Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Pit bulls: Fear mongering and breed bans don't work

The Oregonian editorial recommendation that all "pit bulls" and their mixed-breed cousins be classified as "potentially dangerous" ignores significant warnings issued by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the source of the misleading "statistical proof" brandished by the editorial board ("A tighter leash for pit bulls," Nov. 30).

First, the editorial based its claim that the public faces a dire threat to its safety upon what the AVMA itself described as "media-inspired portrayals of a specific breed as 'dangerous.'"

Second, the editorial failed to heed the AVMA's caution that "statistics do not give an accurate picture of dogs that bite" because of frequent breed misidentification, unreported bites and unknown population percentages.

Finally, the editorial board rushed to judgment, ignoring the AVMA's critical warning that "singling out one or two breeds for control can result in a false sense of accomplishment [that] will not result in a responsible approach to protecting a community's citizens."

Fear mongering preys upon hatred. It prevents both thoughtful problem identification and effective solutions.

Despite media efforts to transform a few dramatically reported incidents into an epidemic of pit bull mayhem, pit bulls don't roam the community wildly inflicting injury upon innocent passers-by. Most bites by all breeds occur within the owners' homes. Given the numbers of unlicensed dogs, no one knows whether the number of pit bull bites is or is not roughly proportionate to the breeds' population. In fact, the expert testimony presented in a challenge to a proposed restriction on pit bull ownership in Ohio convinced the Court of Appeals that, when compared to other breeds,"relatively few" bites were inflicted by pit bulls.

Finally, despite the recent hysteria, less than 1 percent of all bites -- regardless of the breed or mix involved -- result in significant injury. Your chances of being killed by a dog are roughly 1 in 18 million. Insect stings kill more people.

Labeling all pit bulls and their cousins "potentially dangerous" would result in a breed-specific ban without improving public safety. Inspired by local media frenzy, area animal control agencies will require owners to obtain liability insurance despite the fact that potentially dangerous dogs are uninsurable. When the owners fail to do the impossible and agencies seek to impound and kill, many will resist, generating police involvement and significant litigation costs that will drain county coffers. People who love their animals fight back when they become targets of government discrimination.

Breed bans don't work. After 15 years a pit bull ban in the Netherlands ended when officials admitted that there had been no decrease in the number of bites. For five years, Multnomah County Animal Services has secretly attempted to eliminate the breed from the area, using selective, minority-focused enforcement efforts and skewed "temperament testing" practices to kill nearly 90 percent of pit bulls it managed to seize. This program of extermination has not significantly lowered the numbers of reported bites.

Increased public safety for all breeds can be achieved without fines, banishment and killing by offering assistance instead of threats in low redemption/high recidivism areas. The challenge can be met, but it will take much more thought than was evident in The Oregonian's editorial proposal.

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