Pit bulls: Own them at your own risk

The first entry in Sunday's costume contest at the 17th annual March for the Animals was a pit bull dressed as Batman. I was on a wooden stage with the other contest judges, about four feet off the ground at Druid Hill Park. That distance from the dog suited me. When I see pit bulls, even those in charming costume, I stay clear. They have a reputation for vicious mauling, and I'd rather avoid one.

Still, I awarded eight out of 10 possible points to the beefy pit bull in the Batman cape. I was generous in an effort to overcompensate for my bias: Until they are banned outright, pit bulls should not be allowed in public, and their ownership should bear heavy, legal responsibility. I was pleased to read last week's ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals declaring them inherently dangerous.

I admire the Maryland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for all its efforts to rescue, train and find homes for dogs and cats that are abused or abandoned. The March for the Animals is a great event; the sight of hundreds of dog owners strolling with their pets around Druid Lake on a crisp spring morning is inspiring — city life at its top. And the pet costume and pet tricks contests are amusing to watch and to judge, the entries often hilarious.

But the pit bulls make it weird; there are several of them at the March, among many families with small children.

Of course, the pit bulls are all tethered or chained to their owners, and, given the nature of the event, you generally assume that the men and women who participate are responsible and educated pet owners; altruistic, too. Many adopted these animals to provide them a home and train them toward good behavior. They believe mistreatment of the pit bull by ignorant humans is the problem, not the breed itself.

But the Maryland Court of Appeals holds quite a different view.

"When an attack involves pit bulls, it is no longer necessary to prove that the particular pit bull or pit bulls are dangerous," the court ruled last week in a case stemming from a 2007 attack on a Towson boy. Previously, a plaintiff in a negligence lawsuit had to show that the attacking dog had a record of aggressive behavior. Now, it's sufficient to say that the attack was by a pit bull. It doesn't matter if the dog had no priors.

The opinion is bloody with examples of pit bull attacks, as far back as 1916, in Maryland and elsewhere. The evidence shows clearly that such attacks are disproportionate to the number of pit bulls in society, that they inflict far more damage than other dogs, and that their attacks are associated with a higher risk of death. Pit bull jaws are three times stronger than those of a German Shepard.

Among many reports cited in the opinion is one from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. It found that, from 1979 through 1996, dog attacks resulted in more than 300 fatalities in the U.S.; most of the victims were children. During part of that time, 1981 through 1992, "pit bull-type dogs" were involved in approximately a third of the deaths.

The court noted that 12 states already have taken some form of action to make owners and landlords responsible for pit bull attacks. Some jurisdictions, includingPrince George's County, banned the breed. The Albuquerque Humane Society in New Mexico does not take pit bulls "because of their potential for attacks on other animals and people."

Aileen Gabbey, its executive director, told me that the Maryland SPCA had no plans to stop accepting, training, neutering and adopting out pit bulls, though she acknowledged that "everyone is talking to their lawyers" about the Court of Appeals ruling. She disagreed with it, saying the court had painted pit bulls with too broad a brush. The pits bulls she sees are "victims — abused, forced to fight, given up."

That's admirable altruism — the desire to be humane to mistreated animals, even those associated with vicious mauling. But the SPCA and all others inclined to rescue pit bulls ought to read the court ruling. It makes clear, if it wasn't already, that pit bulls are four-legged time bombs. You live with them, you live with risk — and, as it should be, you take on serious liability for the suffering of others.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of Midday on WYPR-FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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