States Crack Down on Dangerous Dogs
By Ian Urbina,
The New York Times
RICHMOND, Va. (July 23) - Bear is a golden retriever-shepherd who attacked a bicyclist. Dee Dee, a pit bull mix, killed a cat. Cody, a Labrador mix, bit the neighbor.
Their mug shots, misdeeds and home addresses went online this month at the Virginia Dangerous Dog Registry, a new Web page modeled after the state’s sex offender registry. It lets residents find dogs in their county that have attacked a person or an animal, and that a judge has decided could cause injury again.
In many areas, breeds like pit bulls have been banned. Now Virginia has a registry for dogs considered dangerous.
Created after dogs killed a toddler and an 82-year-old woman in separate incidents in the last two years, Virginia’s registry is part of a growing effort by states to deal with dogs deemed dangerous. Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia hold owners legally liable if their dogs maim or kill, and in 2006, Ohio became the first state to enact a breed ban, though it was later overturned.
In the last two years, nearly 100 municipalities have taken similar steps — banning pit bulls, Rottweilers, English bull terriers and American Staffordshire terriers, or passing regulations that require owners to use muzzles or short leashes in public, according to the American Kennel Club.
Last month, Texas responded to a November 2005 mauling death of a 76-year-old woman by enacting some of the harshest criminal penalties for delinquent dog owners, making it a felony with a possible 10-year prison sentence for anyone whose dog seriously injures a person while off its leash.
But lawmakers taking steps to deal with growing concerns have struggled to ensure public safety without impinging on the privacy and property rights of dog owners. Several of the measures have been overturned in the courts, and many national dog owner and veterinarian associations say the bans are difficult to enforce and ineffective since, they say, if one breed is banned, dog owners seeking aggressive dogs will simply begin fostering fierceness in other breeds.
After the indictment of the Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, who is accused of running a dog-fighting ring from his property in Virginia, the Humane Society estimated that more than 30 percent of dogs in animal shelters were pit bulls, many of them trained as fighting dogs and later abandoned on the streets. That is up from 2 or 3 percent of the shelter population that were pit bulls 15 years ago, the officials said.
“Of course it’s a serious concern when you have more people wanting and training aggressive dogs, and more of those dogs are being abandoned,” said John Goodwin, an expert on animal fighting with the Humane Society.
Counties in Florida and New York have also created publicly accessible dangerous dog registries like the one in Virginia, and legislators in Hawaii are considering one. Critics of the registries say that by publicizing the home addresses of dangerous dogs, they invite harassment by neighbors and invade the privacy of dog owners. Seventeen states now have a “one bite rule” protecting dog owners from liability for the first attack.
“It seems a little unfair to single out a dog if they haven’t done something in the past,” said Jacqueline Short, 40, who lives in Newport News, Va. She is Bear’s owner and says the bicyclist was her pet’s first biting offense.
Now that Bear has been officially designated a dangerous dog, he must be muzzled and walked on a short leash when he is taken in public. But Ms. Short says the toughest requirement has been the $100,000 liability insurance that she now has to carry, which costs about $1,000 a year.
“Courts need to look at the dog’s history and the severity of the incident,” Ms. Short said, “and if the dogs haven’t shown aggression in the past then that should be taken into account before they are considered dangerous.”
Even with stiffer penalties, animal control departments are often understaffed and under-financed and therefore unable to apply the laws.
“Leash laws don’t work because they’re not enforced,” said Mary Hill, the sister of Lillian Stiles, who was killed in Texas in November 2005 by a pack of dogs and whose death inspired the state’s law.
Ms. Hill, who likes to exercise regularly, said she was often frustrated by dogs left off their leashes that chase and harass runners and walkers.
Each year, roughly 4.7 million people are bitten by dogs and about 800,000, half of them children, seek medical attention, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On average, a dozen people die each year from dog attacks, according to the center. In 2003, 32 people died from dog-related incidents.
From 1979 to 1998, more than half of the dog-related fatalities were caused by pit bulls and Rottweilers, according to a study published in 2000 in The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Randall Lockwood, a senior vice president of the association and one of the authors of that study, said it was a mistake to make policy decisions based on dog-related fatalities, because they are so rare.
“In the ’70s, Dobermans were the scary dogs of choice, and they were involved in more fatalities,” Mr. Lockwood said. “And later, German shepherds and St. Bernards used to be the ones involved in attacks, which is probably why Stephen King chose to make Cujo a St. Bernard, not a pit bull.” Fatalities are, above all, a reflection of the type of dog that is popular at a given time among people who want to own an aggressive status symbol, he said.
Pit bulls have undoubtedly become that symbol in recent years, and communities that have tried to ban them have run into problems. At least 12 states prohibit local municipalities from passing breed-specific legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Critics say the bans are costly and impractical to enforce since breeds are often difficult to identify and dogs are often of mixed breed.
In March 2006, Ohio’s law banning pit bulls was overturned on the grounds that the state could not prove that pit bulls were inherently more dangerous than other breeds.
In Virginia, 75 to 100 dogs have been declared dangerous by a judge, and many of them have been euthanized or moved out of state.
But victims say the insurance is actually the most important part of Virginia’s new law.
Betty Greene’s mother, Dorothy Sullivan, 82, was killed by a neighbor’s three pit bulls that entered her yard. Ms. Greene said she had heard from a number of victims of dog attacks who, more often than not, ended up having to pay for their hospital bills.
The three pit bulls were euthanized and the owner was sentenced to three years in prison for involuntary manslaughter, Ms. Greene said.
“There is no way to explain the grief,” she said. “It’s even worse when the victim has to pay for the lawyers, the death, the hospital bills.”
Copyright © 2007 The New York Times Company