Of all the challenges facing Prince George's County, a shortage of pit bulls wouldn't seem to be high on the list. Pit bulls were banned in the county in 1996, but now lovers of the dogs are fighting to bring them back.
Not that pit bulls ever really left the county. Last year 1,000 illegal pit bulls were seized in Prince George's, 800 of which were euthanized. And these were just the ones that police and animal control inspectors caught.
Would Prince George's really be better off with 1,000 more pit bulls? Think of the economic development benefits: "Welcome to Prince George's County. Pit bulls are back!"
The FOPBs (friends of pit bulls) are framing this as an issue of canine civil rights. County council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D), who is sponsoring the repeal of the ban, told The Post, "If you did the same thing to human beings, it would be a grotesque violation of human rights, and indeed it would be called genocide."
Hendershot's aide, Patricia M. Doty, who keeps two pit bulls at her home in Calvert County, calls the ban "animal racism." Sounds like a job for a U.N. high commissioner. Or maybe a reason for a march on Upper Marlboro.
Genocide and racism have produced such profound human suffering that's it's probably unwise to apply those powerful words to dogs, even by analogy. Besides, discrimination against pit bulls is not racism but "breedism." And, yes, in this country, there really are people dedicated to fighting breedism.
In 2003 one anti-breedist in Westbury, N.Y., challenged a local pit bull ban because the law judged the dog "by its breed rather than by its actions." Before you laugh, the court found the ban unconstitutional because it denied pit bull owners equal protection and due process. (Most courts have found breed-specific bans constitutional, holding that owning a dog is not a fundamental right.)
Then there's the issue of what, exactly, is a pit bull. Pit bulls aren't actually a breed. The "pit bull" label has been applied, often with great controversy, to a variety of breeds descended from the English bulldog, including the American pit bull terrier; the American Staffordshire terrier; the Staffordshire bull terrier; the miniature and standard bull terriers; and the American bulldog. Inconsistent registration and mixed breeding have made the situation even more confusing.
FOPBs argue that a dog's personality is shaped by "nature and nurture" -- a combination of genetics and environment. But the ancient pedigree of the pit bull is indisputably vicious, although some modern strains are less aggressive. Pit bulls are descended from the English "bulldogs" that farmers used to fight bulls. The dogs grabbed the bulls by the nose in what later became the sport of "bull baiting." After bull baiting was banned in 1853, pit bulls were bred to fight other dogs, often in pits, hence their modern name. (Today, dog fighting is illegal in all 50 states.)
Pit bulls bite with a force of almost 2,000 pounds per square inch -- that's twice the force of a German shepherd or a Doberman pinscher. Because of the deep musculature of the dog's jaws, pit bulls frequently "hold and shake" instead of biting and releasing, which is why they sometimes are called "sharks on four legs." Pit bulls are genetically insensitive to pain, which makes them difficult to defend against. Some experts even believe that the presence of hormones in children of puberty age can set off pit bulls. FOPBs dispute all of this with the tenacity of the animals they admire.
Anti-breedists say the focus should be on "nurture" -- especially on owners who mistreat the pit bulls or breed them for attack. Clearly, some pit bull nurturing is going on in Prince George's. Donna Wilson, director of Department of Environmental Resources, which oversees Prince George's County's Animal Control Division, told the County Council that "pit bull terriers are the breed of choice for those citizens and residents who participate in illegal enterprises such as gang activity, dog fighting, gambling and drug dealing." Her department and the county police support continuation of the ban.
The arguments for pit bulls certainly apply to some dogs, but they are small comfort for victims of attacks. California is now considering breed-specific bans after 6-year-old Tyler Babcock was mauled to death by two dogs, one of which was a pit bull mix.
In place of the ban, Hendershot has proposed registration, vaccination and potential microchip implants. These are good ideas for other breeds, but the county needs to keep the pit bull ban. Despite being banned for nine years, pit bulls are still a danger in many neighborhoods -- a danger that would grow if their presence were legalized.
Since the Prince George's ban was enacted, pit bull bites have dropped from 108 to 71 per year, which highlights the need for more enforcement, not repeal, of the ban. The owners of those 71 pit bulls and of the 1,000 dogs that have been seized were flagrantly violating the law. They need stiffer fines and penalties, not a white flag from the county.
This is ultimately a case of human rights versus pit bull rights, and my money is on the humans. Unfortunately, pit bulls and their owners are far more organized than their opponents.
One thing is certain:
There will be more bites and vicious pit bull attacks on children. Whether this attack will come from a pit bull welcomed back to Prince George's by this legislation is something the council should ponder.
The writer, a lawyer in Greenbelt, served for 16 years as a Democratic member of the Maryland legislature. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.