Howard County resident Frederick Everhart loves his family's two pit bulls, Sunshine and Hot Shot, and until recently, he says, just about anyone who came into contact with them did, too.
For years, 11-year-old Hot Shot, now crippled by arthritis, would accompany Everhart to the veterinary hospital he runs in Baltimore, lying docilely on the examining room floor while a steady stream of four-legged patients received treatment. Both pets participated in a program designed to provide companionship for senior citizens and have never attacked or bitten anyone.
It has therefore been with a touch of concern and more than a little bit of irritation that Everhart has watched the current national debate over the breeding of pit bulls and similar dogs, which, he says, has reached a crescendo with the approach of a public hearing Monday on a proposed law in Howard County.
He said that he and a coalition of veterinarians and animal trainers plan to protest at that meeting the proposal that would impose stiff restrictions on any animal that has been determined to be "inherently dangerous."
"That is not the picture of the dog I know," Everhart said, referring to the cover photograph from a recent issue of Sports Illustrated that shows a pit bull with its fangs exposed, poised for attack.
"The dog I know is what a typical all-American would look like: strong, courageous and affectionate," he said, adding that pit bulls were the mascots for such traditional icons as the Little Rascals, Buster Brown and RCA.
The bill sponsored by Howard County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray would amend the county's animal control law to require strict control over the care and keeping of "dangerous animals." Owners would be required to enroll their pets in obedience training courses and obtain liability insurance in amounts up to $100,000. They would also be required to have their pets neutered and keep them in approved shelters and muzzled when in public, and be subject to stiff fines and penalties for any violations of the law.
If an animal has been declared dangerous and causes further injury to a pet or person, the county animal control officer would be authorized to immediately seize and destroy it.
The law defines a dangerous animal as an animal that has caused injury to a person or another pet, has been trained to attack upon command, or has been determined by the animal matters hearing board to have traits, training or breeding that make it "inherently dangerous."
Although Gray's bill does not specify pit bulls or any similar kind of dog, many of their owners and animal trainers maintain that pit bulls and their owners have become the focus of a kind of "canine racism."
"I doubt that the animal control officer would identify a Sheltie as inherently dangerous," said Kasi Campbell, a professional animal trainer who along with about 60 other county residents has formed a group that plans to petition the council Monday to table the legislation until it can be amended.
Campbell said it was unrealistic to attempt to define an animal as "inherently dangerous" based on its genetic history.
She pointed out that of the 239 dog bites reported to the county health department this year, 73 have been caused by mixed-breeds, 13 by German shepherds, 12 by Doberman pinschers, and four by pit bull terriers.
So far local jurisdictions involved in restricting so-called dangerous dogs include Alexandria, which established a board to hear complaints about vicious dogs, and the District, which is considering legislation that would require owners to register, muzzle and confine dogs deemed dangerous by the animal control office.