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Ohio drops vicious tag for 'pit bull'

Governor's signature ends 25-year-old law

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Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed the new law on dogs Tuesday. It will take effect on May 20. Lucas County Dog Warden July Lyle, right, with a pit bull.

The Blade/Andy Morrison
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COLUMBUS -- Gov. John Kasich signed a bill Tuesday morning ending a 25-year-old Ohio law automatically declaring the "pit bull" to be an inherently vicious dog.

The new law ends Ohio's status as the only state to designate a single breed for scorn -- and often for death.

House Bill 14, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Sears (R., Monclova Township), was overwhelmingly approved 67-30 by the state House on Feb. 8.

In addition to dropping any reference to a specific breed of dog from the law, the new law will redefine current designations of "vicious" and "dangerous" dog, create a third lesser category of "nuisance" dog, create a process for dog owners to appeal law enforcement's labeling of their dogs, and place the burden to prove the classification by clear and convincing evidence on the dog warden.

The old law defined a "vicious dog" as one that, without provocation, has seriously injured a person, killed another dog, or belonged to the general breed of "pit bull."

Such a designation triggered additional liability insurance, restraint, and other requirements.

The new law will take effect on May 20, which is 90 days after the governor signed it.

Although removing "pit bull" from Ohio's definition of a vicious dog is a step in the right direction, it doesn't solve the underlying overpopulation problem that results in them being killed at the pound, Lucas County Dog Warden Julie Lyle said Tuesday.

"There are going to have to be an awful lot of places for them to go," Ms. Lyle said.

"It's not like after the law changes, there are going to be 100 people at my door who want to adopt a 'pit bull.' They are going to continue to sit here and we will continue to have to euthanize them. Warehousing them is not the humane alternative."

On Feb. 17 and 18, eight "pit bull" type dogs were killed because the Lucas County pound was at capacity for "pit bull"-type dogs.

Meanwhile, Ms. Lyle said she currently has 14 "pit bull"-type dogs that are 6-months-old and older and four that are under 6-months-old that have passed the temperament test and need transfer partners to take them.

About 40 percent of the dogs the pound takes in are "pit bulls." The pound is currently not adopting out "pit bulls" directly to the public, but is expected to do so after the law goes into effect.

Ms. Lyle loosened the requirements several weeks ago for groups to take "pit bulls" directly from the pound.

Since that time, of the nearly two dozen rescue groups the pound works with, only two -- You Lucky Dog and the Lucas County Pit Crew -- have stepped up to take the dogs.

Before the rule change, when the pound required groups to have shelters in order to take "pit bulls," the Toledo Area Humane Society took 91 "pit bull"-type dogs in 2011, some of which were transferred to the Pit Crew or to Planned Pethood Inc.

Planned Pethood Executive Director Nikki Morey said the group has applied to take "pit bulls" from the dog warden and will do so in the future when she has a foster home open that is willing to take that breed.

"Other counties have never limited what breeds we could take, so we take whatever we can, when we can," Ms. Morey said. "If we have a foster family that likes 'pit bulls,' we always make sure they have another one if they want it. To the same token, if a family is one that likes beagles, I can't require they take a 'pit bull.' "

There are currently "pit bulls" at the shelter who have been waiting for months for a transfer partner, Ms. Lyle said. How long they can stay before they are killed by the pound varies from dog to dog and depends on how quickly their temperament degrades as a result of sitting in their cage, Ms. Lyle said. Dogs are re-evaluated monthly and if their behavior continues to be sound, they will continue to be held, she said.

Rescue groups in the Toledo area should focus their energies on rescuing animals in need at the Lucas County Dog Warden instead of taking dogs from neighboring counties or even from out-of-state, said Jean Keating, co-founder of the Lucas County Pit Crew.

The Toledo Animal Shelter no longer will take dogs of any breed from the pound after taking a dog a few years back that had a bacterial infection that caused several other dogs in the small facility to also become very ill, said the group's executive director, Helen Bensch.

The group has not adopted out "pit bull"-type dogs previously because of the previous law. Whether the group changes its policy is up to its board of directors, Ms. Bensch said.

Besides finding transfer partners, reducing overpopulation through proactive spaying and neutering and education about what the breed is truly like, will help reduce the number of "pit bulls" killed by the county pound, she said.

"Because of all the media bias, it's going to take awhile to realize 'pit bulls' are just dogs, not werewolves," said Ledy VanKavage, senior legislative attorney at Best Friends Animal Society, who testified in support of the bill before both the Ohio House and Senate.

Humane Ohio has spayed or neutered 347 pit bulls through the Lucas County Dog Warden's Fix-a-Bull promotion since it began in April 2011.

The grant is for 500 pit bulls or pit mixes that are currently licensed and live in Toledo to be fixed and get a microchip for $5 each. Humane Ohio also fixed an additional 100 "pit-bulls" or pit mixes in 2011 through its "Primp Your Pit" promotion, said Jill Borkowski, the group's marketing director.

"There are still some myths surrounding spay/neuter and some men are resistant to the idea of 'taking away their pet's manhood,' so a big part of our job is to educate people about the health and behavioral benefits that go along with spay/neuter," she said.

Staff writers Tanya Irwin and Jim Provance contributed to this report.

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