Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Lawmakers again ponder regulations for dog breeds

Pit bulls and Rottweilers could become a hot topic down in Austin next year as lawmakers consider the pros and cons of allowing cities and counties to adopt ordinances restricting or banning certain breeds of dogs.

Dallas state Rep. Tony Goolsby has put a spotlight on the issue by asking Attorney General Greg Abbott for an official opinion on whether cities and counties have the power to impose the restrictions.

Goolsby argues in his request to Abbott that the law is unclear as to whether local governments can write ordinances addressing certain breeds; many local city officials have long assumed they lacked authority.

Goolsby, a Republican, lost his re-election bid last month to Democrat Carol Kent but retains his post until mid-January. He did not return a call seeking comment Monday.

During the last legislative session, several North Texas cities sought the power to ban types of dogs that are often perceived as aggressive, such as pit bulls or Rottweilers. While lawmakers passed a bill holding owners responsible if their dogs injure or kill someone, legislation targeting breeds didn’t gain traction.

But grisly reports of dog attacks around the country in recent years by a handful of breeds — most notably pit bulls — have prompted calls for laws targeting certain breeds.

The city of Grapevine found itself in a lengthy legal battle over two aggressive pit bulls recently. The dogs were in city custody for more than two years based on a report that the dogs had killed a cat and forced a man and his grandson to seek refuge in the garage of their home until the dogs ran away.

The city planned to euthanize the dogs but in November, but a judge ordered the city to return them to their owner after he agreed to buy insurance, muzzle the dogs and put them on a 4-foot leash whenever he took them for walks.

Cities around the country have considered bans on certain dog breeds or ordinances that regulate certain breeds. A few have passed ordinances targeting certain breeds. Critics of breed-specific legislation, or BSL, have responded and organizing online. Several Web sites, including NoPitBullBans.com and StopBSL.com, track efforts targeting dog breeds.

On a statement devoted to the issue on its Web site, the Humane Society of the United States writes: "While breed is one factor that contributes to a dog’s temperament, it alone cannot be used to predict whether a dog may pose a danger to his or her community."

The issue is an emotional one, both for those who believe that serious and possibly fatal incidents could be prevented if certain breeds were made illegal, and for owners of these breeds who argue that aggressive dogs come in all shapes and sizes.

In January, after two male pit bull terriers tore a hole in the chain-link gate of a neighbor’s home and killed a 90-pound Labrador retriever in Watauga, Councilman Jerry Adams told the Star-Telegram local officials was hamstrung on the issue.

"If the city had been able to regulate these dogs by breed, then there would have been tougher controls on pit bulls and probably this wouldn’t have happened," Adams was quoted as saying.

Over the past year, several cities including Fort Worth, Watauga and Richland Hills, have passed laws making it illegal in nearly all cases to chain or tether a dog. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has pushed for such measures and framed them as a more sensible alternative to laws that focus on one breed of dog.

Yet local governments haven’t ruled out targeting breeds and most will be paying attention if the issue is addressed in Austin next year.

The Fort Worth City Council approved a legislative agenda for the upcoming session earlier this month that included monitoring dog breed specific legislation. Reid Rector, Fort Worth’s governmental relations director, said the city does not currently have a position on the issue.

"There is no specific strategy or agenda on the table," Rector said. "I think the appropriate attitude is to monitor the legislation...what are the sanctions, what are the ramifications and then make an informed decision as to whether that’s something we want to support or not."

AMAN BATHEJA, 817-685-3932

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