A Miami-Dade commissioner wants to end the county’s nearly 30-year ban on pit bulls and repeal a law that survived a challenge at the ballot box just four years ago.
Commissioner Bruno Barreiro’s legislation revives an enduring debate over the stocky terriers and their alleged propensity to engage in violent attacks.
The County Commission enacted the original ban in 1989 after a pit bull bit off part of the face of an 8-year-old girl in West Kendall, and the law was part of a national crackdown against the dogs. Critics, including pit-bull owners and some animal-rights groups, argued the bans mistakenly blamed a dog’s breed instead of its owner for hostile behavior.
“A Rottweiler. A German shepherd. A Doberman pinscher. These are all very dangerous animals if they’re raised incorrectly,” Barreiro said Friday. “A pit bull is the same thing.”
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That was the argument pit-bull supporters made in 2012 during a referendum campaign to repeal the 1989 ordinance. The effort failed badly during the August primary election, with 63 percent voting against repeal. Supporters of the law said it was needed to discourage ownership of a canine whose powerful jaws and popularity as a fighting dog made it a unique danger.
“We know that when this dog breed attacks, there’s a very high likelihood that it will be severe,” said Colleen Lynn, founder of dogsbite.org, a nonprofit in Austin, Texas, that advocates for pit-bull restrictions. “The idea behind these breed-specific laws is to prevent that first attack.”
Dr. Michael Golinko, a pediatric surgeon specializing in facial reconstruction who grew up in Coral Springs, researched 1,616 dog bites of children in the Atlanta area and found for the most serious injuries “pit bulls tended to be the greatest offenders.”
“Basically, pit bulls and children don’t mix very well,” he said in an interview. “They’ll bite in a more severe fashion, and in more locations.”
The issue has reached the presidential level, with the White House in 2012 saying it deems pit-bull bans to be bad policy and “often a waste of public resources.” A task force for the American Veterinary Medical Association took a similar stand in 2001, arguing that dog bites span all breeds and need to be dealt with in a comprehensive way.
“Singling out one or two breeds for control can result in a false sense of accomplishment,” the report read. “Doing so ignores the true scope of the problem and will not result in a responsible approach to protecting a community’s citizens.”
Bronwen Dickey, the author of Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon, said one problem with pit-bull restrictions is that they leave less time and resources to pursue dangerous dogs rather than an entire breed. Pit bull fans end up with the dogs anyway but face confiscation if they take them outside for exercise or pursue veterinary care or sterilization. “You’re taking people who are trying to do the right thing,” she said, “and turning them into criminals.”
The veterinary association report also notes that identifying a breed by sight can be problematic and challenging, even for trained animal-control officers. Critics of pit-bull restrictions point to the fluidity of dog breeding in arguing against the sweeping bans.
Dogs resembling pit bulls often surface in the Twitter and Instagram feeds of adoptable pets maintained by the county-run animal shelter. Director Alex Muñoz was not available for an interview Friday, but administrators there have said in the past that the popular definition of pit bulls doesn’t always match the specific breed characteristics outlawed by the county law.
The 13-member County Commission has the authority to repeal the existing law, and Barreiro’s proposal faces a preliminary vote at the board’s regular twice-a-month meeting on Wednesday. He introduced the repeal ordinance at the request of Dahlia Canes, a local pit bull owner who championed the 2012 referendum and vowed to keep fighting to legalize her favorite dogs.
The paralegal from Cutler Bay said she had to ship her original pit bull, Chocolate, to a friend in Palm Beach after county animal officers confiscated the dog in the early 1990s. Now Canes said she keeps two pit bulls in her home, though they’ve both been cleared by Miami-Dade Animal Services as complying with the 1989 ordinance.
She said the failure of the 2012 repeal effort shouldn’t dissuade commissioners from reconsidering the law. “The commissioners placed it there,” said Canes, founder of the Miami Coalition Against Breed Specific Legislation. “They should repeal it,” she said, “just like they placed it there.”