In response to what he sees as a burgeoning dog attack problem, Indianapolis City Councilor Mike Speedy wants to require owners of all bully-type dogs to obtain permits and pay an annual fee. Under his proposal, the dogs would be registered with Animal Care and Control as "At Risk Dogs," and owners would need to post signage that their dog is a "Registered At Risk Dog." Conditions of registration include rabies vaccines, microchipping and sterilization.
Speedy says he is introducing the legislation because aggressive dog attacks constitute a public health crisis that is unaddressed by current ordinances. "The existing Dangerous Dog ordinance is inherently reactive," he says, because it only punishes people after a bite has occurred. He notes that the pit bull's attractiveness to the criminal element leads to rampant backyard breeding and abuse of this animal. As a result he sees the potential for more bites and more severe injuries in the future.
By requiring people to alter their pit bulls, he hopes to lower the dogs' aggression levels. He also hopes to reduce the dogs' appeal to the dog fighters and drug dealers notorious for much of the abuse.
As it is currently written, the proposed ordinance would also limit the number of pit bulls per residence to two, but Speedy indicates that this is likely to be revised to accommodate rescue groups and foster homes.
The proposal has set off a firestorm among pit bull advocates who feel that such legislation unfairly targets bully breeds and penalizes responsible pit bull owners. Many in the broader animal welfare community, including the Humane Society of Indianapolis, oppose the bill, calling for comprehensive spay/neuter programs, tougher penalties and enforcement of existing laws, and a community approach to dog bite prevention instead.
With the city's resources already stretched, HSI Executive Director John Aleshire says such legislation would squander limited funds that would be put to better use protecting citizens from all potentially dangerous dogs. With current Tethered Dog and Dangerous Dog ordinances rarely enforced, he wonders where the funding and manpower will come from to enforce yet another ordinance.
Indy Pit Crew's Cynthia Morgan worries that if the proposal becomes law, low-income people who lack the money to get their dogs altered will end up losing their dogs. "As far as I know the proposal doesn't include a plan as to how these people will get those resources."
Both Aleshire and Morgan emphasize that they do not condone aggressive behavior from any dog. "No dog attack to any person is acceptable," Aleshire says. "In no way do we want to diminish the pain and suffering caused by an attack by a dog. We want to address dangerous dogs, period, irrespective of breed."
He notes that no family pet, regardless of breed, has perpetuated an attack. The problem, he says, lies with irresponsible ownership, not with a particular type of dog. "Any dog that is treated badly or trained to resource guard, any dog left tethered or unsocialized can be a problem."
Speedy says he agrees that irresponsible owners are the true culprits. "Given the capabilities of this type of dog, which is bred to be a fighter, you don't want an irresponsible owner to have this dog. The definition of a responsible owner is one who spays or neuters their dog. If there is a pit bull owner who is a shady character, this requirement will permit Animal Care and Control to cite him, then seek a warrant for seizure of the animal."
Speedy says he is focusing on pit bulls because they inflict "the most devastating bites" and in greater numbers than other breeds. His source is data that journalist Merritt Clifton compiled from press reports since 1982, showing that pit bulls account for about half of fatal and disfiguring maulings.
But many in the animal welfare community dispute whether this disproportional number of pit bull attacks is established fact. Aleshire cites an Association of Veterinary Medical Association paper that calls into question whether pits truly are disproportionately represented in fatal and disfiguring attacks.
The AVMA states, "Invariably the numbers will show that dogs from popular large breeds are a problem ... Big dogs can physically do more damage if they do bite, and any popular breed has more individuals that could bite."
The bill's detractors also point to the problem of breed misidentification, saying that some 20 other breeds are easily confused with pit bulls. Add to that the fact that mixed breeds are often referred to as purebreds, then shine the spotlight that the media typically puts on pit bull attacks, and the success rate of breed identification plummets farther.
Aleshire notes that a Labrador-pit cross on his adoption floor might be mostly Lab with a fraction of pit bull mixed in, but the public and media would consider it a pit mix.
Speedy expresses confidence that The Indianapolis Star
's 2008 dog bite "surge" is based on accurate numbers, and that Clifton's data is sound, but critics say news reports are a questionable indicator of the severity of the problem.
"Newspapers are not repositories of statistical information," says Donald Cleary of the National Canine Research Council, which has researched dog attacks over a 20-year span, tracing multiple vectors. The NCRC's conclusion, in keeping with the AVMA's, is that breed attributions offer no useful understanding of fatal attacks.
Even the dog bite statistics recorded by the Marion County Health Department are not categorized by breed, in part because of accuracy concerns, according to a source there.
Further, as Indy Pit Crew's Morgan states, "It's very important to assess dogs individually and not label how they're going to behave based on their breed. You rarely see two dogs with the same exact temperament, regardless of breed. Not all Labs like to swim. Not all hunting dogs hunt. Every single dog is different."
Many claim that the pit bull's fighting heritage, coupled with their appeal to dog fighters, represent a unique problem. Ellen Robinson, executive director of FACE low-cost spay/neuter clinic, says, "There's a culture around these dogs that is like no other.
"Pit bulls have an amazing strength and they don't let go," she says. "Things like that are intrinsic to the breed."
She favors legislation directed at pit bulls, if it's well-written and truly keeps the dogs out of criminal hands. "I'm not concerned about preserving the breed, which was a manmade creation. I want to help the dogs that are out there now."
"Pit bulls ... are more prevalent in shelters and euthanized in greater numbers than other dogs. Every pit bull is born to such a disastrous situation that it's time we do something."
Multicertified trainer Laura Baugh, who has worked with hundreds of dogs exhibiting behavior problems, disputes the premise that targeting bully dogs will resolve the city's dog bite issues or in any way help the breed. Of the notion that pit bulls' genetics make them particularly programmed toward violence, she says, "There's no science to support that, one way or another." Nor do they have "locking" jaws or any other special mechanism to make them more capable of doing damage.
"Now, put the dog in a stressful or arousing situation, and they tend to clamp," she says. "But this is not unique to pit bulls." She has broken up a number of dog fights, none involving pit bulls, where the dogs did not want to release.
Further, "Other people may have expensive dogs of other breeds and the dogs have dramatic behavior problems because of other issues. Nobody's cornered the market on screwed-up dogs."
But FACE founder and former President Scott Robinson, MD, an animal welfare activist who supports the majority of the proposal's requirements, believes the bill would address the "epidemic" numbers of pit bulls dying at the city shelter.
Mandatory sterilization to reduce their numbers is the right strategy, he asserts. Enforcement would initially be problematic, but he believes that over time, pits' dwindling numbers would help with that issue. "Eventually only lawbreakers and uninformed people will buy them," he says, and officials would be able to target them more efficiently.
When critics cite breed identification as a major barrier to enforcing such a law, Robinson points out that IACC has already been determining which dogs are bully breeds and which aren't. Continuing the practice of visual identification would be no different.
He agrees that such legislation does unfairly stigmatize bully breeds, but says the number of animals helped by it would outnumber those hurt, and it's a matter of the benefit outweighing the cost. Because of the sheer numbers of bully dogs coming into shelters, he doesn't think increasing adoptions is a viable solution.
Since breeds are a human construct, he doesn't have a problem with reducing pits' numbers by attrition, and he thinks their advocates who do are coming from a selfish perspective.
Indianapolis Animal Care and Control administrator Doug Rae says about a third of the dogs at the shelter are bully-type dogs. (In the At Risk Dog proposal, Speedy has this figure at 50 percent, a number he was given by Rae's predecessor.) Bully breeds represent about 8 percent of the total dogs adopted since he began in January, and about 38 percent of the total dogs killed. In the same period last year, bully breeds represented 1 percent of dogs adopted and 55 percent of dogs killed.
Rae recently began allowing even-tempered pit bulls to be adopted by people passing a home check. In the Philadelphia shelter he served previously, pits represented about 80 percent of intake, and he still managed to save the vast majority of all animals.
In the meantime, Speedy's legislation will be presented at the May 12 Rules and Public Policy Committee, after which public hearings will be announced.
HSI and partner organizations have received a Central Indiana Community Foundation grant to collaborate on animal welfare solutions, and they anticipate providing comprehensive recommendations to the City-County Council next year. They want Speedy and other councilors to wait for their input before legislating.