Pit bulls: Loving pets or a potentially lethal menace?
COLUMBUS - State Rep. Tyrone Yates (D., Cincinnati) and Rep. Shawn Webster (R., Hamilton) stand at polar opposite points in their ideas as to how to deal with pit bulls, those muscle-bound dogs with jaws of steel.
Mr. Yates, a former city councilman, has introduced a bill to ban the breed from the state of Ohio. Dr. Webster, a veterinarian who cares for pit bulls in his practice, believes the breed has gotten a bad rap and wants to end its distinction as the only dog breed automatically deemed "vicious" under state law.
And neither believes he has enough support to get his bill through the General Assembly, so the two have struck an unlikely partnership to pursue a compromise over the summer to settle a dispute on how to deal with a dog that can be a loving pet in the right hands and a killer in the wrong.
"My bill may seem to be extreme, but we should have gotten a handle on this a decade ago," Mr. Yates said. "Now it's out of hand."
The dogs Dr. Webster sees in his office are good family pets, and he resents a law that casts a net over all of them.
"Our partnership won't last very long if the idea is to ban pit bulls from the state of Ohio," Dr. Webster said. "A dog that has earned its stripes as a vicious dog, I don't know that there's any place in society for them. A dog that's never done anything vicious should not be labeled vicious because it's a specific breed."
Mr. Yates admitted he may have gone too far in proposing an outright ban. His bill, he said, was designed to jump-start a discussion. That it did, as witnessed by the e-mails and letters he received.
Rep. Tyrone Yates, left, and Rep. Shawn Webster are working together on the issue of how to deal with pit bulls.
"Shawn came to me and said, 'I'm going to save your butt. Let's work together,'" he said.
The state Supreme Court last year unanimously upheld the constitutionality of state law and a Toledo ordinance that automatically single out the pit bull as a legally "vicious" dog by virtue of its breed.
The laws prohibit owners from having more than one "vicious" dog, generally defined as one that has killed or bitten a human, killed another dog, or "belongs to a breed commonly known as a pit bull.
The dog's owner must purchase special liability insurance and must muzzle or otherwise confine the dog when off its property.
Craig Turk, assistant director of the Franklin County Department of Animal Care and Control and a member of the Ohio County Dog Wardens Association, said he believes current law is the good compromise.
"If we get somebody in court, the judge will mandate that they get the liability insurance," he said. "If they don't, the judge will order them to surrender the dog. The law works well for us. It causes the owner to comply with state law. If they can't do that, they have no business owning the pit bull."
In 2007, 22 percent of all dogs impounded in Franklin County were pit bulls. In Lucas County, it was a whopping 34.5 percent. The vast majority of these dogs do not leave the shelters alive.
Lawmakers continue to struggle with the pit bill issue. Recently, they sent Gov. Ted Strickland a bill designed to ease the financial strain on shelters overcrowded with pit bulls and other animals confiscated as evidence of dog-fighting.
Sponsored by Rep. John White (R., Kettering), the bill would require owners of impounded dogs to post bonds for their care if they hope to get them back someday, and it would eliminate a provision of current law that mandates that dog enforcement officers confiscate dogs showing scars or other signs of dog-fighting.
"I think the legislature tilted way off to the left on this," said Lucas County Dog Warden Tom Skeldon. "From that point on, it would be nearly impossible to convict someone of dog-fighting in Ohio.
"If Michael Vick came to Ohio and had 45 pit bulls that were scarred up, we'd have to say, 'Mike, you keep the dogs, but make sure they're available,'" Mr. Skeldon said. "It's like telling a drug dealer we don't have room to store drugs, so you hold onto them, you hold onto your guns, and be sure to bring them to court when you come."
Mr. Yates said the fact that lawmakers are still debating this issue demonstrates that pit bulls are "a difficult, adaptive problem that defies an easy, technical answer."
"The adaptive problem is that ownership of pit bulls, Rotweilers, and other dogs that some describe as vicious have become so popular that serious people are trying to figure out how we manage that challenge," he said.
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