Monday, January 26, 2009

Lancaster may target pit bulls and Rottweilers as anti-gang measure


Mayor R. Rex Parris, hoping to 'deliberately harass' gang members who favor the dogs, backs an ordinance that would stiffly penalize owners of 'potentially dangerous' and 'vicious' animals.

The city of Lancaster is considering adopting stiff penalties for owners of "potentially dangerous" and "vicious" dogs, particularly those that law enforcement officials say are favored by gang members and used for intimidation.

The proposed ordinance would also require spaying and neutering of all varieties of pit bulls and Rottweilers, including mutts that have "predominant physical characteristics" of those breeds.

"I want gangs out of Lancaster," Mayor R. Rex Parris said in a recent interview. "I want to make it uncomfortable for them to be here. Anything they like, I want to take it away from them. I want to deliberately harass them."

If the ordinance is approved Tuesday, Lancaster will join a growing list of Los Angeles County municipalities that have adopted laws aimed at curbing canine populations. But it would go a step further by specifically trying to identify dogs that are "potentially dangerous" or "vicious."

California law allows local authorities to target specific breeds for spaying and neutering, but specific breeds cannot officially be branded vicious.


Under the Lancaster ordinance, however, a hearing officer could deem an individual dog to be potentially dangerous or vicious.

For example, dogs that are unprovoked and engage in aggressive behavior, requiring a person to take defensive action, may be found to be potentially dangerous.

And dogs that are trained to be aggressive for fighting, inflict severe injury or death or are already listed as potentially dangerous may be determined to be vicious.

The ordinance would allow dogs in either category to be impounded and vicious dogs to be destroyed if deemed to be a significant threat to the public safety, officials said.

If an impounded dog was cleared for release, its owner would have to pay for the animal to be properly licensed, fitted with a microchip and vaccinated, in addition to other measures.

A fine of up to $500 would be leveled for each offense committed by a potentially dangerous dog and up to $1,000 per offense for a vicious dog.

And the owner of a vicious dog could be prohibited from possessing any dog for up to three years.

"It's really like [gangs] having a weapon that they are allowed to display and intimidate people," Parris said. "If they have a pit bull, they may as well put a sign on their head saying, 'Come get me.' "

Not everyone is happy about the proposed ordinance.

At a recent council meeting, dog trainers and owners -- some with their canines in tow -- showed up en masse to voice their opposition. They challenged the fairness of the proposed ordinance.

"There is no scientific proof that genetics cause a breed of dog to be aggressive, vicious or dangerous," dog trainer Carole Kelly told council members. "Irresponsible owners are to blame for the behavior of dogs. Breed-specific legislation is an injustice."

She also said that the health, development and temperament of a dog could be threatened by sterilization procedures.

Dogs less than 4 months old or considered at high medical risk are among those excluded from mandatory spaying or neutering under the proposed law.

But this doesn't satisfy dog owners such as resident A.J. Listman, a trainer and dog-show competitor who said she has helped rehabilitate aggressive canines.

"What happens when these gang members that you're trying to target move on to Dobermans or German shepherds? You going to restrict them too?" Listman asked the council.

"If they move on to cats," Parris responded, "I'm going to take their cats."

In an interview, Elizabeth Brubaker, Lancaster's director of housing and neighborhood revitalization, recounted several incidents in which she came across aggressive pit bulls while surveying foreclosed homes. The dogs sometimes roam free.


On one recent occasion a pit bull had bitten a hole in a chain-link fence at a home next to one Brubaker was visiting, she said.

She said a probation officer who wanted to enter the property had to spray the dog in order for it to retreat.

In another incident this year, Brubaker said, gang members illegally erected a basketball hoop on the public walkway of a city park and leashed a menacing pit bull to the pole so people wouldn't dare use the path.


Lancaster incidents involving aggressive dogs had escalated to such heights that Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich called last year for the establishment of a special task force run by the county's Department of Animal Care and Control.

During a pilot sweep conducted in Lancaster between September and November, animal control officers responded to 283 complaints about pit bulls, most of them strays or at large, according to statistics from the animal control agency. Almost 160 pit bulls were impounded, and almost 100 citations were issued to owners.

Marcia Mayeda, director of the animal control agency, said the county "strongly encouraged" Lancaster to adopt existing county laws regarding pet owners' responsibilities. The laws, which cover unincorporated areas, require all dogs more than 4 months old to be spayed or neutered and implanted with an identification microchip.

Faced with criticism, L.A. County backed off initial plans in 2006 to require specific breeds of dogs to be neutered.

"It makes a lot more sense for communities on the whole to require that all dogs be sterilized," Mayeda said. "Any animal can bite and be overproduced. It's also much easier to enforce."

Mayeda acknowledged that gang members see dogs such as pit bulls as a status symbol. But she expressed a view shared by many animal advocates that those who want to train a vicious dog would simply pick another breed.

Parris, an attorney whose law firm specializes in personal injury and class-action suits, is unapologetic about his desire to restrict the dogs. He said he is willing "to bear the weight of some injustice" against responsible owners.

"Even if people who are not gangbangers have their pit bulls taken away, it means that these beasts are off the streets," Parris said. "And they are indeed beasts. They're not Toto."

Jennifer King, a client of Parris' firm, strongly agrees. Her daughter Brittney Cesena, now 3, was mauled by a pit bull at the Palmdale home of a former family friend when she was 11 months old.

The toddler suffered grotesque facial injuries, and her ear had to be retrieved from the dog's stomach, according to the family's attorneys, who are suing the dog's owners for "negligence and strict liability."

The case is expected to go to trial later this year.

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