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Published: Tuesday, 4/3/2007

Pit bull owner takes fight over city dog law to court

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU
Former Toledo resident Paul Tellings, with Chance, left, and Justice, is fighting city and state laws governing vicious dogs. Former Toledo resident Paul Tellings, with Chance, left, and Justice, is fighting city and state laws governing vicious dogs.
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COLUMBUS - A challenge to Ohio's law that deems pit bulls to be inherently vicious is drawing national attention as animal-rights organizations side with a dog owner who was prosecuted under a similar ordinance in Toledo.

The Ohio Supreme Court will hear arguments tomorrow in a case that claims the state law and the Toledo ordinance based on it unconstitutionally deprive dog owners of their right to a hearing.

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 that is commonly known as a pit bull."

Sol Zyndorf, attorney for dog owner Paul Tellings, will cede part of his 15 minutes of argument time before the court to a California attorney who represents the American Canine Foundation.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has weighed in with a legal brief supporting Mr. Tellings.

"They are fighting these laws throughout the country, and they would like a win here," said Mr. Zyndorf. "These organizations also condemn dog fighting, but they feel there's another way of controlling the situation."

The organizations argue the law should instead target owners who train dogs to be aggressive or fail to properly train or socialize them.

The state attorney general and the city of Cleveland, meanwhile, are coming to Toledo's defense.

Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann's office will take up half of Toledo's 15 minutes to defend Ohio's law, while the city of Cleveland, which has a similar ordinance, has filed a brief supporting Toledo.

"I'm surprised other municipalities didn't weigh in," said Victor Perez, Cleveland's chief prosecutor.

"Last year we had a mailman attacked by a pit bull that broke through a door," he said. "There were no warning signs. He is still going through physical rehabilitation."

Mr. Tellings, formerly of East Toledo and now living in Petersburg, Mich., owned two American pit bull terriers and a mixed breed fitting the description of a pit bull when a health inspector conducting a routine lead-paint home inspection reported him in 2003.

Mr. Tellings was convicted in Toledo Municipal Court of one count of owning more than one vicious dog and two counts of failing to obtain at least $100,000 in liability insurance for the dogs. He kept one dog and gave a second away. The third, Baby Girl, was confiscated and destroyed.

"My dogs have never attacked anyone," Mr. Tellings said.

"They say people with pit bulls are drug dealers or gang-bangers," he said. "I work for Edison. They stereotype somebody because of the type of dog they have, which is wrong. I was doing nothing but sitting at home with my dogs."

On appeal, the 6th District Court of Appeals in Toledo declared the city ordinance "unreasonable" for failing to provide an opportunity for an owner to challenge a dog warden's determination that a family pet is a pit bill or vicious.

The Supreme Court issued a stay allowing Toledo to continue enforcing its ordinance while the appeal continues.

Last year, Lucas County Dog Warden Tom Skeldon's office confiscated a record 998 pit bulls. He said many of those that did not show signs of dog fighting, were not picked up in drug raids, or were not involving in biting incidents were ultimately returned to their owners.

In 2004, the state Supreme Court struck down much of Ohio's vicious dog law on due-process grounds in Portage County. Cities like Toledo and Cleveland, however, have continued to enforce their ordinance as it applies to pit bulls, determining there were no due-process problems when state law specifically singles out the breed as vicious.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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