Thursday, January 22, 2009

Pit Bulls To Have Their Day In Court

A Loudoun County judge has set a trial date for a lawsuit that could decide the fate of pit bulls taken to the county's animal shelter.

The suit seeks to overturn a long-standing county policy that bars adoption of pit bulls by the public. At a hearing last month, a judge scheduled the trial for May 5-7.

At issue is whether the county is violating a state law that gives people the right to adopt the dog of their choice from a publicly funded shelter. State law also says that "no canine or canine crossbreed shall be found to be a dangerous dog or vicious dog solely because it is a particular breed."

For years, Loudoun euthanized all abandoned pit bulls. The county revised its policy in 2007, allowing the animals to be transferred to rescue groups or shelters in other jurisdictions if the dogs passed a temperament test. The change came soon after Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) issued a nonbinding opinion saying that pit bulls taken to public pounds could not be euthanized based solely on their breed.

The plaintiffs in the suit, filed in 2007, are a Norfolk-based animal rescue group and Ronald Litz, a Sterling man who was turned down when he tried to adopt a pit bull from the shelter that year. They contend that the county treats pit bulls differently from other breeds and that the public should be allowed to adopt the animals.

County officials have cited public safety concerns. They also say that pit bulls undergo the same screening as other dogs at the Loudoun shelter.

Laura Rizer, spokeswoman for the Loudoun Department of Animal Care and Control, said that all unclaimed dogs go through a comprehensive evaluation that includes behavior monitoring.

The dogs are given a temperament test in which "we try to recreate normal situations that an animal would encounter in the home," she said. "Can you check their teeth? Can you give them a hug? Can you play with them? If they are determined to be adoptable, then we will look at options."

The plaintiffs' attorneys question whether such tests are a fair and accurate way to determine pit bulls' suitability as pets. For example, if a test involves a toy being yanked away from a dog, one would expect a pit bull to react differently than another breed placed in that situation, said Anthony F. Troy, who represents Litz and Animal Rescue of Tidewater.

"Is it fair to say that a pit bull fails the test because it happens to growl and pull back?" Troy asked. "Is that really a proper analysis for determining that a dog is really dangerous?"

Troy said he plans to have an animal behavior expert testify to raise questions about the merits of the temperament tests.

The Loudoun county attorney's office declined to comment, saying it does not discuss pending litigation.

After the lawsuit was filed, the Board of Supervisors considered but ultimately rejected allowing the public to adopt pit bulls cleared by animal behavior specialists.

Board members stand behind the ban on pit bull adoptions.

"We believe that the policy that we have is a good one and protects the public and also provides for an appropriate discharge of those dogs," said Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge.)

Since July 1, 49 pit bulls and mixed pit bull breeds have been euthanized, and three have been transferred to other shelters or animal rescue groups, according to the Loudoun shelter. Seventeen of the dogs have been transferred since that became an option in 2007.

Transferring a pit bull "is not an easy process, but we have had really good success," Rizer said. She said that although there is no time limit for housing a dog at the Loudoun shelter, living in a kennel can affect an animal's behavior. At least one pit bull deemed adoptable was euthanized after shelter officials spent three months trying to transfer the dog.

"Her behavior unfortunately deteriorated," Rizer said.

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