Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Cincinnati Vortex

Revised: July 17, 2014; 01:49 GMT
Revised: July 19, 2014; 19:15 GMT
Revised: July 23, 2014; 23:42 GMT

On June 4th, 6-year old Zainabou Drame was attacked by two pit bulls while playing in a neighbor's yard. In the six weeks since the attack pit bulls and Breed Specific Legislation have resurfaced as contentious issues in the news and in Council chambers. On July 14, 2014, the editors of the Cincinnati Enquirer weighed in with an Opinion titled Don't ban pit bulls; punish owners. The Opinion was published on behalf of the Publisher and Editorial Board of the Enquirer.

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Cincinnati has a complex relationship with Breed Specific Legislation. The Queen City may have been the first major American city in modern history to enact BSL, when City Council placed restrictions on the sale or purchase of pit bulls in 1983.1 Legislation was introduced in 1986 (and passed in 1987) which banned pit bulls outright (though this law remained unenforced until an officer was attacked in 1995).

In 1999 the Cincinnati code was revised and the pit bull ban was reinstated. Pit bulls registered prior to November 1, 2003 were exempt from the new legislation. In 2007 the State Supreme Court upheld the state's BSL laws. In March of 2009 the existing law was strengthened, making it illegal to breed, sell or give a pit bull away in the city - except to an animal shelter.

The ban was revoked on May 16, 2012, in part to come into compliance with new state law.2  With this complicated history behind them the editors of the Cincinnati Enquirer should now be experts in BSL.

But apparently that's not the case. Can the editors be serious in proposing that the threat of punishment will compel different behaviors in pit bull owners? This is the same tactic advocates have used to forestall BSL for years, and all the while the numbers of attacks have climbed. In 2012 there were 305 serious pit bull attacks on humans in the US; in 2014 we passed that point midway in the year.(Statistics) The Enquirer's modest proposal is so contemptuous of recent events that we must question whether it is offered in good faith.

The Editors have accepted other unsupported assertions made by pit bull advocacy groups; for example the claim that there is a "national trend in lifting bans." This in hardly the case. A vocal minority of advocates has convinced some cities to rescind existing BSL; revocation happens primarily in towns which have had successful BSL for so long that pit bulls are no longer perceived as a threat.

At the same time other municipalities continue to add BSL. The tough new legislation in Carroll County, MS is but one example. Legislators in numerous other cities are currently considering adding or strengthening legislation.

The Editors also suggested that pit bulls are difficult to identify. This advocacy red herring has been used to intimidate Councils but is patently false. Laws and definitions have withstood court challenges in numerous states, including Ohio where Judge Herman J Weber wrote the opinion in a 1989 case:
The Court concludes that Ordinance 87?6 sets forth a meaningful standard which can be used to identify those dogs subject to its prohibition and that the Pit Bull has certain phenotypical characteristics in its appearance which allows this breed of dog to be identifiable.3
The era of cross-breeding pit bulls with larger mastiffs does not alter this precedent: definitions must be expanded to include all pit bull-mastiff crossbreed dogs.4 Similarly, the decoding of the canine genome has had minimal impact of the identification or definition of a pit bull.5

It's estimated that pit bulls killed 40,000 of our more vulnerable companion animals last year.6 The story of one such attack, in Cincinnati's Incline District, was eloquently recounted in the Enquirer. The Editors fail to acknowledge the toll of grief these attacks bring to tens of thousands of American families each year. Perhaps the Editorial Board should visit Bebe Wilker, whose companion Bartles was attacked by a pit bull last month. The promise of harsher punishments rings hollow to 40,000 (and counting) additional families each year. At some point the sheer number of victims will demand a more fitting response from newspapers, city councils, and legislatures.

The Editors' prescription for after-the-fact punishment for owners fails to acknowledge that many pit bull attacks, both on companion animals and on humans, are by pit bulls which have not previously demonstrated aggression. Of the thirteen fatal pit bull attacks this calendar year, eight of the victims were killed by dogs owned by a family member. At least three more were killed by pit bulls owned by neighbors, meaning eleven of the thirteen victims were killed by family pit bulls with owners we can consider responsible.7 Increasing the punishment for irresponsible owners will not stop the attacks by well-cared for family pit bulls.

Meanwhile, the silliness vortex has spread to Council chambers where Christopher Smitherman, Chair of City Council's Law and Public Safety Committee, stated in a recent interview:
All dogs can be trained to be vicious.
This notorious advocacy adage dismisses the gravity of a pit bull attack by implying that it could just as easily have been a Golden Retriever that mauled Zainabou. This is an outrage to reason: these are pit bulls committing these atrocities and it is dishonest to pretend otherwise. Mr Smitherman's hand-wringing is evident: "There's something inside of me that's saying we need to look at this," Smitherman added.

There's something inside of me saying the prospects for a solution in Cincinnati are not promising.

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1 While Cincinnati may have been out front on the pit bull issue, it was not the first city to legislate against pit bulls. There is evidence that cities such as Ogden, Utah enforced a shoot-on-sight BSL ordinance as early as 1910.
2 Ohio state laws had been revised the previous month (March 2012), dropping the breed specific designation of pit bulls as a "vicious" breed. In 2012 there were three fatal pit bull attacks in Ohio. One of those deaths was 3-day old Makayla Darnell, who was killed by a pit bull the same week Ohio dropped the "vicious" designation from its animal laws.
3 US District Court Ohio; Vanater v. Village of South Point
4 See the Omaha Municipal Code, for example.
5 See The Trojan Horse
6 See How many companion animals do pit bulls kill?
7 For documentation see Fatal Pit Bull Attacks

View or download Dog attack deaths and maimings


Don't ban pit bulls? Are you folks for real?
   July 17, 2014; Cincinnati Enquirer

Don't ban pit bulls; punish owners
   July 14, 2014; Cincinnati Enquirer

Should pit bull ban be reinstated?
   July 7, 2014, Cincinnati Enquirer

Laws in Ohio and pit bull violence in Cincinnati
   June 25, 2014; Scorched Earch

Former pit bull owner recovering after attack
   June 23, 2014; Fox 19

Pit bull owners rally in support of breed
   June 17, 2014; WLWT

SPCA evaluating 3rd pit bull found during Westwood attack
    June 10, 2014; WCPO 9

Gruesome attack sparks debate on how to handle certain dog breeds
    June 10, 2014; WLWT5

Girl still in coma days after attack
    June 9, 2014; Cincinnati Enquirer

Girl's family says 6-year-old suffered horrific injuries
    June 4, 2014;  WCPO

Woman, 73, in rehabilitation after pit bull attack
   Dec 13, 2013; Fox 19

Cincinnati pit bull ban repealed
    May 16, 2012; CityBeat

Losing Fight
    April 12, 2012; CityBeat

City toughens pit bull rules
   March 30, 2009; Cincinnati Enquirer

City Council again outlaws pit bulls
   August 7, 2003; Cincinnati Enquirer