Editor's note: An earlier version of this story carried an incorrect byline.
Maryland’s highest court on Tuesday partly backed off its April decision that pit bulls are inherently dangerous, admitting that it went too far when it applied its standard to crossbred dogs. But the new ruling, which affects only purebred animals, does not clear the waters, according to experts.
The issue, they say, is that a “pit bull” is not a specific dog breed and that it’s difficult to positively identify a pit bull.
In a rare reversal, the Court of Appeals had granted a motion for reconsideration in a case — brought by the parents of a 10-year-old boy who was mauled by a pit bull — against the dog owner’s landlord.
The court’s 4 to 3 decision to impose a standard of “strict liability” in cases involving purebred and crossbred pit bulls sparked a protest among owners of the dogs and animal-welfare advocates.
Many expressed concern that the strict liability standard, which doesn’t make it a requirement to show negligence on the part of the pet owner, would lead landlords to bar pit bulls from their property rather than risk being sued when the animals attack. Critics of the ruling expressed concern that owners would be forced to choose between their pets and their homes and that many pit bulls would be taken to shelters and euthanized as a result.
The ruling led to a failed effort in the special session of the General Assembly that ended last week to override the court.
Tuesday’s ruling raised further questions.
“There actually is no such thing as a purebreed pit bull,” said Cory Smith, a senior director with the Humane Society of the United States. “It’s not a breed of dog.”
There are three types of purebred dogs that are of the pit bull variety, she said: the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire Bull terrier.
But the vast majority of dogs most people consider pit bulls — with big heads, strong jaws and muscular bodies — are of mixed lineage.
“There is no way to visually identify a dog as a pit bull, and there’s no way to even prove it using DNA,” Smith said. “Even veterinarians . . . have a hard time identifying a dog as a pit bull.”
The Humane Society said that the original ruling would have applied to about 70,000 pit bull-type dogs in Maryland. Smith guessed that only a fraction of those are purebred pit varieties.
Tami Santelli, the Maryland director for the Humane Society of the United States, said that the new ruling could bring limited relief for some dog owners but allows a bad decision to stand.
“There’s really no question that families are going to be torn apart over the next four months until the General Assembly comes back in January,” Santelli said. She said owners of a large Baltimore apartment complex recently told all pit-bull owners they would have to get rid of their dogs.