ANNAPOLIS – A proposed crackdown on pit-bull ownership in Maryland’s capital is drawing criticism for its attempt to bar young adults from owning the dog and for singling out one breed for the restrictions.
The proposal, to be aired at a public hearing Oct. 5, would require a pit bull owner to be at least 25 years old and to have $500,000 of liability insurance. The owner would have to register the dog with the police department and accompany it when in public. This means parents could not allow unsupervised children to take the family pit bull for a walk.
Democratic Alderman Ellen Moyer, chairwoman of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, and ACLU lawyer Dwight Sullivan said the age restriction may not stand up to scrutiny, since those between 18 and 25 are legally adults.
“Is there any reasonable reason that a 24-year-old who can afford the insurance can’t own a pit bull and a 25-year-old can?” asked Sullivan.
But Alderman Cynthia Carter, D-Ward 6, said she chose 25 as the age restriction because at that age, “Maryland driver’s insurance has deemed males more responsible and prices drop. So I’m just applying the same scenario.”
Another debate rages over whether dog laws should be breed specific. The Anne Arundel County Animal Control list of reported dog bites in 1997 showed that four other breeds bit people more frequently than pit bulls.
Carter said she singled pit bulls out for regulation because of the viciousness with which they attack.
From 1987 to 1996, pit bulls were responsible for the highest percentage – about 27 percent – of fatal dog bites in the nation, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Thirty-four people died from pit bull bites during that 10-year period, the CDC reported.
It is unclear if the City Council will approve the measure.
Mayor Dean Johnson (R), who sits on the council, said he hadn’t made a decision yet on how he would vote. But, he said, “The time may be coming for Annapolis to have stronger laws on this than the county does.”
Alderman Samuel Gilmer, D-Ward 3, chairman of the Housing and Human Welfare Committee studying the bill, said, “We’ll have to see if it’s constitutional.”
Moyer said although she has concerns about the age restriction, she does favor more regulations to protect people from vicious dogs.
Veterinarian Malina Nightingale of the Annapolis Veterinarian Emergency Clinic said more stringent rules for aggressive dogs of any breed would be a fairer approach.
“Even current restrictions would have been adequate to have prevented almost all of the recent incidents because the dogs were off-leash and previously displayed threatening behavior,” Nightingale said.
Current law bars Annapolis residents under 18 from owning any dog. Residents can call police or animal control if a dog attacks or acts threatening. In response, county animal control can issue a citation, order the dog restricted or destroyed.
“If you could see my dogs, you would know that pit bulls are not inherently dangerous,” said David Mabe, 28, of Edgewater, owner of two pit bulls and a bill opponent. Mabe said the $500,000 insurance requirement would be impossible for many pit bull owners to meet.
But those who have been attacked by pit bulls or seen their pets mauled by them want preventative legislation, said Annapolis apartment manager Peggy Waters-Moore. In June, she and her two young sons fled a pit bull that wandered into the backyard of their Spa Cove building. It decapitated their Angora cat.
The incident inspired Carter, who represents Moore’s area of Annapolis, to call Moore and work with her to draft the bill. They gathered more than 500 signatures supporting the bill.
Moore said she hoped the bill would also cut down on the use of pit bulls for fighting.
Because of their aggressive nature, pit bulls are one of the most popular breeds used in dog fight competitions, according to county animal control officials.
The bill’s supporters said the age restriction may help limit pit-bull ownership to responsible adults who would not use their dogs for competitive dog fighting, illegal in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
“Often times, we see children walking pit bulls with heavy metal chains around their neck that are often used to strengthen the animal’s neck for dog fighting,” said Frank Branchini, director of the Maryland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
“This legislation puts the police in the position to be able to control pit-bull ownership without having to catch someone in the act (of engaging in dog fighting) with a bloody animal,” Branchini said.
The Annapolis measure, if adopted, would become one of the toughest in the region.
Prince George’s County is now the only jurisdiction in the suburban-Washington area with restrictions specifically on pit bulls. The county has banned new ownership of pit bulls since Feb. 3, 1997. Those who owned pit bulls before the law was enacted must register the dogs with the county and give the animals specific collars identifying them as pit bulls, said George Whiting, a spokesman for the Prince George’s County Animal Control.
In Virginia, state law prohibits the outlawing of any particular breed of dog.
The District of Columbia in 1996 issued a one-year emergency order requiring pit bull owners to have $50,000 liability insurance and to keep their dogs muzzled in public places.
“The order really helped weed out irresponsible and young owners,” said Donna Marsden, spokeswoman for the Washington Humane Society. “For kids, the dogs were a status symbol, but they couldn’t take care of them properly.”
Marsden said the insurance was linked to homeowners’ or renters’ insurance, so younger people could not purchase it.
Carter said the problem is not the dog, but the owners who train and abuse the dog. “This is not to ban animals,” she said. “This is for the protection of pit bulls, which are being abused and starved so they will be vicious fighters.”
The Annapolis bill would require a pit bull owner to pay a $100 registration fee and provide a photo of the dog to the city police within 48 hours of its purchase. All new puppies would have to be reported.
The pit bull would have to be kept in a kennel or muzzled when in any building. It would have to wear identifying tags in public. Any code violation could bring a $250 first-time fine and a $300 fine for a repeated offense. -30-