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Published: Sunday, 12/6/2009

Ohio's 'pit bull' law sticks despite tries for change

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - On April 6, 1987, a retired Dayton-area surgeon fled a prostitute's home as her two "pit bull" dogs attacked him during the heat of an argument.

Witnesses described how the 67-year-old man attempted to climb onto a car to escape the teeth of Bouncer and Buford T. Pusser, only to be pulled to the ground and mauled. The physician suffered a fatal heart attack.

The incident ultimately proved to be ground zero for legislation that has made Ohio the only state to automatically label the "pit bull" a vicious dog subject to extra regulation, restriction, and liability insurance. Twenty-two years later, the "pit bull" remains the only type of dog deemed inherently vicious by virtue of its existence.

The law still spawns allegations of canine discrimination in legislative hearings whenever bills related to animal control arise, but lawmakers have shown little sign of wanting to tackle the issue.

Bob Hickey, Jr., a Democratic representative from Dayton in 1987, was preparing to offer testimony in the first hearing for his bill making routine "good government" changes to state dog laws when the Dayton attack occurred.

"It was very much a coincidence," said Mr. Hickey, now vice president of public affairs at Wright State University. "This bill was scheduled to be heard, and all the hot lights went on. People wanted to talk about everything but the normal good-government changes. The discussion quickly turned to dangerous animals. Not long after that, there were a number of 'pit bull' killings across the coun-try. It really was timing."

A "pit bull" brought to a hearing by its owner to make the point that it was a gentle, sweet animal didn't help its case. Mr. Hickey said that when a reporter placed a microphone in front of it, the dog bit it.

The Ohio House passed the bill by a vote of 91-6 without any language referring to "pit bulls." But in the Senate, a Dayton senator added a provision to the legal definition of "vicious dog" to automatically include "a breed commonly known as a pit bull dog." The bill went on to state that the "ownership, keeping, or harboring of a pit bull dog is prima facie evidence of the ownership, keeping, or harboring of a vicious dog."

The bill overwhelmingly passed the Senate, and the vast majority of the House agreed with the changes. It's been law ever since.

"Pit bull" is a generic description for a dog trained to fight and may refer to multiple breeds, including the American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier - both shown at the annual Westminister Kennel Club event - the American pit bull terrier, and locally, other mixed breeds that Lucas County Dog Warden Tom Skeldon determines to be "pit bulls."

Mr. Skeldon, who recently announced his resignation after intense criticism from dog advocates and Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop for having one of the highest dog-kill rates in the state, refuses to adopt out "pit bulls" and "pit bull" puppies. He regularly ordered them killed until Lucas County commissioners last month approved a moratorium on killing puppies at the county pound.

The law has firmly stuck despite multiple attempts to repeal the language. Rep. Barbara Sears (R., Sylvania) has launched the latest offensive. Her bill would simply pull references to the "pit bull" from the definition of vicious dog. It has received its obligatory first hearing, but there's been no action since.

"The dog lovers are into this so much that [lawmakers] don't want to get hundreds of e-mails again," she said. "There are a lot of terrible stories like the doctor in Dayton, but statistically that's more likely not to be a 'pit bull' than to be a 'pit bull.' They're missing the target by focusing on one breed when they need to focus on behavior."

Ms. Sears never has owned a "pit bull" and doesn't claim much experience with them. When she was a child, she was bitten by a dog. It was a German shepherd.

"Statistically, dogs like golden retrievers, cocker spaniels, Chihuahuas, and miniature poodles score worse on temperament tests," she said. "To be fair, people in favor of the 'pit bull' language will say they bite harder and the attack is potentially more deadly. But statistics don't necessarily prove that out."

Critics of the law often voice their objections on moral as well as practical grounds.

"I don't think that any breed of dog should be judged by the way they look," said Tamara Ernst, co-founder of the group 4 Lucas County Pets. "We don't do that to humans, I'm not sure why it's OK to do that to animals."

"Overall it's not the dog - it's the people who own the dog," said Harry George, a show judge for the American Dog Breeders Association who regularly evaluates "pit bull" temperament. "Until we wake up to the fact that it's not the canine, it's the people who own them, we're going to constantly have problems - I don't care what [breed] they are."

Mr. Hickey, the former Dayton state representative, said he helped to write the "pit bull" language.

"Since then, there have been a lot of disagreements over whether one breed should be singled out," he said. "But no matter how someone might talk about how sweet they are, this is the one breed that is the most likely to snap. I don't regret it."

The law makes no attempt to define what constitutes a "pit bull," fueling arguments that a "pit bull" is not a specific breed at all but rather an overly broad all-encompassing term. Ultimately, it fell to the Ohio Supreme Court to define the term in 1991. The court rejected the notion that the term was too vague.

"Pit bull dogs are distinctive enough that the ordinary dog owner knows or can discover with reasonable effort whether he or she owns such a dog," the court wrote. "First, there are certain physical characteristics which distinguish pit bulls from other dog breeds."

The court cited a Kansas case that described the features of a "pit bull" as "a short, squatty body with developed chest, shoulders, and legs; a large, flat head; muscular neck and a protruding jaw."

The case described the "pit bull" as being strong and athletic with strong jaws that "tend to clamp on to something and not let go."

Lynn Olman, the former Republican state representative from Maumee who once represented Ms. Sears' district, was the last lawmaker to make significant changes to the dog-enforcement law.

In 2000, he ushered a bill through both chambers to then-Gov. Bob Taft's desk to make it a crime to debark, or surgically cut the vocal cord, of a vicious dog. The law attempted to target guard dogs of drug dens or other criminal haunts that had been silenced by their owners so that law enforcement would be unaware of their presence until it was too late.

Mr. Olman carefully avoided the "pit bull" language when he introduced it, but it quickly became one of the key issues of dispute.

"One learns as an elected official that there are probably three to four issues that are going to lead to firestorms by virtue of the nature of the issue," he said. "Dealing with animals is something most elected officials don't like to get involved with."

Rep. Tyrone Yates (D., Cincinnati) is on the opposite side of the spectrum from Ms. Sears. Last session, he drew a firestorm of his own when he introduced a bill to outright ban "pit bulls."

He said he went too far with that proposal and hasn't reintroduced the measure this session. But Ms. Sears should not count on his vote to remove "pit bull"-specific language from the vicious-dog law.

The dispute even has divided the state Supreme Court. In 2007, the court again upheld the constitutionality of Ohio's vicious-dog law as well as Toledo's companion ordinance. The court cited statistics provided by Mr. Skeldon at the lower-court level showing pit bulls were the most likely type of dog to prompt Toledo police to discharge their weapons.

Justice Maureen O'Connor voted with the rest of the court to uphold the state law and Toledo's ordinance, but she directly challenged the wisdom of a breed-specific law. As a former lieutenant governor, she once served on a state dog-fighting task force.

"A more thorough analysis of the dynamic would demonstrate the danger posed is the result of some dog owners, including drug dealers, who deliberately increase the dog's aggression and lethalness through abuse or other specific methods of training," she wrote. "Other property owners simply fail to properly train and supervise the animal, thereby creating dangerous behavior by the dog."

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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