May 25, 2012

In the shadow of the Maryland Court of Appeals’ recent, misguided ruling that the owners of dogs identified as pit bulls (deemed inherently dangerous by the court) will be subject to higher levels of liability comes word that one of the few Maryland municipalities with breed-specific legislation targeting pit bulls is on the brink of repealing its ­decade-old law.

How can that be?

The answer is simple — they’ve learned from experience. Here’s what the town of North Beach, in Calvert County, paid taxpayer dollars to find out: There is, as Councilman Ken Wilcox stated, “no practical way to prove whether the dog that attacked is in fact a ‘pit bull.’ ”

Wilcox is correct, despite the popular perception. Visual identification is highly subjective and inaccurate; DNA testing is costly and usually unhelpful. There simply is no consensus among experts about what is and isn’t a pit bull.

But that doesn’t mean we’re unable to use the law to protect our communities from dangerous animals. North Beach officials have concluded that investigating the actions of animals is a much better use of their resources and a more effective method of protecting the public than is engaging in a fruitless effort to determine a particular dog’s breed.

If only that lesson would be heeded in Prince George’s County, whose ban on pit bulls has proved just as problematic as North Beach’s. It has not reduced the number of pit bulls that arrive at the county shelter each year, a strong indicator of how many are still out in the community. It has resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in enforcement, kenneling and other costs. And it has had little effect on public safety.

Commonplace behavior-based dog control laws — targeting at-large, dangerous, potentially dangerous and nuisance animals — are all that we need, so long as animal-control bodies have the resources to enforce them aggresively. In Baltimore in the 1970s, dog bites numbered around 6,500 a year. When the city enacted strong behavior-based animal-control laws, bites declined. A lot. Today, there are 90 percent fewer bites recorded in Baltimore than 40 years ago. Similar trends can be noted in New York and other large U.S. cities. Prince George’s, too, has behavior-based animal-control laws that cover just about any transgression a dog can commit, no matter the breed or what the dog looks like.

The Prince George’s County Council should follow North Beach’s lead and eschew its breed ban for stronger enforcement of behavior-based animal control. The money it saves can be used to hire more teachers, firefighters or even animal-control officers.

The writer is president of the Maryland Dog Federation. In 2002 and 2003, she served on a task force convened to study the effect of Prince George’s County’s pit bull ban.