The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Advocates say pit-bull bans are racist and ineffective. This Md. suburb supports them.

A sign at a rally urging Prince George’s County to overturn its ban on pit bulls. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Lutricia Lewis-Quarles carries an iron pole when she lets her dog out in Camp Springs, Md. Her neighbor wields a baseball bat when he mows his lawn.

They are defending themselves, she said, from two pit bull mixes that live across the street — the same breed that attacked Lewis-Quarles’s beloved Shar-Pei two years ago.

Pit bulls have been illegal in Prince George’s County since 1997, but enforcement of the ban is spotty. Animal rights activists are pushing to overturn the law, the latest step in a national campaign to eliminate a prohibition that critics say is unfair, ill-informed and ineffective.

Municipalities across the country have overturned their bans in recent years, and states including Washington, Delaware and Arizona have outlawed breed-specific bans.

But there is no state-level law on the issue in Maryland, and officials say there is little desire to repeal the ban in Prince George’s, the only place in the Washington region where such a prohibition exists.

Opponents of the ban link it with racism and classism, but supporters reject that argument, saying it is really about the danger posed by the dogs. Still, some backers of the ban acknowledge that pit bulls have an image problem — conjuring links to crime and drug dealers that elected officials in Prince George’s, one of the wealthiest majority African American jurisdictions in the country, are eager to keep at a distance.

“There is just a sense that pit bulls are very dangerous dogs,” said Prince George’s County Council member Mel Franklin (D-At Large). “We have gotten emails from activists across the country, who are loud but few in number. The overwhelming majority of Prince Georgians want to keep the ban in place.”

For Lewis-Quarles, 69, a semiretired health-care worker who spent more than $6,000 on surgeries for her Shar-Pei, the issue is not about stereotypes or appearance but about the actions of pit bulls.

“Children and senior citizens shuffling down the street are the people we have to take into consideration,” she said.

Angela Johnson, also an African American grandmother, comes at the debate from the other side. She and her daughter attended an anti-ban rally Tuesday organized by animal rights activists on the Prince George’s-D.C. border, and said negative views of pit bulls are not so different from stereotypes about people.

“Some dogs are vicious and mean, just like some humans are, but you can’t judge them based on how they look,” said Johnson, 57.

Her daughter said she would move from Rockville to Prince George’s if doing so did not mean giving up her two pit bulls. Johnson wants the dogs — whom she calls her “grand furs” — to be able to play in her backyard without worrying that they could be taken.

Most of the activists at the rally were white. They brought two playful adopted pit bulls named Hugo and Gus and chanted “End the ban!”

At one point, an older black man driving by in a truck shouted an expletive about the dogs and said the demonstrators should direct their efforts elsewhere. “There are homeless people in the shelter on New York Ave.,” he said. “Help them.”

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The pit bull — which is not a breed but a category that includes American pit bull terriers and Staffordshire terriers — historically was known as a family dog and featured in advertisements. In the early 1900s, Helen Keller owned a pit bull named Stubby, and Teddy Roosevelt fostered a pit bull named Pete in the White House.

Public perceptions began to change in the 1970s, when the dogs became more closely associated with dogfighting and gang culture. Headlines about attacks multiplied, and Americans became convinced that the dogs were “biologically hard-wired to kill,” wrote Bronwen Dickey in “Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon.”

The ban in Prince George’s, a county of 900,000 people, passed after two pit bulls attacked 11-year-old Dyon Toler in Temple Hills. The Maryland suburb is the second-largest jurisdiction to prohibit pit bulls, after Miami-Dade County, which outlawed the breed in 1989 after a child there was mauled.

Activists began lobbying to overturn the bans more than a decade ago and were buoyed by support from the Centers for Disease Control and then-president Barack Obama, who in 2013 came out against breed-specific legislation.

Research shows the biggest determinant of a dog’s behavior is how it is treated, anti-ban advocates say. They argue that local governments should focus on identifying and removing problem dogs, regardless of breed. Other advocates point out that other types of dogs — including the Presa Canario and Dogo Argentino — are bred to fight and are more likely than pit bulls to be aggressive.

But pit bulls are still barred from living on military bases, and hundreds of breed-specific bans remain in place. Delta Air Lines made headlines this summer by barring all “pit bull-type dogs” from being service dogs on flights.

An author says she hoped to advance the debate about pit bulls. Instead, she became a target.

Lisa LaFontaine, president and chief executive of the Humane Rescue Alliance, said it is a mistake to judge dogs based on breed, both because experts deny that pit bulls are inherently violent and because it is difficult to determine a dog’s precise genetic makeup.

In an interview, she compared breed bans with racial discrimination. At the rally, she displayed pictures of two nearly identical dogs, one of which animal control officers in Prince George’s had determined was a pit bull and the other that they determined was another breed. The county law applies to dogs that are at least 50 percent pit bull.

Marjie Alonso, executive director of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, also connected breed bans with racism, saying pit bulls are often associated with poor, mostly black neighborhoods.

“It is a lot easier to be afraid of a dog breed if you are also afraid of the people you associate with owning that breed,” she said.

Franklin rejected both arguments. “It’s a ridiculous comparison. It’s a tactic to try to get African Americans in Prince George’s to want to overturn the ban,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the people I talk to who want this ban in place are black.”

The Prince George’s ban led to more than 2,400 dogs being euthanized in the four years after it was passed. Today, the county spends about $570,000 annually on animal control officers, boarding for impounded dogs and euthanizing them, environmental department spokeswoman Linda Lowe said. The county impounded 687 pit bulls last year, euthanizing 402 and placing the rest in shelters or with rescue organizations or returning them to their their homes, Lowe said (two of the dogs died). So far this year, 492 pit bulls have been impounded, with 234 placed in homes or with organizations and 258 euthanized.

The council is considering an overhaul of its animal control code, including stricter penalties for owners who do not care for their dogs. Animal rights activists want to repeal the ban as part of that legislation, but most council members said that is unlikely this year.

Tim Maloney, a Prince George’s county attorney and former state delegate whose law practice often represents victims of dog attacks, said the ban stemmed in part from a desire to improve the county’s image. “The prevalence of pit bulls is not usually associated with high-quality communities,” he said.

In the quiet neighborhood where Dyon was attacked 22 years ago, neighbors say pit bulls sightings are rare. And that is how they want it to stay.

“A pit bull is notorious for its acts,” said Franklin Deflorimonte, a widower whose wife helped the child after the attack. “Let it be judged as such.”

A few doors down from him was a two-story house with a tall wooden fence, behind which a massive white dog barked loudly when a reporter rang the doorbell.

“Beware of dog,” a sign in the window read. “Dogo Argentino On.”

This story was updated three days after its initial publication to include newly provided information on the number of pit bulls taken and euthanized by Prince George’s County in 2018 and, so far, in 2019.

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