In the area of animal welfare, living in Pennsylvania can be a hard row to hoe. With one exception: Breed specific laws (BSL) are illegal in Pennsylvania. Unlike other states, municipalities may not pass an ordinance banning a specific breed from its community. And by specific breed we, of course, mean pit bulls.
Not that it has not stopped some from trying, either outright or via “public safety” ordinances. A public safety ordinance would be immune from the prohibition against BSL’s. Unfortunately for those who have attempted this deft sidestepping of the BSL prohibition, none have been found to be anything other than breed specific legislation under a different name and have been overturned when challenged.
Since the HSBC and Reading pit bulls owners prevailed in a battle against one such “public safety” ordinance several years ago, we haven’t had to put much attention to the issue in our little corner of heaven. However, I’ve followed the ups and downs, as well as the ongoing coverage of maulings and deaths by pit bulls, through the various news aggregators and forward lists I receive. BSL may be slumbering in Berks but throughout Pennsylvania and the nation, it has hardly died.
Given the ongoing allure of BSL for local governments which genuinely seek a means of protecting their citizens, I thought I’d share again my conversion to the side of those opposed to BSL’s (and with apologies, buckle up, this is going to be a long one with lots of data and graphs). Yes, I was once a sinner, blinded by the virtues of BSL’s. Or more specifically the virtues of what I believed could be a “well crafted, effective public safety ordinance.” I’ve always been a sucker for well crafted, effective things.
When I first arrived at HSBC, the City of Reading was just exiting a period of imposed “safety” regarding pit bulls. The safety involved muzzling all pit bulls in public, requiring that all pit bulls wear giant “dangerous dog” medallions and their homes were required to post a similar notice prominently (no, they weren’t yellow, six pointed stars, but the mind does wander to other populations which have endured wearing similar pieces of flair), and owners were required to buy expensive dangerous dog permits with hugely large sterilization differentials (something like $50 sterilized, $500 unsterilized). The ordinance was implemented in reaction to a spate of dog bites, prominently featuring pit bulls, and would be re-instituted any time the number of reported bites in the city exceeded 40 in a year and if any one breed exceeded 30% of those 40+ bites.
Since as the new executive director I would be in charge of tracking and enforcing the ordinance, should it ever be triggered again, my new employers explained the history and the details of the ordinance to me. Since BSL didn’t come naturally to me, my first reaction was, “Really?” Then I was shown the stunningly precipitous decrease in dog bites following the implementation of the ordinance, so precipitous that the ordinance actually expired and my response was, “Wow, really.” I was sold. There was clear evidence that the ordinance had worked, that it had targeted a discrete population which was causing the problem, and that it had done it so effectively that the problem went away and the target population was no longer under its yoke. This wasn’t BSL; it truly was a well-crafted, effective public safety ordinance! I just had to look at the numbers to see the proof! I went from skeptical to giving interviews in support of this brilliant little ordinance to media around the nation.
It was not the first time I’ve been blinded by a shiny object and sleight of hand and I doubt it will be the last. As it turns out, I was very, very wrong. Not about the effectiveness of the ordinance; it was quite effective. But like torture, which might also extremely effective at getting the information you seek, as would be killing someone’s children one at a time in front of them, it was effective for all the wrong reasons and there were other means which would have been just as effective or more. We don’t measure the rightness of a law or action merely on its effectiveness.
It turned out that the dramatic decreases in bites following the implementation of the ordinance had more to do with actions buried within it- the increased dog law enforcement, on the high dollar incentive to sterilize, and most importantly the high profile enforcement of dog law and licensing across the board. How do we know this? Because the implementation of this ordinance did not just decrease pit bull bites. It also decreased all other dog bites in direct proportion to the decrease in pit bull bites, despite the fact that the ordinance did not apply to any other breed.
Bernese Mountain Dog: Public Enemy Number One?
I can be entertained by sleight of hand and suspend my disbelief a lot, but don’t tell me it was magic that put that quarter in my ear. It’s going to make me start watching what you are doing very closely. That’s exactly what I started doing in 2007 when the number of bites started to increase again and it started to look like the ordinance would be implemented once again. This time I had seen how the bites had started stacking up, and I saw there was more to it than this “safety ordinance” would address.
For example, since there was a demonstrated enormous increase in the total number of dogs licensed in Reading, as well as the total number of pit bulls, how did a base number of bites (40) continue to make sense? If you have 40 dogs and 40 bites, you have an epidemic. If you have 40 bites and 40,000 dogs, you have a blip. Was it fair to maintain that number basis rather than a bite rate basis?
The ordinance was also triggered when 30% of the 40 reported bites were from a single breed. What if pit bulls accounted for more than 30% of the dog population, as was likely in Reading? Wouldn’t that be holding them to a lower threshold than any other breed? Plus, since this was reported bites, weren’t some bites more likely to be reported? What if bite reports became “lost”, reports which might tally against other breeds (as, in fact, happened).
Even more basic question about the ordinance began to spring up. What if one dog bites several times, as happened. One dog bit multiple people in a single incident. Yet it was counted as several bites, skewing the bite count. Not to mention the whole nebulousness of deciding what was a pit bull or pit bull “mix”, or pit bull “type”. A Labrador with papers is pretty easy to define, but the dogs running around Reading where hardly AKC. Boxer, pit, mastiff, rottie, bulldog; who knows what these things were. We were largely going on looks and supposition. In fact, in all likelihood, the only dogs which would be positively identified were the ones which were self-identified by owners who had licensed them- by definition, the good owners!
1999 and 2007: How can that be the same "epidemic"?
More and more I became concerned with the reality of the ordinance which I had been a booster for, especially as the year went on and the bites started to approach the trigger. I began really digging into the data we had on the bites to try to figure out what was really going on. Were we seeing correlation but not causation when we focused on pits? Why had we seen such a huge rash of bites early in the year? Were there other factors which were more prevalent?
Of course, as the private contractor which was actually written into the ordinance as the enforcer, these questions more than a little disturbed the Reading government and led to some tense meetings. At one, a councilman accused me of “maybe not caring about whether a little girl gets attacked in the streets by a pit bull”. He must have assumed I was in the non-breeder wing of the animal welfare corps and seemed to be genuinely surprised when I took umbrage at that accusation given my own three young daughters. But those meetings were valuable because they exposed that there was virtually no information about the bite trends, just lots of questions.
So I wrote them all down and we set out to answer them in a brief report sent to the City. That report marked the end of the HSBC’s willingness to supervise or endorse the “safety ordinance” and our active opposition to it as BSL in disguise. More than that, we showed that it was actually causing cycles of improvement and decline, leading to a worse public safety outcome.
If that's not a correlation, I don't know what is.
That report answered a lot of questions. Why was the bite count unusually high early in the year? Because we had record high temperatures throughout the winter and spring and the increased bites tracked the increased temperature. Did pits bite disproportionately compared to other dogs by population? No, in fact, they had one of the lowest bite rates based on population, only 4% of licensed population, as opposed to the historical high of 27% in 1999 when this ordinance was crafted. Were pit owners demonstrably worse owners than other breed owners based on specific criteria (sterilization and licensing)? No, they were directly in line with other breeds.
And, drum roll, please: Was the single biggest common denominator in bites the breed or were there other factors which showed greater commonality among all bites? Oh, hell, yes. While it seemed like the biggest group represented in the bite stats was the breed group pit or pit mix, accounting for around 34% of the biting dogs, there were two one factors which had vastly bigger representation on the stat charts: dog license status and sterilization status.
Only 14% of biting dogs were licensed (bites stats at year end) were licensed, a rate probably substantially below the actual licensing rate of all dogs (although we had no direct survey to compare). Even more stunning was sterilization status. Of licensed dogs in Reading, 65% were sterilized. But 91% of the all dogs which bit in 2007 were unsterilized. And 100% of the pit bulls which had reported bites were not sterilized! It wasn’t pit bulls which were biting, it was unsterilized pit bulls exclusively and unsterilized dogs of any type more than nine out ten times which were biting.
The likely real reasons for the apparent “success” became starkly evident. When the ordinance was triggered, massive enforcement sweeps began in the city. Licensing rates went up. Pit bulls were sterilized in droves to obtain the lower “dangerous dog” permit fee. The increased awareness and availability of low cost sterilization services led to all other dogs seeing an increase in sterilization. Heavy handed post bite enforcement resulted in better caretaking by good or average owners and relinquishment of dogs by poor or criminal owners. As a result, bites declined among all dogs, with pit bull bites falling in direct proportion, not uniquely. In fact, the ordinance had a greater impact on dog bites among the non-pit bull biting population (see chart).
The ordinance worked, not because it targeted pits. That was a red herring. In reality, it simply did what we should all know works: imposed better dog law enforcement, better ID standards, heavily incentivized sterilization, and held bad owner accountable. However, the criminalization of pit bulls also led to a decrease in pit bull licensing as people chose to hide their “contraband” or call them “boxer mixes”. It was not until the lifting of the ordinance that pit bull licensing exploded (see chart).
And when the ordinance sunset after the bites went down, the expected happened. With no across the board enforcement and no pit bull sterilization incentive, the number of unsterilized dogs increased, the number of unlicensed dogs increased, and the number of bad owners increased. One warm winter to add a few months of prime outside biting weather and, viola, and “epidemic” is born.
This ordinance did not work for the reasons claimed and BSL does not work because it misses the big picture. If we want fewer bites, we need to ensure that dogs are less likely to bite and that owners are less likely to have dogs which are likely to bite. There are obviously ways to accomplish this without criminalizing a particular breed. Well, obvious to us, but not to everyone. Our change of heart in the face of facts was one of the reasons we parted ways with Reading as a contractor.
To be clear, I’m no apologist for pit bulls. I’ve been quite blunt in my assessment of people who show more compassion for killer dogs than their dead victims and I personally think there is a large contingent of delusional dilettantes who have no idea what pits, or any dog, are capable of. Most disfiguring bites I’ve seen in my work were inflicted by pits or pit mixes. Just on looks, I’ve more a retriever/setter aesthetic. There’s nothing that obligates me to love pit bulls, nor should we expect special consideration from anyone for any breed.
But the mere fact that I’ve seen a couple nasty pit bull bites or that I think some other breed is prettier doesn’t mean they should get negative consideration either. I once had a very bad experience with tequila and chicken enchiladas. That doesn’t mean they should be banned, let alone banning anything Mexican. And that’s exactly what these BSL’s do. In the face of anecdotal evidence they impose ineffective sanctions against one breed based on isolated, statistically irrelevant examples.
We all know what we would call it if someone referenced crime articles from an inner city newspaper and used them as proof to condemn a single population. Or if an entire religion was held accountable for the actions of a few. Or if we applied a “one drop” heritage rule to a person. But we also know that if an individual does something criminal, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, we should hold that person accountable.
We should also be careful to go after the flavor of the week threat. Remember when it was German Shepherds, and then Doberman Pinschers, and then Rottweilers? Now it is pit bulls. Like drugs, people with a dog problem will just find a new dog to have a problem with. We need to attack the problem, not the dog.
Just as there are ways to combat crime and terrorism without indicting a whole group, there are ways to combat dog bites epidemics without indicting an entire breed and the people which care for that breed. Because people will continue to keep pit bulls and all criminalizing that will do is make people criminals. We only need to look to Prohibition to see how well making something a crime which people are going to continue to do works out. Prohibition effectively created organized crime and made drinking and the nation less safe. BSL’s do the same.
Should there be strong animal control and welfare regulation for all animals? Yes, it’s good for animals as well as our community. Should there be special consideration to some animals which are capable of inflicting more serious damage and injury, such as large powerful dogs? Perhaps, if the additional considerations are fact based and have an actual positive effect. Should we simply select one breed or group of breed for selective prohibition? No, the actual evidence does not support it and the negative impact on a far larger population exceeds the supposed benefits.
So please, municipalities which are looking for a solution to bite cases, don’t be fooled by shiny objects. Use hard data to figure out what the real problem is and come up with targeted ways to address those problems. To those in sheltering who harbor a silent mistrust because of what you have seen done by pit bulls in your career but won’t say it out loud because you know it’s bad sheltering politics (you know who you are), remember that your experience is not representative of the whole world. Just as a vice cop shouldn’t think everyone is a skeevy pimp because he hangs out with skeevy pimps all day, remember that we often see the worst of a species, not necessarily the best. And to all those pit bull apologists out there who want to pretend that every pit bull was sent from heaven and just forgot their wings, wake up. These animals have a unique potential for harm just because of how they are built and just because you love your bow legged love bug doesn’t mean that everyone else has to or that the one which just killed a child shouldn’t be euthanized.
Let’s treat dog bites like the public health problem they are and approach it in ways which work. Bites won’t go away but they’ll go down. And at the same time the lives of animals will improve, without breed round ups. Americans won’t give up their their dogs any more than they’ll give up their booze or their guns. If you don’t believe it, ask yourself what you’ll do when they make your dog illegal and send the truck to cart your dog off. You’ll probably be glad the NRA has made sure you still have a gun.