed-specific laws, which have popped up in cities across the country, often are aimed at the various breeds that make up the classification "pit bull."

But, aside from the debate over the fairness of singling out one group of dogs, there is at least one inherent dilemma in trying to exclude pit bulls.

That is: What is a pit bull?

Defining pit bulls

Hagerstown's proposed ordinance names five breeds. An ordinance in Prince George's County, Md., lists three: Staffordshire bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier and American pit bull terrier.

Paul Miller, who recently was hired to be the Washington County Humane Society's next director, said defining pit bulls can get hairy.

Miller, the manager of Chattanooga (Tenn.) Animal Services until he starts in Washington County in September, said rival kennel clubs have different standards.

The American Kennel Club, considered by many the leading dog breed organization, does not recognize the American pit bull terrier. The Continental Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club do.

Miller said the Continental Kennel Club allows dog owners to create their own breeds. The United Kennel Club has a pit bull bloodline that's "non-offensive toward any animals or people," he said.

Breed-specific laws like Hagerstown's, Miller noted, require the prosecution to prove its case, and "someone could say (a dog is) not what you say it is."

Hagerstown's ordinance is on hold, for now, while some of the kinks are worked out. Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith said one question is whether the Humane Society will label a dog a pit bull or whether an outside expert will be called in.

Dogs a menace?

Smith said there is no question that pit bulls are menacing. Drug dealers use ferocious pit bulls to protect their operations, Smith said.

On May 22, Sgt. James Robison of the Hagerstown Police Department was bitten by a pit bull as he helped search a Williamsport home for drugs. Police seized marijuana and more than $1,600 from the home.

Robison has scars from the bite, Smith said.

Citizens who came to Hagerstown City Hall last Tuesday to push for a pit bull ban had other bite stories to tell.

Ken Welch of Mulberry Street in Hagerstown said his mother and his Labrador retriever were attacked by a pit bull off its leash.

Mark Kurzawa, who lives outside Hagerstown, passed large color photos of his daughter, Hope, to the audience. They were taken after a pit bull/chow/shar-pei mix named Scrappy mauled the child's face near their home in April 2002.

The dog had escaped from a neighbor's yard. Hope had just turned 6 years old.

"If they had a child and it looked like that," Kurzawa said, pointing to the picture, "I would like to hear what they would say."

"Me and her mother - we came within an inch of losing her," he said.

Other people, mostly proud owners of pit bulls, protested the ban as punishing numerous affectionate, loyal, well-behaved dogs for the deeds of some.

Christel Frazier of Bethel Street in Hagerstown said her 7-year-old pit bull is like a child to her. At the very least, she said, Wisdom is a good dog.

The worst thing the dog does is beg for food and nudge people away from her favorite spot on the couch, she said.

"She's being labeled badly because of other dogs that have made bad decisions," Frazier said.

Bred behavior

Smith said the most important part of the debate is what a dog is bred to do. A German shepherd rounded up sheep. A Labrador retriever hunted birds.

A pit bull?

"It was designed to kill large animals by biting them," Smith said.

The United Kennel Club Web sites says American pit bull terriers were used by farmers and ranchers "for protection, as catch dogs for semi-wild cattle and hogs, to hunt, to drive livestock, and as family companions."

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