"A breed of satin and steel. Pit bulls are a mixture of softness and strength, an uncanny canine combination of fun, foolishness, and serious business, all wrapped up in love."

-D. Caroline Coile

Monday, August 1, 2011

Freedom From Breed Discrimination: A Tea Party for Pets

Politics is not a spectator sport.

America’s constitution is the foundation of our government. It’s something we all cherish. An integral part of that document is the 14th Amendment, which states, “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”

Unbeknown to many animal advocates, this clause can be used to protect our pets. Under current law, our beloved dogs and cats are considered living property (anathema to most, I know). However, we can use the legal system to file a constitutional challenge against unfair dangerous-dog laws. There are four basic characteristics of breed-discriminatory laws that are relevant: (1) definition of the breed, (2) procedures for identifying and challenging the designation, (3) ownership restrictions imposed, and (4) penalties for violation of the laws. Many laws have been found unconstitutional because they failed to provide adequate procedural due process protections for citizens.

Breed-discriminatory laws are impractical and expensive and do nothing to enhance public safety. If a canine profiling ordinance is enacted, the government has the burden of proof, which means that they have to prove the dog is of a certain heritage. For unregistered dogs or for dogs of unknown origin, this is problematic. For criminal measures, the government must prove that the dog in question is of a certain origin beyond a reasonable doubt. If there are civil penalties, the government has the burden of proving that the canine is of a certain heritage by a preponderance of evidence.

In the past, this was done with visual identification, but with the advent of scientific advances — namely, DNA testing — that is changing. DNA testing is considered to be a much more reliable way to prove a dog’s heritage and has been used to save pets who were put on death row because of their appearance. However, DNA testing is expensive. It may cost around $160 a dog, something that most local governments don’t anticipate having to pay for.

In addition to citing the expense involved in proving a dog’s heritage, advocates need to use the numerous studies that have been published to show that breed-discriminatory laws are not rationally related to public safety. Studies from the United Kingdom, Spain and Germany have revealed that bites do not decrease with the implementation of breed restrictions. You can find links to many of these studies on the Best Friends’ Pit Bull Initiative website. In the United States, Topeka, Toledo and Cleveland recently repealed their breed-discriminatory ordinances not only because they were expensive, but because they were also ineffective.

To help grassroots activists, Best Friends Animal Society commissioned a study entitled “The Fiscal Impact of Breed Discriminatory Legislation in the United States.” The economic research firm John Dunham and Associates estimated that there are over five million pit-bull-terrier-type dogs in the United States. According to the study, if the United States were to enact a breed-discriminatory law, it would cost almost $460 million to enforce annually.

To cite a single community, the fiscal cost of a breed-discriminatory law in the District of Columbia is estimated at almost $966,000 annually. That’s a huge chunk of change in a time when communities are laying off teachers, police and firefighters. Click here to find out how much money officials in your community would waste if they enacted breed restrictions.

In this austere economy, all taxpayers should rebel against any government contemplating enacting a breed-discriminatory provision. If there is already one on the books, citizens should actively lobby for repeal.

If your city is talking about passing a breed-restrictive law, citizens need to take immediate action to protect dogs. The squeaky wheel gets the oil. Here are some things you can do:

  • Call or write your city council members and let them know that breed-discriminatory laws are ineffective and expensive, and tell them why.

  • Ask your veterinarian, groomer and friends to also call or write to their city council members.

  • Show up at city council meetings and speak out against breed discrimination.

  • Start a petition drive on Change.org and have folks send an e-mail to the decision makers. In addition to the e-mail option, Change.org also lets you collect signatures online and download them to present personally to government officials. Publicize your Change.org petition through Facebook and Twitter.

  • Hit the road and put up flyers in veterinary offices and at groomers’ businesses. Don’t forget the local barbershop, beauty shop or bar — places that politicians frequent.

You can also contact Best Friends Animal Society and ask for help in getting the word out through Voices for No More Homeless Pets. You can sign up to join by clicking here.

This is America. Responsible dog guardians should be allowed to care for any breed of dog they choose; reckless owners should be prohibited from owning any pets. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.”

More Resources
To read the article called “Fiscal Bite & Breed Discrimination: Utilizing Scientific Advances & Economic Tools in Lobbying,” click here.

For more tools to use to lobby to Save America’s Dog, click here.

By Ledy VanKavage, Senior Legislative Attorney, Best Friends Animal Society National Manager, Pit Bull Terrier Initiatives
Photos by Melissa Lipani

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