Prosecutor Dan Pilrose, center, questions a witness as defense attorney Sol Zyndorf, left, and Lucas County Dog Warden Tom Skeldon listen to the court proceedings.
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One side calls it unfair dog discrimination.
Others claim that aggressive dog breeds need to be controlled.
The old nature versus nurture debate took on a floppy-eared face yesterday in Toledo Municipal Court during the first day of hearings challenging a Toledo law regulating dog ownership. The city law, based on the Ohio Revised Code, labels all pit bulls as vicious dogs.
If Judge Francis X. Gorman rules that the Toledo law is unconstitutional, it could mean the state code and similar laws in other Ohio municipalities are invalid.
“I take this case very, very seriously,” Judge Gorman said as the hearings began. “I'm going to have to rule on constitutionality.”
The issue came to court because the Lucas County dog warden charged Paul Tellings of East Toledo with one count of keeping too many pit bulls and three counts of failure to purchase liability insurance for the dogs.
Mr. Tellings owns two dogs commonly referred to as pit bulls, but Toledo law allows owners to keep only one pit bull. The state requires owners of vicious dogs to buy liability insurance.
Sol Zyndorf, attorney for Mr. Tellings, asked the court to dismiss the charges because laws placing more restrictions on pit bulls than other dog breeds are not rational.
He argued that owners have a constitutional right to own dogs without unreasonable interference.
“At trial, defendant will establish that there is no scientific proof that Pit Bull Terriers, or any other breed of dog, is more dangerous than another,” Mr. Zyndorf wrote in his statement to the court. “Legislative bodies acted out of misinformation and media hype and false information.”
Mr. Zyndorf called seven witnesses yesterday who had experience with dog breeds commonly referred to as pit bulls. All said pit bulls are not necessarily more dangerous than other types of dogs.
I.Lehr Brisbin, who studies animal ecology in South Carolina, took the witness stand first. With the aid of a pit bull skull in a jar that both the defense and prosecuting attorneys seemed scared to touch, he explained that examinations of pit bull bodies show that they do not have more powerful jaws than other dogs
.Dr. Brisbin said pit bull bites are less dangerous to people than bites by other breeds because pit bulls tend to hold on, while other dogs often slash and tear the skin, causing excessive bleeding.
Later in the day, Mary Lee Nitschke, a psychobiologist and dog trainer from Portland, Ore., testified that how a dog is treated influences its behavior more than genetics.
“I think experience is so much more important than breed when it comes to how a dog behaves,” she said. “Breed-specific legislation is not only discriminatory, it just doesn't make any sense.”
Daniel Pilrose, the prosecuting attorney representing the county dog warden, challenged Dr. Nitschke several times by asking how different dog breeds would act in certain scenarios, at one point prompting her to explain that most dogs view running, squealing children as giant chew toys.
During a series of questions from Judge Gorman, Dr. Nitschke stuck to her guns, insisting that all dog breeds can be trained to be good pets.
The hearings are set to continue today with three more witnesses for the defense. Mr. Pilrose said he plans to call two witnesses for the prosecution today, and another will testify next week.
“We will provide testimony to show that there is a rational relationship between the state's power and the use of that power to limit pit bull ownership,” Mr. Pilrose said.
Judge Gorman said he hopes to rule on the case within a few weeks.