Prince George's reviews law dooming all pit bulls


FORESTVILLE - Moses is a good dog. But the 40-pound pooch with big brown eyes is on doggy death row here in Prince George's County for one simple reason: He was born a pit bull.

In the seven years since a rash of vicious attacks led Prince George's to outlaw the breed, the county has seized and euthanized more than 6,100 of the squat, muscular terriers.

But some officials in this densely populated Washington suburb are having second thoughts. A county task force denounced the ban as costly to taxpayers and unfair to responsible dog owners. And the County Council is now considering a repeal, renewing a charged debate over the best defense against dogs that maul.

"There's no question that some pit bulls ought not be a part of our community, and no question that some people with pit bulls ought not be a part of our community," says Councilman Thomas R. Hendershot, who is leading the push for repeal. "But we ought to focus on them, and not take perfectly decent pets from perfectly decent people."

The issue is one for which local governments across the country have found no easy solution. Many euthanize dogs only after a vicious attack. Some have enacted "potentially dangerous dog" laws that let officials impose restraints such as cages and muzzles at the first glimpse of aggression.

But no approach has ignited more debate than the breed ban.

Supporters say such bans are a common-sense measure against breeds, such as pit bulls, long bred as fighters. They point to the steady decline in pit bull bites in Prince George's County, to 71 last year, from 108 in 1996. The pit bull, once the county's biggest biter, now ranks second to the German shepherd.

Carolyn DePhillip cried in a recent interview as she recalled watching a neighbor's pit bull snap its chain, leap a fence and kill the family sheltie that her 4-year-old son had been walking in Clinton.

"There is nothing good about that breed," she said of the pit bull. "Afterward, my son was afraid of dogs for many years. He was terrorized."

But critics say the ban drives bad owners underground and good ones out of the county. The pit bull, they say, is a victim of the same media hype that in earlier decades had demonized the Rottweiler, the Doberman and the German shepherd.

The county's "vicious animal" ordinance and leash law, they say, give officials more than enough tools to deal with savage dogs and careless owners.

Adrianne Lefkowitz, of the Maryland Dog Federation, an advocacy group, said pit bull owners have gone to great lengths to hide their beloved pets from the law. They have built tall fences and taught their dogs to urinate on paper indoors. "All it takes," she says, "is a neighbor dropping a quarter on somebody."

Prince George's animal control officials say that some residents are simply replacing the pit bull with other fearsome dogs not subject to the ban.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blamed pit bulls for the deaths of 66 people from 1979 to 1998, more than any other breed. But other studies have found German shepherds just as lethal.

Two small Maryland towns-North Beach and Port Deposit - have outlawed pit bulls in recent years. But Prince George's, population 839,000, is the only Maryland county with a ban. The Baltimore City Council gave preliminary approval to, but then dropped, a pit-bull ban in 2001, saying the city lacked the resources for enforcement.

A State House bill this year to add Maryland to the dozen states that bar local governments from enacting breed bans never made it out of committee.

"What I said in the hearing was that a dog shouldn't be condemned because of the color of his coat, the point of his ears or the wag of his tail," says the bill's sponsor, Del. Richard K. Impallaria, a Middle River Republican. "Well, of course, that just got laughter."

The Prince George's ban outlaws pit bulls and pit bull mixes and gives owners two choices: Surrender your pet or face arrest, a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail. Either way, the offending beast is put to death. Appeals rarely succeed.

The measure now before a council committee - and unlikely to face a full council vote until the fall - would replace the ban with a "potentially dangerous dog" law with no breed distinctions.

It would allow county officials to take action against an owner whose pet so much as chases or nips a person or animal.

County Executive Jack B. Johnson has avoided a public stance on repeal. But he says he likes aspects of the broader legislation, particularly the idea of more accountability for dog owners and higher fines.

The fate of the repeal bid is far from certain. Its key opponent, Councilwoman Marilynn M. Bland, says many constituents won't stand for a return to the days when pit bulls roamed free. "People could not be comfortable in their own neighborhoods," she says.

Dog owner groups - which oppose breed bans - say that scores of cities and towns nationwide outlaw specific breeds. But they say that several, including Revere, Mass., and Pontiac, Mich., have repealed their bans, often amid questions of cost and enforceability.

But not North Beach. The mayor of the small Calvert County town, Mark R. Frazer, has no regrets about banishing an animal he says had spread fear across the town boardwalk, its main tourist draw:

"In more cases than not, the owners who accompany the pit bulls are themselves rather intimidating. I mean, they have spiked hair and they're pierced. These individuals and their dogs are not desired."

In Prince George's, pit bull lovers have found an ally in the county's chief animal control official, Rodney C. Taylor, a foe of the ban since its enactment.

Taylor says that four out of five pit bulls his officers seize are nice pets with caring owners. He says that the cost of enforcement - $250,000 a year - would be better spent educating owners and enforcing animal cruelty laws.

"When you constantly see that you're putting to sleep good dogs," he says, "it bothers your spirit some."

At the county's Animal Management Division in Forestville a couple of weeks ago, Taylor escorted a visitor past cinderblock cages that housed 25 pit bulls awaiting almost certain death.

A young one, Rage, leapt off the cement floor on spring-loaded haunches and growled as his body clanged against the steel cage door. But a few doors down, there was Moses. A calm, tan and white pit bull seized last month, he swished his tail, licked the chain-link door, and gazed up at Taylor expectantly.

Lula Butler, 80, of Hyattsville, wept recently after one of Taylor's officers spotted her dog, Otis, in the yard and packed him into the animal control van.

"He was one of the family," Butler said at home a few hours later, kneading her hands. "He was a great deal to me."

The next day, Otis came back. Taylor said that he examined the dog's smooth jaw line and concluded that he was mostly an American bulldog. "If I don't see majority pit bull, then I let it go," he said. "It comes down to an opinion."

The county's ban took force in 1997, the year after a pit bull broke his chain and plunged his teeth into Dyon Toler, an 11-year-old Temple Hills boy whom doctors had to sew up.

County officials say the only serious attacks in recent years have been on animals.

Neal Fenner, 50, a high school guidance counselor from Bowie, and his family returned from a January vacation to find a note on their door from animal control.

While they were away, a neighbor's pit bull had dug out of his wire-mesh enclosure, leapt over a chain link fence and fatally snapped the neck of Fenner's 12-year-old dog, Kiki, a retriever-shepherd mix with a talent for fetching Frisbees.

"I can't see why they would even entertain repealing it," said Fenner, who tried to console his daughter, Brinea, 10, by buying her goldfish. The pit bull "is a different dog altogether."

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