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Hagerstown City Council puts pit-bull ordinance on hold

Members came to the consensus that they should seek a citywide leash law for owners of all dogs

June 05, 2012|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com

During a discussion Tuesday on a proposed ordinance that would place strict liability on pit bull-type dog owners and their landlords in the event of an animal bite, the Hagerstown City Council agreed it may be barking up the wrong tree.

The situation — in response to a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling in April that pit bull-type dogs are “inherently dangerous” and more aggressive than other dogs — creates a “slippery slope” because it singles out one breed, Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said.

Maryland’s common-law approach to dog control does not call for criminal charges to be brought against an owner in the event of a first-time attack, Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith said earlier this week.

The proposed ordinance would have removed that provision, making pit bull-type dog owners, and possibly their landlords, liable for a first offense.

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Smith and Paul Miller, executive director of the Humane Society of Washington County, were on hand Tuesday to discuss the issue with the five-member council.

Smith said local statistics back up the court’s ruling. Of all dogs listed as “dangerous or vicious” in the county from past incidents, pit bull-type dogs appear approximately five times more than any other breed, he said.

The proposed ordinance calls for certain safety measures to be taken by owners of pit bull-type dogs, governing how they are kept at home and requiring a leash and muzzle while in public.

Smith said the proposal was not to ban or seize the dogs, but to make it less “intimidating” for city residents, especially in the downtown area, where police see a higher concentration of pit bulls.

Miller said 70 percent of bites occur at home rather than in public, and muzzling could create further behavioral or breathing problems for dogs.

Most pit bulls aren’t pure breeds anymore due to so many “backyard breeders,” Miller said.

He said that it mixes up the dog’s genetics and makes their behavior more erratic than when pit bulls were bred strictly for the purposes of dogfighting prior to the introduction of legislation banning the activity in the 1980s.

With so many mixed-breeds, it also makes it hard to identify specific breeds, he said.

Council members eventually came to the consensus that the city should instead look into instituting a citywide leash law for owners of all dogs, rather than focus on restrictions for one breed.

Currently, dog owners cannot be criminally charged for allowing their pets to run without a leash in the city.

“The police shouldn’t be in the animal-control business,” Metzner said, noting that they should be in the “people-control business.”

“It’s not the responsibility of police to go corral dogs,” he said.

Councilwoman Ashley C. Haywood said the proposed ordinance “doesn’t tackle the issue at hand,” referring to the lack of responsibility of dog owners to control and supervise their animals.

Haywood said the street sale of pit bull puppies without any background or prerequisite checks, like those required to adopt from the humane society, also raises the issue of a lack of owner responsibility.

Although no formal action was taken, Councilman Forrest W. Easton said he was in favor of pursuing some type of leash law for all dogs in the city. No council members expressed opposition to the idea.

The Maryland General Assembly last week formed a task force to examine the ruling by the state’s highest court, and it will meet later this month to discuss the decision, Miller said.

Councilman William Breichner urged the council to put off a formal decision until the state task force examines the issue.

The ruling by the state’s highest court on April 26 was made after judges examined numerous instances of Maryland residents being mauled by pit bulls, causing either serious injuries or death, over the past 13 years.

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