Has Canine Racism Reached the End of Its Leash?: The Impending End of Breed Specific Legislation

*Raquel L. Flynn

In a time where pet ownership has become increasingly popular, more and more people are turning to shelters and rescue dogs to find their forever companion.  See, e.g., Zac Ezzone, Local Animal Shelters Reporting Higher Live-Release Rates Amid Montgomery County Investigation, Community Impact (Oct. 3, 2018, 8:00 AM), https://communityimpact.com/houston/lake-houston-humble-kingwood/city-county/2018/10/03/local-animals-shelters-reporting-higher-live-release-rates-amid-montgomery-county-investigation/.  However, with most of the adoptable dogs in shelters being “pit bull” mixes, potential dog owners are turned off from adopting those animals due to local laws.  Zach Barrett, Are Pit Bulls Man’s Best Friend or Too Dangerous?, St. Joseph News-Press (Feb. 4, 2018), http://www.newspressnow.com/news/local_news/are-pit-bulls-man-s-best-friend-or-too-dangerous/article_e4beaabd-9825-5635-86e3-fe3a4c1b9da5.html.  But, over the last few months, many counties have voted down, or even outlawed, breed specific legislation (BSL).  See, e.g., Dominic Trimboli, Michigan Senate Passes Bill Banning Breed-Specific Legislation, Ogemaw Herald (May 15, 2018, 9:30 AM), http://www.ogemawherald.com/stories/michigan-senate-passes-bill-banning-breed-specific-legislation,107012.  As more dog activists across the country are speaking up, BSL may become a thing of the past in many areas, including in local counties such as Prince George’s County, Maryland.  See id.; Andrea Swalec, DC-Area Pit Bulls Are in Special Need of ‘Forever Homes’ Amid Bans, NBC Wash. (Aug. 17, 2018, 7:01 PM), https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/Pit-Bulls-Are-in-Special-Need-of-Forever-Homes-Amid-Bans-491119241.html.

I.  The History of Pit Bulls and BSL in America

America has a long and complicated relationship with the pit bull breed.  See The History of Pit Bulls, Love-A-Bull, http://love-a-bull.org/resources/the-history-of-pit-bulls/ (last visited Mar. 17, 2019).  Although the breed originated in the United Kingdom, when immigrants came to the United States before the Civil War, the dogs that came with them were nicknamed the “American Pit Bull Terrier.”  Id.  The dogs were used for many different purposes in early society such as herding, guarding the family, and hunting.  Id.  Their demeanor was described as “loyal and loving,” especially with children.  Id.  The dog’s image grew more popular in America and it was even used as the nation’s mascot.  Id. 

Starting in the 1980s, when dog fighting began to re-emerge, people began to have a different perception of pit bulls.  Id.  Many criminals began seeking out the dogs to use for fighting and money-making.  Id.  One of the big turning points for the perception of pit bulls was the 1987 Time Magazine cover titled, “The Pit Bull Friend and Killer.”  Id.  After that, the media’s portrayal of the breed became more negative.  Id.  It did not take long for the first act of BSL restricting ownership of pit bulls to pop up in Hollywood, Florida, in 1980.  Id.  As of 2015, twenty-seven states were enforcing some form of BSL policy, including Maryland.  Arin Greenwood, Here’s a Map of Where Your Pit Bull Isn’t Welcome, Huffington Post (May 6, 2015, 4:44 PM), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/06/bsl-map_n_7216190.html.

II.  The Recent Turn of Events and the Disappearance of Many Counties’ BSL

Fortunately, a recent turn in pit bulls’ portrayal in the media has expanded to include positive aspects about the breed, including one dog that stayed by the side of a missing two-year-old girl for two days after she went missing.  Claire Gilbody-Dickerson, Pit Bull Dog Stays by Missing Two-Year-Old Autistic Toddler for Two Days After She Disappears into Kentucky Woodland, Mirror (June 10, 2018, 11:33 PM), https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/us-news/pit-bull-dog-stays-missing-12677701.  In fact, many activists are vocally frustrated with the identification process for shelter dogs, as most workers are expected to guess their breed.  See, e.g., K. R. Olson et al., Inconsistent Identification of Pit Bull-Type Dogs by Shelter Staff, 206 Veterinary J. 197, 197–98 (2015), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S109002331500310X.  Experts estimate that at least one in three dogs labeled as pit bulls did not actually contain any pit bull heritage DNA.  Id. at 200.  Many activists also highlight the difference in the treatment of pit bulls versus other dog breeds in the media when a dog-bite-incident arises.  See John Davidson, The Media Takes Its Lumps Over Reporting About Pit Bulls, Denver Post: Fetch (July 18, 2010, 8:11 PM), http://blogs.denverpost.com/fetch/2010/07/18/the-media-takes-its-lumps-over-reporting-about-pit-bulls/1387/ ; see also Dog Bite-Related Statistics, Pitbullinfo.org, https://www.pitbullinfo.org/statistics.html (last visited Mar. 17, 2019) (showing that over thirty different dog breeds are frequently involved in dog bites and most bites are committed by Malamutes); compare Adam Forgie, Dog Rips Off 4-Year-Old Boy’s Arm in Utah Attack, Arm is Missing, Idaho News (Mar. 4, 2019), https://idahonews.com/news/nation-world/dog-rips-off-4-year-old-childs-arm-in-utah-attack-arm-is-missing (reporting on a dog-bite-incident involving a husky, not a pit bull, and not mentioning the breed of the dog until the third paragraph of the article, not in the headline), with Kala Kachmar, Howell Dog, Woman Mauled by Off-Leash Pit Bull During Walk, Ashbury Park Press (Mar. 13, 2019, 4:17 PM), https://www.app.com/story/news/local/public-safety/2019/03/13/howell-dog-woman-mauled-pit-bull/3139604002/ (reporting on a dog-bite-incident involving a pit bull and using the breed in the headline and throughout the article)

In response, many local governments have banned BSL.  See, e.g, Trimboli, supra.  Some communities have fought back against BSL laws, and various groups have succeeded.  See Kimberly Barker, Group Wants to End Breed-Specific Dog Bans in Area Communities, Jopling Globe (Aug. 30, 2018), https://www.joplinglobe.com/news/local_news/group-wants-to-end-breed-specific-dog-bans-in-area/article_0b1c131c-0570-5236-98c7-9ed6650eed5d.html.  Some incidents still feed a negative few of pit bulls.  Id.  For example, in 2017, there was an unfortunate incident involving an injury to a human by a pit-bull-type-dog, resulting in the Springfield City Council of Missouri enacting an ordinance outlawing pit bulls.  Id.  However, before the law could go into effect, several thousand residents signed petitions to suspend the ordinance until the official vote.  Id.  Ultimately, in August 2018, the Springfield, Missouri, residents voted against the ban, and it will not go into effect.  Id. 

Some jurisdictions have taken it one step further and will label residents whose animals have an aggressive incident as “irresponsible animal owners.”  Deborah Sullivan Brennan, San Marcos Ordinance Could Penalize “Irresponsible Animal Owners, San Diego Trib. (Oct. 10, 2018, 4:20 PM), http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/communities/north-county/sd-no-animal-control-20181010-story.html.  In October, San Marcos’ City Council unanimously voted for this type of change, including a restriction on those found to be irresponsible from owning any animal for up to three years.  Id.  This response bolsters many activists’ positions that it is not the animal who is the problem—it is the owner.  See id.  Maryland counties should take a page out of the book of these progressive laws and enact similar statutes supporting animal welfare and equality.

III.  Prince George’s County, Maryland’s Current Ban on Pit Bulls Should Follow Suit

In 1997, Prince George’s County, Maryland, enacted legislation that is commonly known as a “pit bull ban.”  Prince George’s County, MD §§ 3-101, 3-116.01, 3-185.01 (1997).  The law states that no person may own a pit bull within the county, unless the dog was owned prior to 1997 and certain requirements are maintained.  Id. § 3-185.01(a)–(b).  The law further states that if any pit bull within the county injures a person or another animal at any time, it will automatically be “destroyed.”  Id. § 3-116.01(b).  Further strengthening the ban, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in 2012 that pit bulls are “inherently dangerous” because of their “aggressive and vicious nature.”  Tracey v. Solesky, 50 A.3d 1075, 1079–80 (Md. 2012).

Despite this unfortunate branding in one of the largest counties in Maryland, there has been a lot of resistance against the ban since its inception.  See, e.g., Andrew Michaels, Dog Owner’s Group Pushing to End Prince George’s County Pit Bull Ownership Ban, Balt. Sun (Sept. 2, 2015, 6:00 AM), http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/howard/laurel/ph-ll-dog-breed-ban-0903-20150901-story.html.  The Maryland Dog Federation conducted multiple studies across the state which have revealed that the breed ban on pit bulls is not only costly, but also ineffective.  Id.; BSL in Toronto = 57% Increase in Dog Bite Incidents, Pitbullinfo.org (Sept. 24, 2017), https://www.pitbullinfo.org/blog/bsl-in-toronto-57-increase-in-dog-bite-incidents.  The ban received national attention when in 2015, a house fire broke out within Prince George’s County, and an “illegal” pit bull stood protective guard over its owner’s injured body outside of the home.  Tracee Wilkins, Banned Dog Gets New Home After Standing Guard Over Injured Owner During House Fire, NBC Wash. (Dec. 4, 2015, 8:57 AM), https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/Two-Injured-in-Landover-Hills-House-Fire-359907371.html.  Despite the dog’s loving nature and loyalty to its owners, she and one of her puppies were taken to a shelter and forced to be rehomed outside of the county on account of the pit bull ban.  Id.  Many residents disagreed with the treatment of these animals and called the dog a hero while disapproving the nature of the ban.  Id. 

IV.  Conclusion

In a world where we are continuously praising others for being different and encouraging our children not to judge a book by its cover, that notion is ignored as applied to BSL.  See Hailey Kaufman, Dogs and Racism in America, Dilettante Army, http://www.dilettantearmy.com/articles/dogs (last visited Mar. 17, 2019). Pit bulls are and will continue to be a very popular breed in the United States.  See Most Popular Dog Breeds – Full Ranking List, Am. Kennel Club (Mar. 28, 2018), https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/news/most-popular-dog-breeds-full-ranking-list/ (noting that in 2017, Staffordshire Bull Terriers and American Staffordshire Terriers both ranked within the top 100 of nearly 200 popular American breeds).  As pet ownership increases in popularity, more and more people will be turning to shelters to find their new forever friend.  See, e.g., Andrew Rowan & Tamara Kartal, Dog Population & Dog Sheltering Trends in the United States of America, 8 Animals 68, 68 (2018), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5981279/pdf/animals-08-00068.pdf.  It is up to local governments, like that of Prince George’s County, to strike down limits on the dogs they may select, and give every dog a chance to find a new home.  “As a result of prejudice,” many loving dogs are losing the opportunity to prove that owners, not dogs, are to blame.  Swalec, supra.

*Raquel is a second-year law student at the University of Baltimore School of Law where she serves as a staff editor for Law Review and is a Distinguished Scholar of the Royal Graham Shannonhouse III Honor Society. Raquel also serves as the Community Service Chair for the Women’s Bar Association and as a Writing Fellow for the Legal Writing Center. She is also a member of the Honor Board and Phi Alpha Delta – Labrum Chapter. Additionally, Raquel is a Research Assistant for Professors John Bessler, John Lynch, and Kimberly Wehle. Last semester, Raquel served as a Law Scholar for Professor Bessler’s Civil Procedure I class, competed as a member of the National Moot Court Team, and interned for the Honorable George L. Russell III in the U.S. District Court of Maryland. Last summer Raquel worked as a summer associate for Gallagher, Evelius & Jones and next summer she will be working at Venable LLP as a summer associate.


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