Pet Tales: Lawyers go to bat for pit bulls

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Some dogs are feared and hated just because of the way they look. Some dogs are feared and hated because of their breed, even if they've never bitten anyone and are the well-trained, much-loved pets of responsible, law-abiding dog owners.

Now dogs that are undeservedly feared and hated are being championed by an unlikely source -- lawyers.

One segment of the American Bar Association has voted to urge all state and local lawmakers to repeal laws that discriminate against dogs because of their appearance or breed. The resolution from the ABA's Tort Trial & Insurance Practice Section urges legislators to adopt "breed-neutral dangerous dog/reckless owner laws."

The resolution, approved last month, calls for an end to "breed-specific legislation" or "breed-discriminatory legislation."

The dogs we're talking about here are mostly pit bulls and any purebred or mixed-breed dog that looks like a pit bull. Purebreds include the American pit bull terrier and American Staffordshire terrier. In many cases, breed-specific legislation applies to so-called "bully breeds," including bull terriers (like the cute dog used in Target department store ads) and Staffordshire bull terriers.

Breed-specific legislation is a slippery and shifting slope, with other breeds targeted at times, including Rottweilers, Doberman pinschers and Akitas. Many of the big, powerful breeds used by police officers and search and rescue groups have been targeted as well, including German shepherds.

Some cities and municipalities have banned specific breeds, including Miami/Dade County, where for 23 years it's been illegal to own a pit bull. Ohio recently repealed a statewide ban on pit bulls.

Other municipalities have imposed restrictions, such as requiring pit bulls to wear muzzles at all times, mandating expensive heavy-duty fences or kennels, and my personal favorite -- requiring owners of targeted breeds to purchase insurance or bonds that cost thousands of dollars.

Pennsylvania prohibits legislation that applies only to a specific breed.

Last month, the governor of Massachusetts signed legislation making breed-discriminatory legislation illegal, thereby "becoming the 13th state in the nation to reject canine profiling," according to a news release from the American Bar Association.

The ABA resolution that champions pit bulls and other targeted breeds does not have much "bite," pardon the pun. But there is a lot of symbolic power here, for the ABA has about 400,000 members and the torts and insurance section has about 25,000 members.

"I think it will be very persuasive to city attorneys and attorneys in general," said Ledy VanKavage, immediate past chair of the TIPS Animal Law Committee. "People love their pets, no matter what their appearance. This is America. Responsible pet owners should be allowed to own whatever breed they want. They should not have to live in fear of their pets being seized and killed simply because of their appearance."

Ms. VanKavage also works for the Best Friends Animal Society, where she is senior legislative attorney. Her personal pet is Karma, a pit bull terrier who was seized by police in a dog fighting ring bust.

Ms. VanKavage is not soft on dogs that attack and bite people and other dogs. Those dogs and their owners should be prosecuted, she said, and she'd like to see stricter laws with more severe penalties for "reckless" or "irresponsible" owners. She'd also like to see laws that ban repeat offenders from acquiring new dogs when their dangerous dogs are taken away from them.

Fun facts

Maybe dogs really are man's best friend, a Consumer Reports survey suggests. Dog owners are willing to spend more than cat owners would spend to save the life of a pet -- $1,620 for dog owners and $1,309 for cat owners.

Dogs and cats are lumped together in other parts of the survey in Consumer Reports' October issue. Half of the pet owners surveyed give holiday gifts to Fluffy and Fido. Thirty-six percent of pet owners sign cards with the names of their pets. And, 32 percent of dog owners and 23 percent of cat owners have posted pet photos on social media sites.

Go to www.consumerreports.org/cro/pets1012 to see the full article.

The Cat's Meow

"We've had a summer from cat rescue hell," said Rise Chontos, who has helped save thousands of cats since 1978. "Abandonments up, donations down."

Ms. Chontos operates In Care of Cats Inc., a 501(c)3 nonprofit with a 2-acre hospice/sanctuary in Elizabeth Township. She especially helps felines that are abandoned, abused, sick or injured.

"The Cat's Meow" is the group's fundraising event next Saturday, starting at 5:30 p.m. at the Central Fire Hall, 425 Scenery Drive, Elizabeth (15037). Donations are $25 per ticket. There will be an auction "of posh and trendy must-haves," cash bar, games and prizes.

Send email to incareofcats@comcast.net to order tickets.

Pet Tales at PGU

There's still time to sign up for the Post-Gazette University class that I'm teaching from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at our office building, 34 Boulevard of the Allies. The main theme explains how 15 minutes of daily play time can improve the life of your dog. There will be tips and discussions about good dog toys and games and tips on housebreaking.

The cost is $35, which includes free parking. Go to www.post-gazette.com/pgu or call 412-263-1302.

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Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Linda Wilson Fuoco: lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3064. Got a pet health question? Email it to petpoints@post-gazette.com. It may be answered in an upcoming Pet Points column by veterinarians at the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic.


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