Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Pit Bull Ban Punishes Dogs for Bad Owners

Monday , September 25, 2006
By Radley Balko

This is Rufus. Last February, Rufus was named best in show at the Westminster Kennel Club.
With his football-shaped head, muscular haunches, and powerful jaws, Rufus might, under the right circumstances, look pretty intimidating. He's harmless, of course, as are the vast majority of bull terriers with responsible owners.

Unfortunately, there are a growing number of cities in North American that want nothing to do with Rufus. In addition to several smaller towns, Kansas City , Mo. , recently followed the lead of Denver , Colo. , and Ontario , Canada , in instituting a ban on "pit bulls."

Any animal meeting the "pit bull" description found in the city will either be turned over to shelters outside the city or, more likely, euthanized.

These types of breed-specific prohibitions are a bad idea for a variety of reasons, but the most glaring is that the most common target of these laws — the "pit bull" — isn't really a breed at all but rather a generic name given to dogs with with features we've come to associate with a certain type of dog with certain aggressive characteristics. The "pit bull" very generally refers to the American Staffordshire Terrier breed, but can include a number of breeds with similar features, including bull terriers like Rufus, and just about any mutt with traces of bulldog, mastiff, or bloodhound crossed with any breed of terrier.

Test yourself — see if you can find the pit bull on this page.

When she was a puppy, I was repeatedly warned that one of my own dogs might be mistaken for a pit bull should I move to an area where they're banned. She's the sweetest, most harmless dog I've ever known, unless you happen to be a rug or a pair of shoes. I once came home to finder her curled up in the cable guys' lap.

The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell has written about research showing that pit bull-ish dogs don't deserve their reputation. Gladwell found a study from a research group in Georgia that has so far tested more than 25,000, measuring stability, shyness, aggressiveness, and friendliness in interaction with people. Gladwell writes, "Eighty-four per cent of the pit bulls that have been given the test have passed, which ranks pit bulls ahead of beagles, Airedales, bearded collies, and all but one variety of dachshund."

The president of the group said pit bulls even test unusually well with children.

Dogs commonly called pit-bulls do have unusually strong jaws, a characteristic commonly cited by advocates of eradicating the dogs. The American Staffordshire Terrier is also unusually smart, driven, and determined — all of which make it a challenging dog to own, particularly for new dog owners. But there are many breeds of dog that can deliver a nasty bite when provoked. And herding dogs are even more difficult to own and train than so-called pit-bulls, particularly for people with children (they sometimes nip at the heels of children in an effort to corral them).

The attention directed at pit bulls seems to be more due to their trendiness and their popularity with disreputable owners, not to any unique aggressiveness in the dogs' genetics. Just a few years ago, the tough-guy dog du jour was the equally powerful Rottweiler. Dobermans and German Shepherds have also done their time in the spotlight as the pariah breed.

The problem then is with the owners, not with the dogs. Ban pit bulls, and the riffraff that breeds and trains them for nefarious purposes will simply move on to another breed.

The law in Kansas City , however, is particularly dumb — though it does aptly show just how misguided the thinking among public officials on this issue can be. Apparently, the city has instituted an "amnesty period," during which well-intentioned owners can turn their pups over for euthanization without facing a fine.

To see the folly in that proposal, consider two hypothetical pit bull owners.

Owner A is a family who had the misfortune of picking a pit bull from the pet store, breeder, or pound. They've raised the dog as a pet, and it lives in a happy, loving home. It's harmless. Owner B is a drug dealer who bought a pit bull to protect his contraband. He has trained the dog to attack. The dog, obviously, is vicious and dangerous.

Which dog owner is more likely to have respect for the law, and take advantage of the amnesty period? Whose dog is more likely to be turned over and euthanized? Kansas City has created a scenario where most of the harmless pit bulls in the city will be destroyed, rather foolishly leaving mostly the dangerous ones. Of course, that result will only reinforce the wrongheaded notion that all dogs that look like pit bulls are inherently violent and aggressive.

Ingrid Newkirk, the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, actually supports breed-specific bans, including bans on pit bulls. Her reasoning, however, is revealing. In an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle last year, she likened pit bull legislation to gun control, which she also supports. That's rather appropriate. Both policies are misguided, and penalize responsible owners for the sins of criminal owners.

To borrow a phrase from the gun rights movement, when pit bulls are criminalized, only criminals will own pit bulls.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst for the Cato Institute specializing in "nanny state" and consumer choice issues, including alcohol and tobacco control, drug prohibition, obesity and civil liberties. Separately, he maintains the The Agitator weblog. The opinions expressed in his column for FOXNews.com are his own and are not to be associated with Cato unless otherwise indicated.


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