Stacy Wolf, Director New York State Government Affairs and Public Policy, ASPCA
STATE LAW – Beware of Breed Bans
The evening news and daily papers have a voracious appetite for the high drama of dog attacks. Inevitably, media attention raises concerns for public safety—concerns that sometimes lead municipalities to propose measures that would ban or restrict ownership of certain breeds—most commonly pit bulls. These “breed-specific” bans, which draw no distinction between a dog who has attacked a person and a dog who is entirely friendly, will not make our communities safer. In fact, these laws do more harm than good. They condemn even well-behaved dogs to death because shelters are prohibited from adopting them to members of the community. Responsible people who already own friendly dogs of a banned breed can be deprived of beloved pets—as well as their constitutional right to due process of law.
Why won’t breed-specific bans solve the problem of aggressive dogs in our communities? Because they focus on the dog, rather than on the dog owner. It is people who do not adequately control their dogs, and those who train dogs to be aggressive, who are the problem. Their activities are already against the law in most jurisdictions. In New York State, training dogs to fight is a felony, lesser acts surrounding such training are misdemeanors and failing to supervise a “dangerous dog” who injures or kills a person or another animal carries severe consequences. [Diane Jessup, author of The Dog Who Spoke With Gods, a powerful new novel about a pit bull in medical research, says that what we really need is “dangerous-owner” laws.—Ed.]
What will help make our communities safer is enforcing existing laws and supporting legislation, such as a bill now pending in New York (A.2688/S.1815) that would make it easier to prosecute animal fighting offenses. Banning a breed that is favored for fighting will only drive these activities further underground, making detection by law enforcement that much more difficult. And those who are involved in these illegal and inhumane pastimes will simply replace the pit bull with a breed that isn’t banned.
While people who behave irresponsibly with their dogs should be held accountable for their actions, responsible owners of friendly, socialized dogs should not be punished because their dogs are a particular breed. Indeed, because dogs are still deemed property under the law, depriving an owner of his dog based on breed alone clearly violates the due process provisions of the Constitution, ensuring prolonged and costly legal proceedings in the wake of breed-specific legislation. At their simplest, laws that ban or restrict an entire breed en masse, without regard for the actions of individual dogs, are fundamentally unfair.
Recognizing that breed-specific laws are ineffective and unfair, some states, such as New York, prohibit them by statute. Other, local governments that have passed breed-specific laws, such as those in Cincinnati and in Prince George’s County (MD), either have or are considering repealing them because they do not accomplish their intended purpose. Still, municipalities respond to the latest dog attack story on the news by attempting to pass laws that ban specific breeds outright or restrict their ownership, such as by requiring muzzles when off the owner’s property (this was recently proposed, but defeated, in San Francisco), or exorbitant levels of liability insurance coverage. The latter is equivalent to an outright ban, given the widespread and entirely legal insurance company practice of denying coverage based on breed.
When such laws are enacted, the most tragic victims are the innocent young pit bulls or other targeted breeds who are awaiting adoption in shelters. Shelters already face a daunting task in finding homes for their charges. Add to that a ban on ownership of a particular breed, and the result is the needless euthanasia of healthy, adoptable animals merely because they happen to be pit bulls, Rottweilers or whichever breed is next to make the evening news. Lawmakers must be made to understand that breed-specific laws are effective at achieving only one, unacceptable outcome: the death of friendly dogs who’ve done no harm.
MODEL BILL AVAILABLE
The ASPCA was instrumental in drafting a model, non-breed specific dangerous dog law for New York State. Copies of this bill are available by contacting ASPCA Government Affairs and Public Policy, 424 E. 92nd Street, NY, NY 10128; (212) 876-7700, ext. 4550; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stacy Wolf is director of the New York State Government Affairs and Public Policy office in Albany, NY.
© 2001 ASPCA
ASPCA Animal Watch – Spring 2001
424 East 92nd St.
New York, NY 10128-6804