Indefense-a-Bull: Riverside County’s New Ordinance and the Stigma of Pit Bulls
On September 23, 2013, five dogs mauled a two year-old Riverside County boy to death. The child’s uncle left him unattended in a bedroom where the boy crawled out an open window and into the backyard where the dogs lived. The local media labeled the dogs as “Pit Bull” mixes. A neighbor reported that the dogs were not aggressive, but were often loud, starved for attention, and restless. She added that in the hot summer months, the dogs seemed to resent being left in the heat while family members remained indoors.
The very next day, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors introduced a measure that requires all “Pit Bulls” and “Pit mixes” over 4 months old to be sterilized, with exceptions only for guide dogs, therapy dogs, dogs that belong to licensed breeders, or dogs that have a medical condition that would make sterilization difficult. Enforcement of the ordinance would occur when a dog is impounded, vaccinated, licensed, or micro-chipped. Owners who fail to comply with the ordinance would face penalties in the form of fines and possible impounding of the dog.
Unfortunately, this attack was not the only justification for the ordinance—Pit Bulls have become overpopulated in much of Southern California. Breed bans in rental housing, difficulties with homeowners insurance, housing association rules, and city-wide breed-specific legislation make owning a Pit Bull hard in many places, and people often surrender their dogs because of these outside forces. To further support the ordinance, Riverside County cites grim statistics that many of us in the animal rescue community know too well—Pit Bulls and Pit mixes make up about 20% of all dogs in county animal shelters, yet represent more than 30% of animals that must be euthanized because they do not get adopted. However, Riverside County fails to realize how fines and impound fees for dogs that are not sterilized can actually add to this problem: many owners that do not sterilize their animals do so because they cannot afford the surgery, which makes it unlikely that they can afford impound fees. Dogs that are not redeemed by owners are euthanized.
The Riverside County ordinance, adopted on October 8th, classifies Pit Bulls and Pit mixes as Staffordshire Bull Terriers, American Pit Bull Terriers, and American Staffordshire Terriers or “any mixed breed which contains . . . any one of these breeds so as to be identifiable as partially of one or more of these breeds.” Under the ordinance, an owner may request a “breed determination,” which would require the county’s chief veterinarian or a member of his staff to examine the dog. If the dog is designated a Pit Bull, an owner would have the opportunity to appeal the finding before a county administrative officer, or take the case to court.
The problem with this system for identifying Pit Bulls is that it relies on a visual assessment of the physical characteristics of the dog to determine whether it is a Pit Bull or a Pit mix. If you ask someone do describe a Pit Bull, they will likely describe a dog that is compact and muscular, with a wide, square jaw, a broad, rounded forehead, and a generally aggressive demeanor. However, this description could apply to mixes that include Labrador Retriever, Rottweiler, Bulldog, Boxer, and many other breeds. Even veterinarians and experienced dog handlers often cannot distinguish between true American Pit Bull Terriers and other mutts that have similar physical characteristics. A recent study by the University of Florida found that shelter staff could only identify a true American Pit Bull 36% of the time—they identified many more Pit Bulls than there were in the study and did not identify several dogs that were actually pure-bred American Pit Bull Terriers. This photo collage of dogs from the National Canine Research Council shows mutts who were all identified by shelter staff as Pit mixes, only three of which had any amount of American Pit Bull Terrier. Though there are now DNA tests available for detecting dog breeds, these tests are relatively new, expensive, and cannot identify breeds in mixes that are many generations away from purebred, so it is unlikely that a Pit Bull owner would be able to successfully challenge the veterinarian’s determination.
The Riverside County Supervisors are right when they say that Pit Bulls are overbred and often under-socialized, leading to a surplus of potentially-dangerous dogs. Even though traditionally, Staffordshire Terriers were known as nanny dogs for their gentle nature and trustworthiness with young children (for more information about the history of the Pit Bull, see Understand-a-bull, by Elizabeth Tissot), the modern image of a Pit Bull is a dog that is aggressive, unnaturally strong, and deadly. However, statistics show that dog bites are not only a problem with Pit Bulls. While many groups that track dog bites list Pit Bulls as causing the highest numbers of dog bites every year, most dog bite statistics list Dachshunds, German Shepherd Dogs, Chihuahuas, Collies, and Labradors as also causing a high number of reported incidents of dog bites. Many groups that track dog bite occurrences also recognize that most dog bites go completely unreported and that the sensationalizing of Pit Bull attacks in the media adds to the potential overrepresentation of Pit Bulls in these statistics. The result is a public image that portrays the Pit Bull as a dangerous killer. Laws that target specific breeds and breed mixes only contribute to this negative public opinion.
Instead of a sterilization law that applies only to Pit Bulls and Pit mixes, I argue that counties should pass laws that require all domestic dogs to be sterilized, with only a few exceptions for licensed breeders, service dogs, and in instances necessary to preserve the health of the dog. Approximately 5,500 dogs are euthanized every day in the U.S., and irresponsible pet owners and backyard breeders are to blame. Laws that target only Pit Bulls and Pit mixes exacerbate the bad reputation of these dogs. Sadly, the consequence of this Ordinance will likely be an increase in the number of Pit Bulls that are impounded by the city and ultimately euthanized, defeating the purpose of the Ordinance, to cut down on the population of Pit Bulls in animal shelters.