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Sep 23rd
Bark vs. Bite PDF Print E-mail
Written by Janet Goodman, BT Contributor; Photos by Silvia Ros   
September 2017

Pit bulls have been banned here for 28 years. Is it history or hysteria?

PCoverit bulls have been banned here for 28 years. Is it history or hysteria?

On April 4, 1989, Dade County commissioners passed a controversial ordinance forbidding pit bull dogs to be sold, purchased, or brought into the county. The law went into effect ten days after approval and gave current owners 90 days to register their pit bulls with the county’s Animal Services.

Owners of the pit bulls already here had to confine their dogs indoors or within a six-foot-high outdoor pen. Outside the home, they had to use leashes and muzzles. They also were required to buy $300,000 of liability insurance coverage for dog-inflicted injury or death, and remained subject to $500 civil penalties and court action for failure to insure, failure to confine, failure to register, or for obtaining new pit bulls.

The ban has remained on the books for 28 years, despite efforts to overturn it in the courts, in Tallahassee, and at the ballot box. It is the law that just won’t die.

To pit bull advocates, breed-specific legislation (BSL) discriminates on the basis of breed alone, not on individual temperament. “Breed-specific laws fail to address dangerous animals of other breeds and species, are difficult to enforce -- especially when a dog’s breed can’t be easily determined -- and unfairly target dogs that are responsibly owned and not dangerous,” says Michael San Filippo, senior media relations specialist for the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Leading up to the 1989 ban was a decade of dog bites and media focus on pit bull types. From 1986 to 1987, 19 of the 32 people who died from dog attacks nationwide were killed by pit bulls. Throughout the 1980s, various South Florida municipalities proposed breed-specific legislation -- bans or restrictions.

In 1985, Lauderdale Lakes enacted an ordinance forcing pit bull owners to muzzle dogs and carry million-dollar liability insurance policies. Biscayne Park considered a similar ordinance. The Coral Gables city attorney was asked to write a law requiring people to register pit bulls.

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In the Florida legislature, Rep. Irma Rochlin, D-Hallandale, sponsored a bill in 1986 requiring pit bull owners to register the dogs with their county, to leash and muzzle them outside the home, and hold a $100,000 liability insurance policy.

During this same time, South Miami, Hollywood, and Hialeah, and Broward and Monroe Counties had a set of anti-pit bull legislation setbacks, mainly over the definition of “pit bull” and that many of the targeted dogs were not purebreds. Broward statistics from 1984 show that other breeds not targeted by restrictions were also culprits: Dobermans had 145 reported bites or 1 per 26.4 registered Dobermans; German shepherds and shepherd mixes had 400 reported bites or 1 per 16.8 registered shepherds; pit bulls had 192 reported bites or 1 per 5.1 registered pit bulls.

In 1988, the Third District Court of Appeal overturned a 1986 circuit court ruling that found a North Miami law was unconstitutional, and upheld the requirement that owners of American Staffordshire terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers, and American pit bull terriers must meet $300,000 liability insurance, six-foot-high fencing, and leash requirements.

By 1989, Florida City passed pit bull restrictions, as did the city of Sunrise. State Rep. Susan Guber, D-Coconut Grove, proposed a bill outlawing the breeding, sale, and possession of pits, telling the Miami Herald: “It’s like owning an alligator or any kind of animal that can destroy people.”

In Dade County, everything came to a boiling point in February 1989, when an eight-year-old girl, her mother, and grandmother were savagely attacked by a neighbor’s pit bull that had escaped from the owner’s yard. The young girl, Melissa Moreira, bearing noticeable scars on her lip, cheek, and forehead, appeared with her mother at a county commission meeting in March 1989, when the pit bull ordinance was first placed on the agenda by Commissioner Joe Gersten and was co-sponsored by Commissioners Valdes, Schrieber, and Dusseau. The Herald reported Gersten’s comments: “Pit bulls are as lethal as a knife or gun and have to be regulated. How many innocent victims have to be mutilated before we act? This is the last one.”

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The county commission’s Health and Social Service subcommittee voted 6-0 in favor of the ban on April 4, 1989, the full commission then approved, and the 90-day grace period ended in July. That May, despite a challenge led by a coalition of pit bull owners, including the American Dog Owners Association, a federal judge refused to block enforcement of the Dade ban.

Despite results from a Mason-Dixon Polling telephone survey that found 54 percent of Floridians favoring a statewide ban of pit bulls, in 1990 the Florida Legislature passed a law prohibiting cities and counties from breed-specific legislation. Only Dade County, with its constitutionally protected home-rule status, kept the ban.

During the next 20 years, some cities in South Florida fought the state law, while others adopted new dangerous-dog legislation that wasn’t breed-specific.

In 2000, Hollywood passed a bill restricting “dangerous” dogs. In 2001, Fort Lauderdale unsuccessfully challenged the state’s breed-specific legislation. Miramar voted in 2004 to force dangerous dogs to be muzzled and leashed when outside the home.

In 2008, the state proposed legislation to allow Florida cities to enact breed-specific bans and require DNA tests on targeted dogs. A year later, a bill was introduced in the state senate that would give all communities the right to regulate dogs based on breed. The bills failed to pass.

By 2010, Florida was one of 12 states prohibiting local governments from making breed-specific laws. That year the legislature again tried to pass breed-specific legislation, but bills in the House and the Senate failed.


TCover_3yson, a three-year-old American pit bull terrier, lives across the Miami-Dade County line, in Hollywood. He’s a mix, says his owner, Cristina Batista, but by appearances alone, he looks purebred.

Tyson is legal in Broward County, but if the Batistas take one step with their dog into Miami-Dade County, they could be fined. If they should move to Miami-Dade, they’ll have to give up their pet or face a secret life, trying to keep him under the radar. His fate would hinge on the determination by Miami-Dade Animal Services (MDAS) of the percentage of pit bull characteristics he has.

Ask Batista to describe her dog, and she whips out a smart phone, scrolling through scores of dog photographs until she finds the perfect one.

“Here’s Tyson,” she says and smiles, showing a snapshot of a massive, muscular canine squeezed into a wire basket on the back of a senior tricycle -- sporting sunglasses, no less. He looks a giant goofball as he rides through the neighborhood.

“Everybody loves him,” she says. More photos depict Tyson with Batista’s other pit bull, both wearing red Santa hats as they pose in front of the living room Christmas tree. A member of the family since he was a puppy, Tyson has the typical sound temperament of a pit bull. He barks at mail carriers at the window but is so friendly that “you can come into my house,” says Batista. After being attacked by another pit bull, which sent him to the vet for stitches, Tyson doesn’t much like the breed, but he does love small dogs.

Daniella Jordan, executive director of the Levitetz Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization that sponsors various nonprofits, including those that assist in animal rescue and adoption, tells the BT that its “Dolly’s Dream” project began in 2015. Dolly’s Dream (named after the “square-head” canine who inspired the project) works to undo the negative stereotypes about pit bull-type dogs and save them from shelters and death. In the first year alone, the project prevented 681 pit bull-type dogs from entering shelters.

Dolly’s Dream has partnered with the Humane Society of Broward County, the Peggy Adams Animal Rescue League, Furry Friends Adoption, Clinic and Ranch, and now the Humane Society of Greater Miami. Each month the project sponsors two “bully dogs” for adoption at each shelter; the project has also paid for 473 spay and neuter surgeries for these dogs, with the mission to give them a second chance to find a forever home.

Cover_4According to Dolly’s Dream, about 40 percent of the 1.2 million dogs euthanized every year in the United States are pit bulls. They are killed often just because of the way they look and the overcrowding at shelters, even though the pit bull rates high in good temperament by the nonprofit American Temperament Test Society, which evaluates pure and mixed breeds. In fact, as of 2011, results show out of 804 American pit bull terriers tested, 695 passed. This 86.4 percent good-temperament rating surpassed 121 other breeds, including the golden retriever, beagle, cocker spaniel, and Yorkshire terrier.

As for the Miami-Dade breed ban and breed-specific laws in general? “I think they’re ineffective,” says Jordan. “All the ban does is punish responsible dog owners. The people who are fighting and abusing these dogs are going to continue to do it underground. One dog shouldn’t be judged based solely off the way it looks. Due to no other reason than the fact that they have a square-shaped head, they’re deemed illegal -- how sad and crazy is that?

“Every dog deserves a chance,” she adds. “No dog is born vicious. It’s the people who are to blame.”

The pit bull is not a breed, but a generic term used to broadly describe a type of dog that can include mixes. Three breeds are covered in the Miami-Dade pit bull ban: American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, and American pit bull terrier. (The term “bully” doesn’t refer to the dog’s character or temperament, but rather its stock history.)

The American Staffordshire terrier was recognized as a breed in 1936 by the American Kennel Club, which describes it as confident, good-natured, smart, and courageous, as well as muscular, stocky, and powerful with an athletic build. It ranks 81st among popular dog breeds by the AKC, which also makes the following comments about the breed’s temperament: “The Am Staff is a people-oriented dog that thrives when he’s made part of the family and given a job to do. Regular exercise and training are necessary. They are natural clowns, but sometimes stubborn.” Its roots are traced to mid-1500’s England, where the dogs were used in the sport of bull and bear baiting.

The Staffordshire bull terrier is smaller than the American Staffordshire terrier. It was recognized by the AKC in 1974 and ranks 82nd as the most popular dog breed. The AKC’s qualities of the breed include: brave, tenacious, stubborn, gentle, clever, active, agile, and muscular. These dogs are considered good with kids, but need supervision with other dogs. The Staffordshire bull terrier was originally bred in England in the 1800s as a fighting dog; but today’s Staffordshires are companion dogs.

The United Kennel Club recognizes the American pit bull terrier, the largest of the three banned breeds. David Alderton, author of Dogs, a handbook on breeds around the world, describes this dog as tenacious and fearless, and “probably the most feared and legislated-against dog in the world today. The breed exudes power, with a broad, slab-like head, immensely strong jaws, and thickly muscled neck and body. The American pit bull terrier was bred specifically for dog fighting and descends from Staffordshire bull terriers crossed with bulldogs.” Despite their origins, the United Kennel Club considers them excellent family companions that love children and are friendly with strangers.


“JCover_5oseph” (not his real name) lives in Miami-Dade County and has a second residence in Monroe County, where he obtained his seven-month-old pit bull, “Mary,” from someone about to surrender the puppy at an animal shelter.

“Her idea of life is to play and sleep,” says Joseph, who is training the puppy to have good manners, and has registered her online as an “emotional support” dog. She gets along wonderfully with his nine-year-old daughter, as well as other dogs. “If you lie down on the ground, she’ll come over and lick your face. She’s part of our family.” In turn, he feeds her occasional beans and rice, veggies, and steak bones. She gets a daily Flintstones Vitamin.

Despite Mary’s gentle nature, Joseph has to quietly go unnoticed with his puppy, for fear of being reported as owning an illegal pit bull. “Of course the ban is unfair,” he complains. “It’s all political. More people are bitten by German shepherds than pit bulls. No matter the breed, a dangerous dog shouldn’t be allowed in public.” But he blames people, not the dogs, for dog attacks.

Katherine Nichols, a 19-year-old resident of Miami-Dade, tells the BT via e-mail: “I believe that breed-specific legislation is a form of stereotyping. The way a dog acts depends a lot on upbringing, not the breed. All of the pit bulls I’ve known have been very docile, trusting, and good with kids.”

Her family has a five-year-old bull terrier mix named Lucy, and Nichols adds, “I can confidently say that there is not a mean bone in her body. Her mind and sweet personality is so much more important to me than her breed.” The dog is also deaf, “so many of her other senses seem to be enhanced,” says Nichols. “She is smart and understands hand gestures and pointing. We always tell people that we use sign language with her. When she tries to scratch her ear with one leg and stands on three, she falls over. She’s beautiful, but a complete klutz.”

The family chanced upon the bull terrier mix when Nichols’s father was out walking their other dog. A Lexus pulled up beside them, and the driver rolled down his window and said he’d just found a dog and would “dump” her unless she was taken then and there.

“To my mother’s dismay,” writes Nichols, “my dad left the house to walk one dog and came back with two.”

She argues that the county ban results in unnecessary fear, based on the dog’s appearance, and “holds people back from owning a dog of this breed, one that could prove to be an unforgettable and loyal asset to any family.”

The Miami-Dade law has been largely only enforced through complaints. Miami-Dade Animal Services conducted 700 pit bull investigations from 1989 through 2010. Thousands of pits had come through the shelter, and due to overcrowding, many were euthanized (today MDAS has no-kill status), although some adoptable pit bulls were transferred out of the county or adopted by residents outside of Miami-Dade. In 2010 alone, 700 pit bull-types came through the animal shelter. (MDAS has not responded to the BT’s requests for current records on pit bulls.)

MDAS has an identification system -- a checklist of physical characteristics that assess the amount of “pit bull” in a suspected dog. A rating of over 70 percent makes the dog adoptable only to residents living outside the county.

“There are characteristics [on the list] you’ll find in any number of breeds,” explains Kathy Labrada, chief of operations enforcement at MDAS in the 2013 documentary Miami’s Pit Fall. “So the fact that a dog conforms to a specific number of characteristics on the list isn’t necessarily indicative that it’s actually a pit bull.” As a field investigator responding to pit bull complaints, she was struck by the number of “amazing, friendly, well-socialized, happy, family dogs while enforcing the ban.”

There was also a growing trend of pit bulls, as well as other breeds, being registered as service dogs. Federal law that protects service dogs trumps Miami-Dade law. And nationwide, a softening of attitudes and laws against pit bulls was helped by reality shows like Pit Boss, Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan, and Pit Bulls and Parolees. Even in Miami-Dade, pit bulls continue to make their way into people’s hearts and homes, unreported.


WCover_6hile public opinion has rallied around the controversial and oft-maligned dogs, bites from all breeds have continued unabated.

Today there are 75 different breeds that are banned or restricted in different areas of the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 4.5 million dog bites occur every year, with some 800,000 people visiting emergency rooms with bite injuries (statistics on non-lethal bites by breed are not available).

According to the Insurance Information Institute, dog bites and other dog-related injuries made up more than a third of all homeowners insurance liability claim dollars paid out in 2016, costing more than $600 million for more than 18,000 claims. The national average claim paid out was $33,230 that year; California had the largest number of claims, with 1934. Florida came in second, with 1325 dog bite claims.

The American Veterinary Medical Association supports dangerous-animal legislation, but not breed-specific laws. Its Task Force on Canine Aggression argues that “dog bite statistics are not really statistics, and they do not give an accurate picture of dogs that bite.” The group says large breeds can do more physical damage than small dogs if they bite, and any popular breed has more individuals that could bite.

Dogsbite.org, a nonprofit that collects bite data and tracks fatal dog attacks, was founded in 2007 by pit bull-bite victim Colleen Lynn of Austin, Texas. She and her organization advocate for pit bull breed bans. Their tracking lists 18 Florida citizens mauled to death by pit bulls since the 1989 ban. One fatality by a pack of dogs, which included terrier mixes and a pit bull, occurred in Miami-Dade in 2014. Dogsbite.org believes dangerous dog laws usually react only after a damaging or deadly attack, but breed bans are pre-emptive.

The group lists 1052 U.S. cities with breed-specific laws -- all of which target pit bulls, but not all solely pit bulls -- as well as 38 counties, 36 states, 292 military bases, and 43 nations worldwide. These laws range from leash and fence restrictions, banishment from dog parks, and mandatory sterilization, to dangerous or vicious declarations and outright bans on the breed.

From 2005 to 2016, according to Dogsbite.org, 392 Americans were killed by dog bites. Pit bulls were responsible for 254, or 64.8 percent of dog-bite deaths; Rottweilers killed 43 people, or 11 percent of dog-bite fatalities. During the eight-year period from 1991 through 1998, pit bulls caused 2.9 deaths per year on average. From 2009 to 2016, pit bulls averaged 22.9 deaths per year.

Of the 31 U.S. dog bite fatalities in 2016, according to Dogsbite.org, pit bulls caused 22.

Miami-Dade Animal Services has only been compiling breed stats since 2005, so it’s hard to gauge whether the 28-year-old pit ban has been successful. In Broward County, the Miami Herald reported that between June 1, 2012, and June 30, 2013, the Sheriff’s Office received 244 calls related to animal bite injuries, of which 17 were pit bull attacks.

Dogsbite.org, however, is certain that enforced breed-specific laws reduce pit bull attacks and cites several cities with successful pit bans: Aurora, Colorado had a 73 percent decrease in pit bull attacks from 2005 through 2014 (its ban went into effect in 2005); Pawtucket, Rhode Island, had 13 pit bull attacks over a ten-year span following its 2004 ban. Advocates of the bans say euthanasia of pit bulls has dramatically dropped, as has pit bull impoundment, thus freeing up shelters.


“JCover_7ingo was my first everything, my first pet, and his essence will stay with me forever,” writes Miami Beach singer-songwriter Karen Feldner about her late pit bull-terrier mix in a BT e-mail exchange.

One day her husband announced that a stray dog was hanging around his recording studio. “He kept talking about this dog and I got worried and said, ‘No dogs!’ Only a week later, I came home and I saw a dog leash on the table, and then the cutest little pup came running up. Well, my heart melted. He entered my life and was given the name JingoBop.”

Everyone was terrified when they first saw Jingo, but they were won over immediately, says Feldner. “He was so loving. I met many neighbors because of him. One time I found him, after searching for hours, sitting in a hammock at a neighbor’s house.” She’ll never forget the time Jingo lay sprawled out on the wood floor, watching a big red ant saunter by. “He simply moved his paw to insure the ant didn’t have to make a detour,” she writes. “He was pure joy. I know pit bulls get a bad rap, but my experience swayed me forever.”

Over the years, local branches of the Humane Society have taken a different stance from that of the Humane Society of the United States when it comes to pit bulls. In 1987, the national organization opined that pit bulls should be euthanized rather than put up for adoption, and urged their 4000 shelters across the country to halt pit bull adoptions.

At the time, George Hulme was executive director of the Palm Beach County Humane Society. He was quick to offer a response for the Herald in July 1987: “Pit bulls can be just as compatible as other dogs. If you put an embargo on this type of dog, what are you going to do about the other types of dogs that bite? It is just not fair to pick out one type of dog and say those are bad dogs. It is people who train them to attack who are bad.”

Clara Gunde, director of the Humane Society of Central Brevard, agreed: “We’re not going to automatically declare that all pit bulls are dead without giving them a chance.”

In response to a BT request for an official stance on the 28-year-old Miami-Dade ban, Laurie Hoffman, executive director of the Humane Society of Greater Miami, says, “The Humane Society does not take a stance on legal matters. However, we believe that pit bulls are good dogs and deserve loving homes. Just as in any breed, there are some aggressive pits who may be dangerous, but many are extremely loving animals.” Hoffman notes that the shelter is allowed to house pit bulls, but the pets can only be adopted by people who live outside the county.

In 2014, the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Animal Welfare Division published a review of international literature on the “Welfare Implications of the Role of Breed in Dog Bite Risk and Prevention.” It found pit bull-types in the top three breeds represented in biting incidents. In severe or fatal injuries, pit bull-types were more frequently noted.

“However,” the authors note, “this may relate to the popularity of the breed in the victim’s community, reporting biases, and the dog’s treatment by its owner.”

The report continues: “While some study authors suggest limiting ownership of specific breeds might reduce injuries (e.g., pit bull-type, German Shepherd Dog), it has not been demonstrated that introducing a breed-specific ban will reduce the rate or severity of bite injuries occurring in the community. Strategies known to result in decreased bite incidents include active enforcement of dog control ordinances, and these may include ordinances relating to breed.”

The report concludes: “It is inappropriate to make predictions about a given dog’s propensity for aggressive behavior based solely on its breed.”


ICoverStory_8_heyman_0079n February 2012, State Rep. Carlos Trujillo (R-Doral) sponsored a bill to abolish the Miami-Dade pit bull ban. Successfully fighting this effort was a group of Miami-Dade commissioners who wanted to preserve the ban and not let the state decide the local matter. Commissioner Sally Heyman sponsored a referendum in April of that year, which was approved 11-1, to allow a repeal of the pit bull ban to be placed on an August ballot, allowing (for the first time) the public to decide the breed ban issue.

Dahlia Canes of the Miami Coalition Against Breed Specific Legislation spearheaded the repeal. Speaking at a county commission meeting, she argued that county taxpayers had paid $3 million a year to enforce the pit bull ban. (Her figure was based on a 2009 study commissioned by Best Friends Animal Society that found the cost to Florida taxpayers of enforcing statewide breed bans to total $25.7 million.)

MDAS director Alex Muñoz countered that $3 million is almost $1 million more than the department’s entire budget for enforcement, and that pit bulls accounted for just two percent of enforcement expenses. (Dogsbite.org disputed the Best Friends totals and broke down the cost estimate for 2012 ban enforcement at $46,000.)

Animal Planet’s Shorty Rossi of Pit Boss and Tia Torres of Pit Bulls and Parolees spoke at Miami rallies in support of the repeal.

“We’re the ones who domesticated these animals, and now we’re leaving them. So this is a thing we have to support,” said Rossi, who takes part in pit bull advocacy tours across the country.

Torres was adamant: “We need to be a part of history here in Miami. It’s nice to see we’re evolving now, that somebody has finally figured out this is a stupid idea, and an expensive idea, and just a wrong idea. It feels like it’s going to be overturned.”

But it wasn’t overturned. Some 141,000 county voters, or 63.2 percent, voted no, choosing to keep the ban in place. The yes-repeal voters totaled about 82,000 voters.

Commissioner and animal advocate Heyman tells the BT that if the state had passed the Miami-Dade repeal, it would have superseded the commission. That didn’t sit well with colleagues who wanted to keep the ban in place, so a public vote seemed the only chance to repeal. But she wasn’t really surprised by the outcome. “It wasn’t a good campaign on repeal,” she says. “A week prior to the vote, another person was bit and it was shown all over the media. Fear was the factor.”

A bill sponsored by county Commissioner José “Pepe” Diaz that was not breed-specific did pass in the county commission with a 9-1 vote in October 2012. The law doubles fines to $1000 for dog attacks and cruel acts on dogs, and places a new $1000 fine for teaching a dog to fight. It also allows posting of photos of dangerous dogs and their owner’s addresses on an online dangerous dog registry.

In 2013, Broward commissioners tabled a proposal to outlaw new pit bull ownership. That same year filmmaker Andrea Seamans’s 23-minute documentary, Miami’s Pit Fall: A Story of Love, Fear, and Discrimination, had a public screening in Brickell. The film tells the tale of the pit bull, taking a pro-repeal position. Melissa and Pilar Moreira, dog-bite victims who spurred the 1989 ban, appear on camera 23 years after the incident, Melissa still bearing the scars from that day. Their attitude toward pit bulls hasn’t softened.

Once more, the ban repeal was brought up for county discussion. In September 2016, a pit bull ban repeal ordinance sponsored by Commissioners Bruno Barreiro and Sally Heyman was proposed, but a vote was deferred. During an October 2016 commission meeting, the repeal vote was again deferred. In November the commission voted 11-0 to withdraw the repeal proposal.

“Commissioner Barreiro let it die because some colleagues are against repeal,” says Heyman. “I’ve been bit three times: once by a Chihuahua, once by a poodle, and once by some other little dog. Should these breeds be banned? People are to blame, not the animals. But I’m not going to propose repeal again -- not unless things change.”

 

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