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Hearings At Many Levels
Posted on 02/08/2012 in Your Dog, Your Rights.

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by Sara Chisnell, UKC Legal Counsel
Last fall was quite active in terms of dog legislation, but most notably has been breed specific legislation. Sometimes I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall fighting this battle, but there has been some light at the end of tunnel lately.

Both the cities of Toledo and Cleveland have rid their cities of breed specific language in exchange for more comprehensive dangerous dog laws. Denver is facing a class action lawsuit by “pit bull” service dog owners.A new bill has been introduced in Florida that would overturn all BSL in the state, including the longstanding law in Miami. Most recently was the nationally covered case of Officer Sak and his dog Snickers. Officer Sak is a disabled retired cop and Vietnam veteran from Chicago, and Snickers is his service dog who happens to resemble a “pit bull” mix. Officer Sak moved to Aurelia, Iowa to care for his ailing mother in law, but was not aware the town had a ban on pit bulls. He was forced by the town to relinquish his service dog under the ban, but is now moving forward with legal action (thanks to Animal Farm Foundation). So far, the out- come has been positive: he has been reunited with his dog as a result of a federal injunction, and the case has brought national attention to how ludicrous breed bans truly are.

There is currently a bill in the Ohio Senate that would overturn their longstanding restrictions on “pit bulls”. HB14 has already passed the House, and is currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee awaiting a vote. The bill would not only strengthen the dangerous dog law for the state of Ohio, but most importantly would remove the classification of “pit bull dogs” as vicious dogs. If the bill passes, the impact could potentially be huge - Ohio could raise the bar for the rest of the country.
The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing in December that was scheduled to come to a vote, and so I attended on UKC’s behalf. The hearing had quite an attendance. One of the best speakers was Dr. Linda Lord, president of the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association. She urged lawmakers to support the bill, and stated that “cur- rent law placing restrictions on one specific type of dog is contrary to actually addressing the problem of aggressive canine behavior.” She also said that, even as a veterinarian, she could not look at a dog of unknown parentage and state with certainty whether or not it was a “pit bull”. She and the OVMA supports laws that promote safety, but finds that dog bites are a human issue, and the new wording would address that much more successfully.

Sara Biel, a volunteer with a dog rescue who also hap- pens to be an attorney, brought up the issue that the current law is unconstitutional as it provides no due process for declaring a dog vicious. Due process means that some sort of hearing must be provided before taking property. The new law provides a good deal of due process, and as “pit bulls” will be removed from the definition of vicious dogs, no due process will even be necessary in identifying “pit bulls”. Several others spoke on behalf of “pit bulls”, and are grateful for the emphasis on responsible pet ownership as opposed to merely singling out one type of dog. All individuals speaking were in support of the bill; however, one still wanted some restrictions on “pit bulls”. Duane Sanning, a dog warden from Darke County, thought that owners of “pit bulls” should still be required to follow liability insurance and enclosure requirements.

Three small amendments were made to the current bill. All were technical changes that do not in any way change the intent or subject content of the bill. One would provide an exception to the requirement of spaying or neutering and rabies vaccination for dogs designated as dangerous if it could be medically dangerous. Another amendment would place the burden of proof on the person who designates a dog as vicious, dangerous or nuisance, and would have to prove so through clear and convincing evidence. The last amendment contained “technical, clarifying, or conforming” changes to the language within the bill. Because the amendments were being made, the bill was not voted on by the Committee, and the vote was pushed back to sometime in January 2012. The bill must pass the Committee before it makes it to the Senate floor. If it passes the Senate, it has to go back to the House again because of the amendments made. The bill still has a ways to go, but it has made a lot of progress so far, and has quite a bit of support to keep the momentum going.

Another recent piece of BSL that has come up is an ordinance proposed in Ionia, Michigan. The ordinance, if passed, would eventually phase out “pit bulls” from the city of Ionia all together. The ordinance passed its first reading by a vote of 5 to 3. I’ve seen some bad dog legislation in my time here at UKC, but this one ranks pretty high. Like a few others I’ve seen, it refers to both the UKC breed standard for ABPTs and the AKC breed standards for American Staffordshire Terriers and Staffordshire Bull Terriers to be used as means to identify dogs. Most of us dog people understand that breed standards cannot be used to identify dogs nor is that the purpose of breed standards. The law would require all “pit bulls” in existence in the city to be licensed once this ordinance is enacted, and no new “pit bulls” would be allowed in. Licensed “pit bulls” would have additional requirements, such as enclosures with a top, and any litters would have to be removed from the city by four months of age. There is a vague exception to the licensing of “pit bulls” if the owner’s purpose is “exhibiting or showing said dog at a dog show or similar event.” A very minimal hearing process is provided for owners of dogs alleged to be “pit bulls”.

The identification process is questionable, at best. The first two methods are reasonable: through registration of the dog, or identification by the owner. However, positive identification may be attained by an animal control officer or public safety, by a licensed veterinarian, or most disturbingly, by a “lay wit- ness who has personal knowledge that the dog is a pit bull terrier.” This means a neighbor or friend who has heard you refer to your dog as a “pit bull” could basically be identification enough! I do believe that is technically hearsay that could not be accepted as evidence in a court of law. The fact that a licensed veterinarian may identify a dog as a “pit bull” is also problematic. As stated by the president of the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association, at the Ohio hearing, many veterinarians do not feel they could state with certainty whether or not a dog is a “pit bull”. Nor do veterinarians receive any sort of training on identifying dog breeds in veterinary school.

Most disconcerting is the “Findings” section of the ordinance. It lists some very frightening and alarming “facts’ about ‘pit bulls.’” Specifically, traits that have been specifically bred for include “extremely powerful jaws, a low sensitivity to pain, extreme aggressiveness towards other animals, and a natural tendency to refuse to terminate an attack once it has begun.” I guess “pit bulls” are not mere dogs but powerful monsters. The very worse is this following statement of “fact”: “the pit bull terriers’ canine jaws can crush a victim with up to two thousand (2,000) pounds of pressure per square inch, three (3) times that of a German Shepherd or Doberman Pinscher, making the pit bull’s jaws the strongest of any animal, per pound.

Um, excuse me? There has never been any science behind this claim nor any study to substantiate it whatsoever. The only test even resembling a study was one conducted by Dr. Barr for National Geographic, where three breeds of dogs were tested as to bite pressure - German Shepherd, American Pit Bull Terrier and Rottweiler - and the average bite pressure was 320 pounds of pressure per square inch. The American Pit Bull Terrier had the least amount of bite force out of the three dogs tested! That such a blown out of proportion myth is listed as fact in a law is the perfect illustration of how much education lawmakers need in regards to these laws, and why you, as dog experts, need to be there to educate them!

The public hearing held on the Ionia ordinance did not dis- appoint. The hearing room was filled to capacity, with standing room only, and the City Council gave all who wished a chance to be heard. Over two hours of testimony was given - from “pit bull” owners in the area, to rescue volunteers, attorneys, and even concerned non-pit bull owners. Everyone was very well spoken, and clearly delineated the issues with BSL. There was a race to the podium, and by the time I got my turn to speak, many of my points had already been covered, but I still had plenty of ammunition. One lady in particular stood out: she didn’t own any “pit bulls” and instead was a coon hunter and Beagler, but still took the time to come speak and support fellow dog owners. It was truly heartwarming to see so many well versed individuals speaking out against BSL.

After all of the citizens were heard, the Mayor spoke his piece. He seemed to have already made his mind up and my heart sunk as I heard him dismiss all the testimony he had heard, and many council members were nodding their heads in agreement. He stated that while he was “confident the majority of pit bulls” were as described by many of the speakers, he believes that “pit bulls are a very significant danger.” When he informed us all that he was personally friends with the woman who was attacked by two “pit bulls” last year (hence the reason behind the ordinance), I thought we were done for. Interestingly enough, the Mayor said the woman who was attacked did not support the ordinance. However, after much debate on some technicalities and meeting procedure, the ordinance was put to a vote. The ordinance was voted down, by a 5 to 3 vote, the exact number that had voted the ordinance in on the first reading! Everyone was a bit surprised, but surprise quickly turned to elation. The positive energy outside of chambers due to the victory was contagious and the chatter was loud. The hearing and subsequent vote was absolute proof positive that citizen advocacy does work and you can make a difference!

I know I have discussed contacting lawmakers previously, but I wanted to make it clear in this column that public hearings are just that: for lawmakers to hear from the public! Hearings at any level, whether it be your local city council or a Senate hearing, are open for you to attend and to offer your expertise to educate lawmakers. The more we have attending on our side, the greater impact we can have. I think many have the misconception that you have to be with a group or somehow affiliated in order to attend state legislature hearings, which is not the case at all. Anyone can attend the hearings that are open to the public, and anyone can speak. You can offer both written and spoken testimony, or one or the other. Take caution in written testimony, as it typically becomes part of the record and open to the public to view. The upside to written testimony is that the legislators have it in their possession to later review and use as reference.

If you are interested in attending a hearing at any level, and I encourage all of you to do so, plan ahead. You can always merely attend the first time out, without speaking or presenting, if the idea intimidates you, to get a feel for what it’s like and what to expect should you decide to speak. Appearance does count, so don’t show up in dirty jeans and holey tee shirts. You want to be taken seriously, so show the respect that your issue deserves. I’m not telling you to go out and buy a three piece suit, but dress clean, preferably business casual, and make sure your appearance is tidy and neat. If you plan to speak on behalf of your issue, prepare yourself. Know the number of the bill or ordinance you’re speaking about. Be a devil’s advocate, and try to understand the opposing side’s arguments so that you can address those and counter with facts. Most importantly, have confidence in yourself, because you, as a dog owner, breeder, and/or exhibitor, are the real expert, and your testimony is imperative to dog issues.