City’s bid to restore ‘Pit Bull’ ordinance isn’t fair, sensible

Charlie Ashmont: Author's longtime pet has been enforcement target in Boston before based on his pit bull-like appearance. Photo by Joyce LinehanCharlie Ashmont: Author's longtime pet has been enforcement target in Boston before based on his pit bull-like appearance. Photo by Joyce LinehanThe country looks to Massachusetts’ recently-passed animal control law as a model. Unfortunately, Councilor Consalvo and a few Boston officials, ignoring facts offered by animal experts, want to repeal portions of this new law that will improve public safety.

Legislation will soon be filed to once again allow ordinances based on dog breed. Boston’s 2004 Pit Bull Ordinance, nullified by a new state law, was at best ineffective and at worst harmful, avoiding meaningful attempts to address dangerous dogs in our communities.

My dog is probably a pit bull. That I say “probably” is indicative of a problem of identification in breed-specific legislation. I have a DNA test that says he is something else, but under the now-defunct Boston Pit Bull Ordinance, if a police or animal control officer thought perhaps he looked like one, he could have been seized from me, or I could be fined if I walked him without a muzzle. In addition, I paid much higher licensing fees than anyone with a dog not deemed pit bull and had my privacy invaded with a requirement that I file a photo of myself to obtain a dog license.

There is no scientific evidence that laws targeting dogs based on looks have decreased the incidence of dog bites anywhere. According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health data, dog bites did not decrease in Boston after the 2004 ordinance was enacted. Statistics being used to support the revival of a breed-specific ordinance are faulty; numbers don’t show a dog bite rate — that dogs labeled as “pit bulls” bite any more than others.

Looking at numbers that simply list bites by breed doesn’t account for breed popularity, or for problems with identification of breeds and mixed breed dogs. Animal Control’s licensing rate is woefully low at approximately 30 percent; we can’t begin to understand the population of dogs in Boston with a licensing rate so low. City statistics also don’t consider any real factors that contribute to a dog bite, including supervision, training, spay/neuter status, and others.

To create more effective “dangerous dog” state law, experts discussed limitations and problems of current laws with animal control officers, examined successful ordinances and laws from other states and municipalities in Massachusetts, and drafted comprehensive law including procedures to identify dangerous dogs, actions to prevent dog bites (restraint, muzzling, confinement, and others) and strong fines for non-compliance. In addition, animal protection organizations, and groups such as the American Veterinary Medical Association, American Bar Association, and dozens of others, stated opposition to breed discriminatory legislation, pointing out flaws in such policies.

Preventing dog bites is an important goal for animal control agencies, owners, the public, and elected officials. By clinging to the idea of a “pit bull” ordinance as a solution to our problem, we are missing the opportunity to achieve the goal we all can agree on – reducing the number of bites. This is exactly what the new state law is designed to do. Filing legislation just months after that law took effect – and after it was considered in the legislature for over six years – isn’t a good use of the city or Legislature’s resources.

The Boston Pit Bull Ordinance did nothing more than put undue pressure on law-abiding dog owners like me. Did you see muzzled dogs? I didn’t. Did you see aggressive dogs running off leash while clueless owners looked on? I did. Do you see dog waste everywhere you look? I do.

Did you see enforcement of any existing dog laws at all? I’ve seen that only once. When I was standing at an intersection, with my dog in a perfect sit at my side, a police officer rode up on me with lights and sirens blaring to give me $100 ticket and let me know that if he could find an animal control officer, he’d seize my elderly, chronically ill, well-behaved dog. Law enforcement already has the legal tools it needs to protect the public from dangerous dogs. They just have to enforce the existing law. Adding breed-specific legislation is not necessary.

The 2004 ordinance called for the establishment of a dog task force, which never happened, despite ongoing calls by dog owners like me, and the MSPCA. That’s the one part of that ordinance that made any sense, and I’m still game to work on that if Boston lawmakers are serious about working together toward enforcement of fair, sensible dog law that protects everyone.

Joyce Linehan lives in Dorchester with her dog, Charlie. Kara Holmquist from the MSPCA contributed to this article.