Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bill would ban owning pit bulls in Hawaii — but its chances are slim

Measure's prospects doubtful, but it angers dog owners, advocates

The recent attack on a police officer by a mixed-breed pit bull terrier has renewed debate on whether these dogs, which have gained the reputation of being vicious and uncontrollable, have a place in society.

Several Mainland municipalities such as Denver and Maryland's Prince George's County have banned the ownership of pit bulls, following deadly attacks. San Francisco last year passed "breed-specific legislation" that mandates pit bull sterilization.

In Hawai'i, a measure has been introduced at the Legislature that would prohibit the ownership of a pit bull. If approved, it would be a misdemeanor to own, possess or sell these dogs.

But whether this bill ever gets a hearing is doubtful, according to Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, who introduced the measure. Hanabusa said SB 79 was drafted "by request," meaning a constituent asked her to do so.

With the focus of lawmakers this session on the slumping economy, Hanabusa said, the bill isn't likely to get very far.

"I do not believe that this is a bill that has a high priority, but it's going to be up to the Judiciary Committee chair," she said. "I have not heard of anyone asking or pushing the measure."

Pit bull attacks in Hawai'i are infrequent, but they have led to serious injuries and deaths. The last two high-profile attacks involved mixed-breed pit bulls.

Last October, a pit bull mix attacked and killed a baby girl as she slept in her Wai'anae home. That dog was euthanized.

On Jan. 14, a man allegedly unleashed his 70-pound pit bull mix on a police detective during a confrontation at the Kapahulu Safeway. The officer, who was bitten in the stomach, shot the dog, which later died.

Hanabusa said the request to introduce the bill followed pit bull attacks on other dogs. If anything, she added, the Legislature this year may look at tougher leash laws, rather than a ban on a specific breed.

Although the measure isn't expected to pass, it has raised the ire of pit bull owners and other animal rights organizations, who believe these animals are being unfairly targeted.

a bad reputation

Joe Borges, who raises pit bulls at his Kahalu'u home, said pit bulls are one of the most obedient and loyal dogs around. Unfortunately, he said, pit bulls, as well as other dogs such as Rottweilers and Dobermans, have been involved in highly publicized incidents that have led to a bad reputation.

"It's a smart dog and you can teach it to do a lot of things, which includes, unfortunately, people who have used them to fight and people who have used them to attack people," Borges said. "But they're also used with elderly people as a companion dog and that kind of thing. So you can do whatever you want to do. It's like a match. You can burn down a house or you can light a fire to cook dinner. It's your choice."

Borges, 50, works in construction and supplements his income by raising and selling pit bull puppies. Depending on its pedigree, a puppy can sell for $500 to $2,000, he said.

Borges and other owners and breeders are beginning to organize to fight the pit bull ban. He said he understands why Hanabusa introduced the measure and that it may not get very far, but he said he doesn't want to take any chances.

"You don't have to be a pit bull owner to organize with us. You don't actually have to be a dog owner — you can be a dog lover. Other states have gone after the pit bull and then they've gone after the Doberman, the Rottweiler and the Chow. They've even gone after the fox terrier. It's just ridiculous."

Kawehi Yim, spokeswoman for the Hawaiian Humane Society, said the organization is opposed to any proposal that would ban specific breeds.

"They're expensive to enforce and they just don't work," Yim said. "Our belief is it's the owner that makes the dog and not the dog. It goes back to just being a responsible pet owner."

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