Banning a breed

Miami-Dade set to vote on repeal of pit bull ban


After a little girl was mauled in 1989, Miami-Dade County outlawed American Pit Bull Terriers and similar breeds. Twenty-three years later, they could get a second chance.

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• What does the law say?

Chapter 5., Sec. 5-17 of the county code: “It is illegal in Miami-Dade County to own or keep American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, or any other dog that substantially conforms to any of these breeds’ characteristics. There is a $500 fine for acquiring or keeping a pit bull dog and court action to force the removal of the animal from Miami-Dade County.’’

• What is the ballot question?

“Shall the ordinance repealing the County’s 23-year-old law prohibiting the ownership of pit bulls as a dangerous breed of dogs become effective?’’ A “Yes’’ vote on Question #500 overturns the ban.

• How do Animal Services workers identify a banned dog?

With a breed-conformation checklist for American Staffordshires and Staffordshire bulls. If a dog meets 70 percent of the physical characteristics, it is deemed a banned breed. Courts accept this test.

• How many people are bitten by dogs annually?

An estimated 4.7 million, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, mostly children. Of those, some 800,000 require medical attention. There were 15 reported dog-bite fatalities nationally in 2011, 14 so far in 2012 — none in South Florida.

The American Kennel Club Top 10 breed-popularity ranking for Miami in 2011: German shepherd, Rottweiler, Labrador retriever, French bulldog, Doberman pinscher, bulldog, boxer, golden retriever, Maltese.

Nationally, in 2011, the American Staffordshire Terrier was the 72nd most popular breed; the Staffordshire bull terrier the 76th.

On April 14, 1989, a law took effect that banned pit bull-type dogs from Miami-Dade County.

The ban followed a rash of attacks across the country, including one on a Kendall-area girl horribly bitten in the face.

Had the ban worked, Miami-Dade would have been pit bull-free years ago, since family pets grandfathered in under the law would be long dead.

Yet they’re everywhere, in neighborhoods both swanky and seedy. Last year, 400 entered the Miami-Dade Animal Services Department shelter, mainly strays.

Pit bulls are so common and, advocates say, normalized, that Miami-Dade commissioners overwhelming voted to allow a ban repeal on the Aug. 14 ballot.

Commissioner Sally Heyman, a repeal supporter, said the original measure was “an emotional response to a travesty in 1989...Now it’s time for us to make an intelligent decision.’’

There’s recent precedent. Earlier this year, the Ohio Legislature lifted a statewide ban. Ohio activist Jean Keating said that the story of NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s 51 illegal fighting dogs helped, by showing them as victims of uncaring humans, “not the perpetrators.’’

Only three were euthanized after federal agents raided Vick’s Virginia fighting operation in 2007. Most of the rest live with families or in sanctuaries, and several became therapy dogs.

That tale of redemption “enabled people to enter into a conversation, whereas before, when the ‘pit bull’ word came up, the door slammed shut,’’ said Keating.

After the door opened, lawmakers looked at the data, and “that was the key to turning the tide. We had people who were willing to put aside the emotional stuff and work together. ‘’

The data show the following:

•  Breed-specific legislation (BSL), the umbrella term for targeted restrictions and bans, gives forbidden breeds a certain desperado cachet, so that exactly the wrong people want them.

“The rise of pit bull ownership among gang members and others in the late 1980s coincided with the first round of breed-specific legislation,’’ says an American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) position paper on breed-specific legislation. “If you outlaw a breed, then outlaws are attracted to that bolster their own self image as living outside of the rules of mainstream society.’’

Animal Services officials say that illegal dog fighting has waned. The department hasn’t handled a case in five years, said Operations and Enforcement chief, Kathleen Labrada. Even the pits that Animal Services picks up as strays are “sociable,’’ she said.

•  Pit bulls are no more aggressive than other breeds. The South Florida Veterinary Medical Association recently issued a statement supporting the repeal that cited a 40-year American Veterinary Medical Association bite study released in April, which notes that “owners of pit bull-type dogs deal with a strong breed stigma, however controlled studies have not identified this breed group as disproportionately dangerous.’’

The South Florida group also noted that the ban “increases the already-exorbitant euthanasia rate in our county shelter, because the banned breeds are unable to be adopted by Miami-Dade residents.’’

It also conflicts with the commission’s recently-adopted “no-kill’’ goal to lower that rate, rarely less than 40 percent of dogs, to about 10 percent

“You can’t have ‘no kill’ if you have BSL,’’ said Debi Day, an activist with No Kill Nation, the group that secured a “no kill’’ pledge from both Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

•  BSL, which applies to other breeds in other communities, including German shepherds, Rottweiler, huskies, mastiffs and wolf hybrids, doesn’t stop dogs from biting people. The Miami-Dade Health Department, which doesn’t keep bite-by-breed statistics, reported 1,742 dog-bite cases last year. Pit bull attacks anywhere invariably make headlines, as several did in Broward, and none were reported in Miami-Dade.

BSL creates what the ASPCA calls a “false sense of security,’’ and shifts resources from enforcing laws that actually make communities safer, like licensing, leashing, spay-neutering — almost all fatal attacks are caused by “intact’’ dogs —anti-fighting and anti-tethering laws (tethering more than doubles the probability that a dog will bite).

•  Any breed, under the right conditions, might bite. The list of top 10 biters last year in Palm Beach County, for instance, included Chihuahuas, Shih-tzus, Maltese and Labrador retrievers, alongside Rottweiler, German shepherds and pit bulls, at number one.

But Millie O’Roark, the Palm Beach public safety department’s animal bite coordinator, warns that such rankings are inherently faulty because victims and even vets can’t always identify a breed accurately. Pit bulls, because they’re an amalgam of other breeds, are particularly “ambiguous,’’ the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted in 2001, “and witnesses may be predisposed to assume that a vicious dog is of this type.’’

The CDC concluded that dangerous-dog laws might be more effective than BSL “because a dog’s tendency to bite depends on other factors in addition to genetics [such as] medical and behavioral health, early experience, socialization and training, and victim behavior.’’

Among those pushing for repeal: Shorty Rossi, star of the reality show Pit Boss, about his pit-bull rescue efforts. He thinks the ban has warped Miami-Dade residents’ view of an affectionate, people-friendly breed.

He recently passed through the county with co-star service dog Hercules, a pit bull, on his way to a Broward pro-repeal rally, and couldn’t believe how passersby reacted.

“It was like I was walking a Bengal tiger,’’ he said. “Wherever we go, everybody wants to touch the dog, but in Miami, people are in utter fear because for 20-plus years, they’ve been brainwashed that these are natural-born killers.’’

But some sidled up to him, he said, and whispered: “ ‘I actually have a pit bull that I have to hide.’ ’’

Others opposing BSL include the American Humane Association, The American Kennel Club, and The United Kennel Club, and officials at Broward County Animal Care and Adoption.

Because pit bulls are legal in Broward, Miami-Dade residents sometimes dump them across the county line, assuming, incorrectly, they’ll be adopted, says Lisa Mendheim, Broward Animal Care’s public education coordinator.

“Hopefully, Miami changes the law,’’ she said, because pit bulls are overrunning the Broward shelter.

Breed’s best friend

The singular force behind the repeal effort is Dahlia Canes, a 60-year-old Hialeah paralegal who founded the non-profit Miami Coalition Against Breed Specific Legislation in 2008. It has since gained a worldwide Internet presence and an army of volunteers in “Pit Bulls are not the problem; bad owners are the problem,’’ t-shirts.

Canes’ obsession started with a starving, flea-bitten brown dog named Chocolate that she rescued in 1999. Canes intended only to restore the dog to health, then find her a home. She scrapped that plan after falling in love with the dog. She had no idea that by statute, her dog was an outlaw until Chocolate got “busted’’ one year later.

Canes raced to Animal Services and begged, successfully, for her dog’s life.

“I’m on the floor, on my knees, crying, ‘Don’t kill my dog!’ By the grace of God, I got her out, then hauled ass to Palm Beach’’ for sanctuary.

The incident turned Canes from a rescuer to an advocate, holding community meetings and lobbying the Legislature in Tallahassee, which kicked the decision back to Miami-Dade commissioners during the last session.

The coalition’s signature public relations effort was the rally at C.B. Smith Park, where Shorty Rossi and the Pit Boss cast appeared on July 29. Sally Heyman, fellow Commissioner and repeal supporter Jose “Pepe’’ Diaz, also attended.

The five-hour event drew a huge crowd of people and pit bull-type dogs, some whimsically attired in ballet tutus, silly hats, crystal-encrusted collars, and “I’m a lover; not a fighter’’ bandanas.

Jodi Baskerville, Pit Boss’ executive producer, said that at least 600 people signed releases to appear on camera with their dogs.

When Canes stepped to the microphone and asked how many had come from Miami-Dade, perhaps half the crowd cheered.

Despite a perfect storm of bad-canine-behavior stimuli — a crush of unfamiliar dogs and humans, extreme heat, and deafening noise — there were no reported instances of aggression toward people, and only a couple of minor dog-on-dog scuffles.

Still, Canes knows that pit-bull love fests, academic research and expert opinions might not be able to overcome horror stories and urban legends, so she remains cautiously optimistic about the repeal’s prospects.

Among the urban legends that die hardest, she says: Pit bulls’ jaws have a “locking’’ mechanism that enables them to hang on and chew at the same time. A study by Dr. I. Lerh Brisbin at the University of Georgia deemed that anatomically impossible.

Another: Pit bulls bite harder than other dogs. When Dr. Brady Barr did a comparative bite-pressure study among pits, German shepherds and Rottweiler for National Geographic, pits came in last.

And another: Pits will “turn’’ on you because they’re hard-wired to kill. The Vick dogs disprove that, advocates say.

In practice, a peaceable pit bull isn’t likely to end up at Miami-Dade Animal Services, because rounding them up is way down on the department’s to-do list, after cruelty and dangerous-dog complaints.

If someone reports a pit bull, investigators evaluate the dog , said Kathleen Labrada. If the dog conforms to 70 percent of American Staffordshire or Staffordshire Bull breed characteristics, it’s considered illegal, and the owner gets a warning to remove the dog from the county within 48 hours, though in some cases, owners get 30 days.

“The dogs are family members. It’s not so easy to say: ‘You’ve had the dog for three years, now find a place to give it to,’’’ Labrada said.

Unless there’s a follow-up complaint, she said, “we don’t end up going back to check.’’ But the agency does ask for proof that the dog has been licensed elsewhere. If the dog doesn’t leave, the owner faces a $500 fine and gets 20 days to appeal, with a stay of enforcement.

After that, said Labrada, if the dog is still on the property, “we can obtain a court order to seize the dog. But it’s not something we do frequently.’’ We’ve had maybe two dozen [court] orders to seize in the past five years.’’

A seized dog could remain in the shelter for months, at taxpayer expense, as the case goes through the courts.

Labrada isn’t worried about an explosion of pit-bull breeding if the repeal succeeds, because “we have good hobby-breeder laws.’’ But she’s concerned that “a lot of people will go out and get one, and it’s not a dog for everyone. It’s important to research the breed and make sure it’s a good fit with your lifestyle. They’re high-energy [and] not necessarily good with small animals.’’

Bearing the scars

Pilar Garcia doesn’t much care what veterinarians and animal-welfare groups say or what studies show. What she cares about is that 23 years ago, an unleashed pit bull-type dog ripped into her 8-year-old daughter’s face, leaving Melissa Moreira with permanent scars.

The dog also mauled Garcia and her then mother-in-law, as they tried to help.

With scars fresh and emotions raw, Garcia, then Pilar Moreira, went before the county commission and demanded, “Who in this room is going to bring my child back to the way she was?” Weeks later — mindful of horrendous attacks in Broward — they approved the ban.

In a recent appearance opposite Canes on WFOR’s Facing South Florida with Jim Defede, Garcia said: “I wish [the ban] would be statewide. I think the residents of Dade County have forgotten completely what all of this is all about. They don’t understand that by owning a dog that is not a regular pet, this animal constitutes a lot of danger for a lot of people.’’

Garcia said she didn’t know that Canes’ group has been fighting the ban for years. She blames Miami Marlins star pitcher Mark Buehrle and wife, Jamie, for the current effort.

After he signed for $58 million in January, Buehrle realized he couldn’t live in Miami-Dade because one of his family’s pets, Slater, is a American Staffordshire. The Buehrles, veteran animal-welfare activists, settled in Broward and made anti-BSL commercials.

Jamie Buehrle and Melissa Moreira agree on one thing: that if the ban lifts, irresponsible owners should face stiff penalties when things go wrong — which goes for all breeds, said Buehrle.

“Maybe I don’t speak it enough, that I don’t for one second discount how horrific [the attack on Melissa] was,’’ Buehrle said. “I have children and they should be safe, but an entire breed shouldn’t be blamed’’ for the actions of a few.

Garcia predicts disaster if the repeal succeeds.

“We’ll have the ultimate problem, and I could see the amount of people who will be bitten by pit bulls,’’ she said. “They’re going to have them running loose all over the place and they will attack. I will not like to see this...No other dog will ever do the damage that a pit bull can. It’s a very powerful animal.’’

Melissa said she’s “still afraid of big dogs,’’ and finds the sight of a pit bull “traumatizing.’’ If a newly legal pit bull hurts a child, she said, the commissioners, will have blood on their hands.’’

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