COLUMBUS — Dog owners and animal rights groups Wednesday urged lawmakers to rid Ohio of its distinction of being the only state that automatically brands pit bull-type dogs "vicious" by virtue of their existence.
But those currently and formerly charged with protecting the public from dangerous dogs countered that the "pit bull" has lived up to its reputation of the type of dog most likely to bite in Ohio.
"Babies aren't inherently vicious when they're born," Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. "Children are not inherently vicious…Dogs become vicious through nurture or lack thereof. There are some vicious pit bulls, but it is not genetically inherent in the breed."
The committee has before it a bill, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Sears (R., Monclova), that would drop the reference to a "breed that is commonly known as a pit bull dog" when defining what constitutes a "vicious dog" under Ohio's 23-year-old law.
The bill, which has not been scheduled for a committee vote, would also strike related language stating that the "ownership, keeping, or harboring of such a breed of dog shall be prima facie evidence of the ownership, keeping, or harboring of a vicious dog."
The state law singling out the pit bill and the Toledo ordinance based on it have both been upheld as constitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court. The law does not define what constitutes a pit bull, which even dog wardens described as a subjective process.
Tom Skeldon, the former Lucas County dog warden who retired following a public backlash over the shelter's euthanasia rates, said the high court was not wrong.
"The job of dog warden is to protect the public from dogs," he said. "The law passed in 1987 was passed because of fatalities in this state caused by pit bulls. The number-one biter in Lucas County has been the pit bull the last three years running.
"I would plead with you, please do not take away the only tool that now exists for your police officers, sheriff deputies, and dog wardens to protect the public from vicious dogs away from us," he said.
Rep. Dennis Murray (D., Sandusky), a committee member, described what he admitted might be a prejudice against the pit bull.
"There's something that is hot-headed about these dogs, that if they are abused or raised in the wrong environment, they're the ones that are more likely to explode," he said.
But he questioned whether state law should legislate against them. He also questioned whether the state may have caused more harm by stigmatizing the dogs, making them more desirable to some elements of society.
"That has probably caused a proliferation of ownership of these animals," he said. "I think most members of the public have no clue what these requirements are for these dogs and probably don't follow the rules that are probably well intentioned to provide for public safety. But the unintentional result is we've stigmatized and probably caused more injuries in the long term."
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