Monday, January 12, 2009

Cities want to regulate dog breeds, but need state support

Laura Dapkus worries that someday soon authorities could come to her Grayson County home and confiscate her four dogs simply because of their DNA.

Dapkus rescued the animals, three of them likely purebred pit bulls and the fourth a pit bull mix, from a shelter. She calls them playful, loveable, family dogs.

"Thousands and thousands of them are out there not causing any problems," she said.

But pit bulls have gained a reputation for violence, and several North Texas cities want the power to regulate and possibly ban them and other reputably violent breeds.

Mary Maza of Duncanville supports such legislation. Last summer, two pit bulls escaped their yard, broke through her son's fence and critically injured his dog.

"What if that was a little kid?" she asked Duncanville City Council members, who minutes later voted to support breed-specific legislation.

Cedar Hill, Frisco, Mesquite and others have also expressed interest, but so far no legislator has stepped forward to champion a change during the Legislature's 2009 session, which begins Tuesday.

Just before leaving office, former Rep. Tony Goolsby, R-Dallas, asked Attorney General Greg Abbott in November to consider whether cities already have the authority to enact such bans.

Goolsby's letter says that state law as written may allow cities to adopt breed-specific regulations for dogs that have not already been designated as dangerous. Abbott's ruling should come within the next few months.

Already, Texas law on dangerous dogs, adopted in 2007, is considered one of the toughest in the country. Dog owners can be held criminally liable if their pets leave their property and attack a person.

Madisonville, near Huntsville, last year passed the first known dog ban in Texas. But the city later repealed the law.

Houston and Harris County have pursued such laws in prior legislative sessions, but those efforts failed. Some cities nationally have passed ordinances banning specific dog breeds, most notably Denver, which outlaws pit bulls.

No North Texas city has publicly advocated for outright bans of pit bulls or other breeds such as Rottweilers, chow chows and German shepherds. But leaders have pondered stricter regulations for those animals, such as mandatory microchipping, liability insurance requirements and taller fence standards.

Frisco Mayor Maher Maso said cities should be left to make those choices.

"We do feel strongly about local control and leaving it up to communities to make that decision," he said.

In McKinney, officials have not expressed an opinion on whether they would support the right to ban certain breeds. Last week, an off-duty police officer shot and killed a pit bull in a McKinney neighborhood after it approached his wife on a street. Police are investigating the incident.

Duncanville Mayor David Green said his city would hold community meetings before adopting any changes.

Dapkus, a member of the Lone Star State Pit Bull Club, said cities should rely on existing laws to combat problems with dangerous dogs. She said breed-specific laws fail to address the true cause – irresponsible owners.

"We have a very strong dangerous dog law in this state," she said. "Passing a ban on pit bulls or on German shepherds is not going to stop that dangerous mixed breed dog from biting."

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