Trial Tests Loudoun Policy on Euthanizing Pit Bulls

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009

By all accounts, the 3-month-old pit bull puppy at Loudoun County's animal shelter was a happy, sociable and gentle dog. He didn't fit the breed's vicious image. The brown-and-white puppy jumped up on shelter employees' laps and loved to play. In evaluations, workers described him as "silly," "wiggly" and "very lovey."

Unfortunately for him, he made a few key mistakes in two required behavioral assessments in July 2007. Most puppies would have survived the gaffes, several animal rescue groups allege. But this puppy -- he didn't have a name, only a county-issued identification number, 43063 -- was a pit bull in Loudoun County, the only Northern Virginia jurisdiction that prohibits public adoptions of the breed. So he was euthanized.

The county's decision to put the dog to sleep, along with 213 others since January 2006, was at the center of a two-day civil trial in Loudoun County Circuit Court about whether Loudoun violated state and local laws that give people the right to adopt the dog of their choice from a publicly funded shelter. Arguments in the case concluded yesterday.

Loudoun euthanized all abandoned pit bulls for years before changing its policy in 2007 to allow the animals to be transferred to rescue groups or shelters in other jurisdictions -- as long as the dogs passed a temperament test. The change came soon after then-Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) issued a nonbinding opinion saying that pit bulls taken to public pounds could not be euthanized based solely on their breed.

After McDonnell's opinion came out, Prince William and Arlington counties decided to let pit bulls be adopted once they had been evaluated. The District and Fairfax and Montgomery counties have similar policies. Prince George's County has one of the nation's strictest policies, banning pit bulls unless they were acquired before 1997.

The lawsuit against Loudoun was filed in May 2007, after the Board of Supervisors rejected a proposal to allow the public to adopt pit bulls cleared by animal behavior specialists. The plaintiffs are Animal Rescue of Tidewater, a Norfolk-based animal rights group, and Ronald Litz, a Great Falls computer security consultant, who had inquired about adopting a pit bull from the county shelter.

During Tuesday's arguments, attorneys for the plaintiffs described the county shelter as a mismanaged agency that unfairly euthanizes pit bulls that could find loving homes. The attorneys played an audio recording of Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge) saying at a November 2007 meeting that he had a "particular problem" with pit bulls because he had "seen them in action."

"There's an absolute clear bias based on breed," said Anthony F. Troy, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

Loudoun officials argue that there is no "breed bias," only a "characteristic bias," against pit bulls. The latter term is used for breeds that have long been associated with dogfights, gangs and deadly attacks. Assistant County Attorney Zaida Thompson said shelter staff members were doing the "best job they can" to make all adoptable dogs available to the public.

For years, officials at the shelter, which operates on 13 acres in western Loudoun, have navigated a fine line between following the Board of Supervisor's decisions on the pit bull issue and working with other public pounds to develop adoption policies for the breed.

"We're moving toward placing more dogs with rescue groups, but a lot of them are full," Thomas Koenig, director of Loudoun County Animal Care and Control, said in an interview after the trial ended yesterday. "I follow the policy direction of the county administrator and the Board of Supervisors. I have to go with their decision. Would I like it to be different? It doesn't really matter, because we are consistent with county policy."

Since the new transfer policy started, 122 pit bulls have been euthanized at the Waterford shelter. Evidence presented at this week's trial indicated that the county euthanizes 84 percent of pit bulls, compared with 48 percent of all other dogs.

As expected, the two-day trial produced some passionate displays, including a Tuesday morning protest outside the courthouse, and the showing of a large photo of a 3-month-old pit bull puppy, similar to the one euthanized in 2007, inside the courtroom.

Despite the emotions surrounding the case, Judge Burke F. McCahill's ruling, expected in the coming days, might hinge on a technical issue: whether an attorney general's nonbinding opinion is enough to dictate county law.

"Unless that [attorney general's] opinion holds water," McCahill said, the county "might be free" to euthanize.

But for Litz, the Great Falls plaintiff, who owns a pit bull named Drew, it's simpler. "I don't understand the legal arguments, really," he said. "But I do understand dogs, and dogs are being killed."

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