State proposal to allow dangerous-dog ban stirs debate
A BILL TO BAN DANGEROUS BREEDS IS GOING THROUGH THE LEGISLATURE, BUT EXPERTS DISAGREE ON ITS NECESSITY
By ROBERTO SANTIAGO
A new bill making its way through the Legislature that would allow cities to ban any breed of dog they deem dangerous to their communities has two of the nation's largest animal rights groups taking opposite sides.
The bill, sponsored by Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, would give cities the right to ban breeds responsible for a large number of attacks, just as pit bulls have been banned in Miami-Dade for the past 20 years.
HB 101 would amend the state's existing ''Damage by Dogs'' statute, which limits municipalities from banning specific breeds, but holds owners liable for injuries and damage caused by their dogs.
''My primary concern is for the safety of other people and their pets, who have to deal with dangerous dogs on the streets, in dog parks, and even outside of their own homes,'' Thurston said.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals supports the bill, which if approved by the Legislature, could go into effect July 1.
Stephanie Bell, senior cruelty caseworker for PETA, said the bill would help keep breeds of dogs out of the hands of dog owners who deliberately raise their dog to be vicious for home defense or blood sports.
But The Humane Society of the United States, the Florida Animal Control Association and the American Veterinary Association say that an individual dog's behavior -- not the breed -- is the real issue to tackle.
''You know what the problem is? We have effective dangerous dog laws on the books that are not being enforced -- that is the real problem,'' said Jennifer Hobgood, Florida state director for The Humane Society of the United States.
Hobgood said banning breeds does not work and she points to Miami-Dade County as an example.
''All banning does is create a great deal of suffering among responsible dog owners who have to give up their well-behaved pets,'' Hobgood said.
Adam Goldfarb, issue specialist for The Humane Society of the United States, said that although Miami-Dade has a ban, the county cannot provide statistical evidence that there are fewer pit bull bites as a result.
Counties in South Florida have only recently started to keep track of dog attacks. Dr. Sara Pizano, director of Miami-Dade Animal Services, said it's not known whether the county's 20-year pit bull ban has been successful because the department has been compiling bite statistics only since 2005.
In Broward, 616 dog bites were reported to county animal control in 2007. In Miami-Dade, that number was 992. Terrier mixes are the No. 1 dangerous dog, and pit bulls (which include the American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, and the Staffordshire terrier) were the top dangerous dog in Broward.
Thurston believes the bill has a good chance of passing. And even if it is defeated, he believes the dialogue generated will result in a some middle-ground solution.
''In situations where targeting the individual owner is not enough to ensure public safety, individual cities should have the right to target certain problem breeds,'' said Thurston, who says a ban should be a last resort after leash and muzzling laws, fines, and even arrests, have proved futile.
Adam Goldberg, who was attacked and bitten by a Labrador retriever last September, said more needs to be done to enforce laws against dangerous dogs and the owners who can't control them.
The Labrador attacked Goldberg's leg, turning it into a bloody mess that became infected.
It took Goldberg seven weeks to walk without feeling any pain.
What's worse, weeks later, one of his girlfriend's two bichons required 10 stitches after it was mauled by a bull terrier.
''There are some breeds of dogs that are inherently dangerous -- bred for hunting, security, and illegal fighting -- that are owned by people who cannot control and socialize them,'' said Goldberg, of Hollywood.
Goldberg contacted police and animal services after the dog attacks, and said both agencies did nothing beyond issuing verbal warnings to the owners.
''If there are no serious penalties -- heavy fines, jail time, there won't be any change,'' said Robin Frydman, Goldberg's girlfriend.
But a number of animal rights organizations, which oppose the bill, say the bill skirts the real issue: making irresponsible dog owners accountable for their actions.
''Banning a breed does nothing to solve dangerous-dog problems. All it does is target well-behaved dogs owned by good dog owners -- who lose their pets due to this kind of
legislation, '' said Dr. Welch Agnew, president of the Florida Animal Control Association, the statewide organization that deals with dangerous dogs.
He added that enforcing such a ban would be ineffective and would take away from more important resources, such as neutering and medical care for animals.
It would also require the county to add another expense: DNA testing to prove that a targeted dog is indeed that banned breed. Agnew, a veterinarian, said breed cannot be determined by appearance alone.
Pizano said that if Thurston's bill passed, conceiveably terriers, Labradors, or shepherd mixes could be banned if Miami-Dade County approved such a measure.
Capt. Dave Walesky, field operations manager, Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control, said shepherd mix, Lab mix, and chow mix breeds are the No. 1 dangerous dogs in Palm Beach.
His department is compiling 2007 statistics.
''Pit bulls are not a problem here, and most of their attacks are against another dog. They only bite humans who are trying to defend their dog,'' said Walesky, who opposes the bill.
Weston resident Linda Blair knows firsthand about such dangers.
Last December, Beauty, her beloved greyhound, was attacked and nearly killed by a pit bull when she took Beauty to Barkham at Markham dog park in Sunrise.
As a dog owner, Blair is undecided when it comes to supporting Thurston's bill, but agrees something has to be done to protect the public and other pets from dangerous dogs.
''I am not a big believer in banning, but in this case, I don't know,'' Blair said.
Edna Elijah, president of the Lauderdale Manors Homeowners Association, who has worked with Thurston in promoting the bill, said there would not be a dangerous dog problem if people were simply responsible.
''Things are getting worse. Something has to be done -- and now. What are we going to do? Wait till a child is killed by a dog? Is that what it is going to take?'' she said.
Miami Herald staff writer Laura Figueroa, in Tallahassee, contributed to this report.
2007's top 10 biting dogs by breed
MIAMI-DADE ANIMAL CONTROL
Total dog bites: 992
1. Terrier: 108
2. Labrador mix: 95
3. Shepherd mix: 90
4. Mixed breed: 81
5. German shepherd: 53
6. Chow mix: 50
7. Boxer: 39
8. Rottweiler: 33
9. Pit bull: 32
10. American bulldog: 30
BROWARD COUNTY ANIMAL CONTROL
Total dog bites: 616
1 Pit bull: 182
2. Labrador retriever: 50
3. German shepherd: 40
4. Rottweiler : 36
5. Shepherd: 29
6. Chow chow: 23
7. Bulldog: 17
8. Boxer: 14
9. Unknown (mixed): 14
10. Jack Russell Terrier: 13