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Fallout from pit bull ruling; concerns rise among dog owners, property owners

Animal advocates say breed-specific ruling is unfair

By Jessica Anderson, The Baltimore Sun

2:30 PM EDT, May 2, 2012

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Erica Carter's move from Pasadena to Baltimore was difficult, she said, not because of the lack of housing options, but because many places would not allow her pit bull Bailey.

Though Carter has settled into a rental near Patterson Park, she said the search was daunting. And she fears it will only get worse with her next move after last week's Maryland Court of Appeals ruling that pit bulls are inherently dangerous animals.

The court's decision could have far-reaching implications for landlords and dog owners who rent. Landlords could opt to ban pit bulls or all dogs to avoid future liability, or they could see increased insurance costs, industry experts said. In turn, as pit bull owners have difficulty finding housing, animal advocates fear more dogs will be left at shelters.

The ruling — in a civil case brought by the family of a child attacked by a pit bull in Towson in 2007 — means victims don't need to prove a dog's owner knew it had a history of being dangerous. They just need to show that the owner or landlord knew a dog is part pit bull to make a claim.

"That's absolutely ridiculous," Carter, 20, said as she watched Bailey trot happily through the mud with a pack of other dogs at the Canton Dog Park. "Pit bulls get judged by their look and the actions of other people," she said, referring to owners who train pit bulls to fight.

Howard Carolan, 28, who brought his pit-mix Annie to the park, was surprised by the ruling. He said he and his fiancee recently rescued Annie. "That's got to be half the dogs in the city," he said of pit mixes.

"We just got this girl. She's been sweet," he said. He added, however, that the ruling "does concern me about keeping her."

Carter said she would never give up her dog. "I plan on adopting more," she said.

But many are concerned about the ruling's impact on pit bull ownership.

"We're getting calls from people who are getting calls from their landlords telling them to move out," said Jen Swanson, executive director at the Baltimore Humane Society in Reisterstown.

She said the humane society has been advising callers that leases are legally binding contracts and landlords can't change them until the lease ends. "Landlords can stipulate what they want in a lease, but what's unfortunate now is this is really breeding fear and ignorance," she said.

The ruling also is causing concern among landlords and property managers.

M. Arnold Politzer, a commercial and residential real estate lawyer, said the ruling puts landlords who have leases that permit pit bulls in a difficult position.

"If you have a contract that says pit bulls are OK, you're looking at a breach of contract" if a property owner tries to force tenants to get rid of dogs before the lease is up, he said.

But Robert H. Lande, a University of Baltimore law professor, said a landlord's options depend on the terms of the lease.

"You have to look at the lease and see if there is any general clause that says you can't do anything dangerous," he said, which could be considered enough to allow a landlord to require a tenant to remove a pit bull.

Some said the ruling could lead property owners to not only prohibit pit bulls but all dogs.

"As a landlord, I have no idea of the breed," said Benedict Frederick III, president of the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore. He said that for years, he has prohibited dogs because his liability insurance policy won't permit them.

A fellow association board member, Jacob Danyali, said he also has opted to exclude all pet owners from his properties because of the potential destruction of property. But he said the ruling seems unfair to landlords.

"It's like saying the car company is responsible for a drunk driver," he said. He predicted that the market would be driven by the cost of insurance — if insurance becomes too expensive, many landlords won't accept pit bulls.

Anne Benaroya, an animal law expert, said one of the consequences of this ruling is that "insurance companies will cancel insurance policies and raise policy costs. … Anybody who carries an insurance policy will be discouraged economically from adopting these dogs."

Many animal advocacy groups have reacted to the ruling by starting online campaigns, including a Facebook page called "Stop Pit Bull Discrimination in Maryland," which had garnered more 1,300 "Likes" by Tuesday. A petition also is circulating, asking Gov. Martin O'Malley to prohibit policy that singles out specific breeds.

Aileen Gabbey, executive director of the Maryland SPCA, said the group is looking at their options. "We hope the case can be reconsidered," she said.

"People are concerned," she added. "We want both pets and people to be safe."

jkanderson@baltsun.com

In earlier editions, the names of Anne Benaroya and Aileen Gabbey were spelled incorrectly. The Sun regrets the errors.

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