Pr. George's Ban on Pit Bulls Resists Tenacious Opposition

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 17, 2009

Opponents of a long-standing pit bull ban in Prince George's County might have an easier time breaking the notorious grip of the dogs themselves than getting the prohibition repealed.

Time and again -- despite the recommendations of experts and the outcry of animal rights advocates -- efforts to lift the ban have failed.

But none of that stopped Laurel Mayor Craig A. Moe from giving it a go.

Last month, Moe wrote to County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) asking that a task force be formed to take another look at the law. In his letter, Moe said that Laurel has seen an increase in pit bulls and that "all such dogs observed have been calm in demeanor and completely under their owners' control."

Then came a jarring reminder of why many officials view revisiting the ban as a non-starter.

Last Monday, a 20-year-old man was found dead in a Leesburg house from a headline-grabbing attack by two pit bulls. On Thursday, John Erzen, a spokesman for Johnson, said the executive is "not interested in repealing the ban, nor is he interested in establishing a task force" to review it.

Members of the County Council said they did not think Moe's proposal would gain traction, and the county's chief of animal control declined to weigh in on the policy.

Even without the Leesburg attack, Moe's request was likely doomed because of the way pit bull politics work in Prince George's: Oppose the ban, and risk appearing soft on public safety and the dogfighting rings and drug dealers often associated with the dogs; support it, and incur the wrath of vocal animal rights groups and dog owners who view the policy as cruel.

"No one wants to spend time or political capital dealing with" the pit bull issue, said Del. Justin D. Ross (D-Prince George's). "In light of dealing with poverty and budget issues and drug addiction and youth crime, the fact that we would spend even one moment talking about this issue is insane."

The county law, passed by the council in 1996, outlawed pit bulls but included a clause allowing owners to register those acquired before February 1997. Owners caught with unregistered pit bulls face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Pit bulls seized by the county are euthanized or transferred to an out-of-county government shelter, although there is an appeals process for owners to try to get their dogs back, said Rodney C. Taylor, associate director of the county's Animal Management Group.

Prince George's ban is among the strictest pit bull policies in the nation. The District has no ban and allows shelters to offer pit bulls for adoption after being evaluated for temperament. Fairfax, Arlington, Montgomery and Prince William counties have policies similar to the District's. Loudoun County does not offer the animals for adoption but allows them to be transferred to other shelters or rescue groups if they pass an evaluation.

In Prince George's, the pit bull ban was examined early in the decade by a task force that in 2003 recommended lifting the breed-specific language and replacing it with "equal requirements, restrictions and sanctions on all dogs that exhibit dangerous behavior." Proposals in 2004 and 2005 to lift the ban were unsuccessful, and some observers said the political climate has not changed since then.

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