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By Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell
In 2017, the Springfield, Missouri, city council began discussing new breed-specific legislation (BSL) aimed at Pit Bulls. The proposed new breed restriction had predictable consequences seen in other cities. The number of Pit Bulls abandoned in shelters—and sometimes on the streets because the shelters were full—grew exponentially.
“We have a large percentage of people in this city who fall below the poverty level,” says Sue Davis, executive director of the Humane Society of Southwest Missouri in Springfield. “Unfortunately, when they started talking about more legislation, we just ended up with so many at the shelter.”
The voters ultimately rejected the ban on August 7 by 68 percent of the vote. Although this is just one small city in the Midwest, animal welfare organizations see it as an example of a wider rejection of BSL.
Ledy VanKavage, senior legislative attorney for Best Friends Animal Society, located in Kanab, Utah, says that the organization has been keeping records of BSL defeats since 2009. They have been heartened by the number of counties, cities and states rejecting new bans on Pit Bulls and repealing old laws already on the books.
“We think the trend is definitely going in the right direction,” says VanKavage. “We now have 21 states that have specific provisions outlawing breed restrictions.”
How BSL Impacts Families With Pit Bulls
Springfield already had Pit Bull laws in place since 2016, which require Pit Bull owners to spay/neuter their dogs, leash and muzzle them in public, have a microchip implanted under the skin, and post signs at their residence.
However, in the summer of 2017, a local mother and two toddlers were attacked by what they described as Pit Bulls. The city council reacted by discussing a law that would grandfather in Pit Bull owners who were following existing law, but would not allow any other Pit Bulls within city limits.
“These laws typically do stem from reaction on the local level,” says Kevin O’Neill, vice president of state affairs in the Sacramento, California, office of the American Society for the Prevention to Cruelty to Animals. “Elected officials focus on the breed of the dog involved, as if that will solve the issue, instead of looking at due process.”
That due process involves laws that focus on abusive and negligent owners and individual aggressive dogs rather than an entire breed. Groups such as the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Bar Association and the ASPCA advocate for these types of laws.
“BSL severs the human-animal bond,” says VanKavage. One of the most famous cases of lives being upended due to BSL was when former MLB pitcher Mark Buehrle signed with the Miami Marlins in 2014 and then was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays.
Buehrle’s family had a Pit Bull mix named Slater. Both Miami and Ontario have a ban on Pit Bulls, so Buehrle and his family made the difficult decision to not move the family to either city. His family stayed with Slater at their St. Louis, Missouri, home.
Misidentification of Pit Bulls
One of the problems Pit Bull advocates in Springfield—and in many cities—have with the bans is the broad categorization of Pit Bull or even Pit Bull type dogs in legal descriptions.
For example, the Springfield law identifies “Pit Bull dogs” as any dog "that is an American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one or more of the above breeds, or any dog exhibiting those distinguishing characteristics which substantially conform to the standards established by the American Kennel Club or United Kennel Club for any of the above breeds."
The problem with this, say advocates, is that it’s difficult for animal control and shelter workers to correctly identify Pit Bulls. A 2012 study conducted by Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida found that of 120 dogs used in the study, only 25 were identified by DNA as Pit Bulls. However, shelter workers labeled 55 of the dogs as Pit Bulls.
“The staff missed identifying 20 percent of the dogs who were Pit Bulls by DNA analysis, while only 8 percent of the ‘true’ Pit Bulls were identified by all staff members,” the report reads.
The report concluded that this is important because dogs labeled as Pit Bulls are often harder for shelters to adopt or may be euthanized in locations where BSL is on the books.
A Grassroots Effort to Reject Breed-Specific Legislation
The Springfield city council held a vote in October 2017 and decided on a slim 5-4 margin to enact the ban on Pit Bulls that was supposed to go into effect in January 2018.
Instead, a group that encompassed many grassroots volunteers, including students from the Animal Rights Club at the Missouri State University, formed Citizens Against BSL and collected more than 7,800 signatures to get the referendum on the August ballot.
Although not a political organization, Davis says the Humane Society of Southwest Missouri also spoke out against the proposed Pit Bull laws. “It was an animal welfare issue,” says Davis.
National groups such as the ASPCA and Best Friends lent support to defeat the ban, and O’Neill says it is the efforts of local residents that make the most difference.
“When these Pit Bull bans are proposed, or even before, the general public needs to get involved with an advocacy brigade,” says O’Neill. “They need to call their elected officials and tell them they reject this type of law.”
That’s exactly what Lori Nanan did when her city of New Hope, Pennsylvania, proposed laws in 2015 about Pit Bulls that targeted homeowners associations, as well as created insurance requirements for Pit Bull owners. Bans on Pit Bulls and other breeds are against Pennsylvania law, but Nanan says some cities enforce laws through homeowners associations about insurance.
Nanan spoke on behalf of her then 3-year-old Pit Bull, Hazel. “I was very afraid that my dog would be targeted and that the stigma would worsen,” says Nanan. “I was also afraid that the homeowner's association would make rulings on their own that would negatively impact our lives and the lives of others with Pit Bulls in the community.”
Thankfully, she adds, “Reason won over emotion.”