Frequently Asked Questions about the Proposed Pit Bull Ban

On May 19, I proposed a ban on those dogs commonly known as pit bulls. The current administration, including Mayor Edward FitzGerald, City Prosecutor Richard Neff, and the animal control officers, are supportive of the legislation. Since the introduction of this proposed ordinance, a number of Lakewood residents on both sides of the issue have approached me with questions. Below is a summary of those questions, along with his responses.

Question: Pit bulls have been around Lakewood for more than a century. Why are we now proposing a ban on these dogs?

Answer: in January 2008, a man was attacked by a pit bull right here in Lakewood. The dog tore the skin away from half of his face before it was put down by animal control officers. There is no doubt that pit bulls are an increasing problem in our city. In 2004, we impounded 11 pit bulls. By 2006, the number had risen to 36. In the first three months of 2008 alone, 16 pit bulls had to be impounded, and that was in the cold winter months when dogs are rarely a problem. We must take action to stem this explosion in the pit bull population.

Question: There is no such thing as a “pit bull,” but there are a number of breeds that get unfairly labeled as pit bulls. How can we pass a law about pit bulls and canary dogs when these terms are not recognized by the American Kennel Club?

Answer: In Lakewood, we must follow the laws of our City and not the directions of the AKC or any other special interest group. The terms “pit bull dog” and “canary dog” are very carefully defined under current Lakewood law. Under our existing ordinances, “‘pit bull dog’ means any Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Pit Bull Terrier or American Staffordshire Terrier breed of dog; any dog of mixed breed which has the appearance and characteristics of being predominantly of such breeds; any dog commonly known as a pit bull, pit bull dog or pit bull terrier; or a combination of any of these breeds.” It is very clear under our law what we mean by “pit bull dog.”

Question: Let’s not blame a certain breed of dog for problems caused by irresponsible owners. Instead of “breed specific legislation,” why doesn’t Lakewood pass a law requiring leashes, muzzles, special “dog run” fencing, and mandatory insurance for dangerous dogs of all breeds?

Answer: City council members have been deluged with e-mails from organized pit bull supporters around the country with this advice. But what these out-of-towners fail to recognize is that Lakewood already has such a law! Owners of dangerous dogs, including pit bulls, are currently required to have special leashes and strong muzzles whenever the dog is outdoors. They also must construct a “dog run” in the backyard, with walls six feet high, a roof, and sides imbedded at least a foot in the ground. These dog owners must also purchase at least $100,000 of insurance to cover liability arising from a potential attack. The problem is that the current law is very difficult to enforce. We have the finest law enforcement officials in Ohio, but they cannot be expected to spend all of their time measuring the tensile strength of leashes, or peering into backyards to see if fencing has been constructed, or asking dog owners for insurance paperwork. We tried the suggested method of controlling these dogs, but the owners of many pit bulls in Lakewood have been irresponsible and have not followed our current laws. We have no choice but to implement a stronger, simpler ban.

Question: A ban sounds difficult to enforce. Haven’t other cities had trouble with breed-specific bans?

Answer: In Cuyahoga County, a number of cities including Parma and Garfield Heights have reported success with pit bull bans. Other Ohio cities, such as Youngstown and Toledo, have also passed legislation banning pit bull dogs. Again, an outright ban is easier to enforce than a complicated law requiring leashes, muzzles, fences, and insurance.

Question: All breeds of dog bite. Are pit bulls really more dangerous than other dogs?

Answer: Unfortunately, yes, pit bulls are very dangerous. When a labrador, collie or other dog bites, you might end up with a bruise or, in some cases, a puncture wound. When a pit bull attacks, you may end up maimed for life or, in many cases, dead. Every legitimate study conducted in America, including the study by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, has demonstrated that pit bull bites are more likely to result in a fatality than bites or attacks by any other breed. Pit bulls account for less than3- 4% of the dogs in our country. Yet a study from 1979 through 1988 released by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that pit bulls accounted for 42% of all dog-related deaths. Another study conducted in 1982 through 2006 similarly concluded that 44% of all fatalities from dog attacks involved pit bulls. And the numbers are getting worse. The JAMA article reported that in the most recent years of the study (1987-1988), pit bulls accounted for 62% of the deaths. Another study in 2007 found that 58% of all dog bite fatalities involved pit bulls. Clearly, we must act before these statistics include a fatality in our town.

Question: The people who own and work with pit bulls every day say these dogs can be very friendly. Why don’t we listen to the people who know pit bulls the best?

Answer: Actually, the people who know pit bulls best, such as pit bull rescue groups, understand that these dogs are different from other breeds and need to be treated differently. For example, according to Pit Bull Rescue Central “It is a fact that our APBTs, ASTs and pit mixes come with a built-in fighting heritage [their emphasis]. It doesn’t matter where we get them from, whether it be the pound, a stray we pick up, or a puppy we buy from a breeder. … We cannot predict when or where it will happen and we can’t love, train or socialize it out of the dog [their emphasis].” The experts understand that these dogs have been bred to fight and that a fight may break out suddenly and without warning. Again, according to Pit Bull Rescue Central, “a fight can strike suddenly and for no apparent reason. Warning signs can be very subtle with Pit Bulls and even completely absent in certain cases.”

Question: But don’t many veterinarians say that they have never had a problem with pit bulls?

Answer: Veterinarians and their staffs are often specially trained to deal with aggressive dogs. Vets are understandably careful about publicly bashing any breed of dog, for fear of backlash from the public. But the American Veterinary Medical Association has a 40 page book entitled “Dos and Don’ts Concerning Vicious Dogs” which helps vets understand the dangers of certain types of dogs. Almost every example of dangerous dog behavior in the book relates to pit bull attacks. According to the AVMA book, “American Pit Bull Terriers/American Staffordshire Terriers, which comprise the majority of the Staffordshires or pit bull group, and are unquestionably the most dangerous and unpredictable. One should remember that cross-bred dogs with pit bull in their bloodline, i.e., American Pit Bull Terrier and Rhodesian Ridgeback, are equally dangerous and unpredictable.”

Question: Helen Keller owned a pit bull and Petey from the Little Rascals was a pit bull dog. Doesn’t this prove that these dogs are gentle and trustworthy?

Answer: Unfortunately, breeding and in-breeding over recent decades have made these the dogs of choice for those who want to make a “macho” statement. Pit bull fans always point out that Helen Keller owned one, but they fail to mention that, more recently, Michael Vick owned 49 pit bulls. And the Little Rascals was a fictionalized account of childhood in the Great Depression, not a documentary. In Lakewood, there are many things we don’t want to bring back from the Depression, and pit bulls running loose with children is one of them.

Question: But law enforcement agencies and the military use pit bulls for search and rescue missions. Why would they use these dogs if they are so dangerous?

Answer: In the hands of trained professionals, pit bulls have traits that can be very useful. These dogs will attempt to accomplish their assigned mission even if they are beaten, shot, wounded, or pepper sprayed. While these traits are desirable if a dog is pulling wounded soldiers off a battlefield, they are dangerous if the dog is attacking a child in the backyard. Lakewood is one of the most densely populated cities in the nation, with homes, churches, schools, senior centers, and shops all in close proximity. There is simply no place in Lakewood for these dangerous dogs.

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Volume 4, Issue 11, Posted 3:46 PM, 05.25.2008