Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Lancaster mayor decides some dogs aren't innocent until proven guilty

Rottweilers, Pit Bulls and dogs who just “look like” Rottweilers and Pits could be in significant peril if a proposed ordinance in the City of Lancaster passes this Tuesday.

As reported in the January 26 edition of the L.A. Times, the ordinance would mandate breed-specific spaying and neutering of Rottweilers, Pit Bulls and mixed breeds “that have ‘predominant physical characteristics’ of those breeds,” which puts the fates of multitudes of big dogs, black dogs, and dogs of various ancestries with appearances similar to Pit Bulls and Rottweilers in the hands of non-experts, in a city whose leader has made clear his intent to persecute dogs in an attempt to harass some of their owners.

On the face of it, mandatory spay/neuter seems a laudable goal, in fact it’s something many animal advocates have pushed for over the years to reduce the number of homeless dogs put to death in shelters every day. Los Angeles passed a mandatory spay/neuter law in 2008 with this goal in mind. The difference however, is that the L.A. law doesn’t discriminate according to breed.

Tellingly, the proposed Lancaster ordinance also links this breed-specific mandatory sterilization with provisions that “a single hearing officer could deem an individual dog to be potentially dangerous or vicious.”

According to the Times this is an admitted and open agenda of persecution against Pit Bulls, Rottweilers and dogs who “look like” Rotties and Pits, spearheaded by Lancaster Mayor, and personal injury lawyer, R. Rex Parris, who flatly states this crusade against certain dog breeds is simply an attempt to harass suspected gang members.

“’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."

In response to opponents, including law abiding owners of the affected breeds (and any dog who may share a physical characteristic with either affected breed) who suggest that gang members deprived of Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, and dogs who bear any resemblance to these breeds could simply adopt another “status symbol,” Parris reportedly countered, “"If they move on to cats, I'm going to take their cats." Since the cases of cats who pose a danger to the public are vanishingly small, Parris is clearly stating his intent is not to reduce overbreeding or take action against proven dangerous animals, but to "take" pets regardless of whether or not they pose a threat to anyone in the community.

While it’s tempting to dismiss Parris as a small town despot, what he’s promoting is a dangerously un-American campaign of harassment and intimidation of the innocent in the vain hope of getting to (or simply annoying) the guilty, since even he isn't suggesting that his campaign against Rottweilers, Pit Bulls and visually similar dogs will actually be effective in eliminating the gang problem in Lancaster.

What’s more, breed specific legislation that targets one or two dog breeds (or in this case, breed-by-interpretation) can’t help but be inherently subjective – one person may see similarities to specific breeds in an individual dog, while another doesn’t. And since the AKC doesn’t even recognize the American Pit Bull Terrier among its catalog of breeds, what breed standard should an animal regulation or law enforcement officer use?

The arbitrary effects of such subjective interpretation can be seen in one episode of Animal Planet’s “Miami Animal Police.” In this episode, a Miami animal control agent prepares to impound a dog he insists is a Pit Bull, not because it has attacked anyone or any other animal, but because Miami-Dade County has breed specific legislation outlawing Pit Bulls. The owner protests that he has a note from a veterinarian stating that the dog is in fact an American Bulldog, which is a distinct breed recognized by various organizations across the U.S. and internationally. The agent’s response? “You and I both know this dog is a Pit Bull.” Watching one man unilaterally overrule the verdict of a trained veterinarian and interpret the law to suit himself, with the result that the dog owner is forced to relinquish the dog to be killed by authorities, to find someone outside the county to take custody of the dog, or to move out of the county, is a genuinely frightening look at lack of legal due process run amok. And again, in this case the dog did nothing to warrant this legal action except to exist, and to appear – to one man – to look like a Pit Bull.

According to the Times, Lancaster mayor Parris has no compunction about violating on the rights of the innocent, both human and canine, to attack those who he thinks may potentially be guilty. When asked about the possibility that his proposed ordinance may result in unjust seizures of dogs from law-abiding owners, he “is unapologetic about his desire to restrict the dogs,” saying 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."

It’s frightening to realize any city in America has a mayor who is willing to “bear the weight” of any injustice against his fellow citizens (as if the weight could be his to bear), in a country whose very founding principles are justice and equal rights for all, not to mention the premise that we are innocent until proven guilty. But a man who can insist, on the record, that all members of any dog breed are “beasts” is significantly uninformed about Pit Bulls, Rottweilers and, let us not forget, any dog who “looks like” a Pit or Rottweiler.

Parris is also professedly uninterested in the rights of American citizens. Either way, here's hoping the people of Lancaster have enough understanding of their rights, the rights of their fellow citizens, and the rights of animals who have done nothing wrong to exist peacefully, to defeat this ordinance, and tell their mayor that despite his blind prejudice, justice does still exist in their city.

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