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Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Maryland Court Unleashes Canine Profiling

Dog lovers across the country are barking mad over last week’s Maryland Court of Appeals decision declaring that all pit bull-type dogs are “inherently dangerous.” The misguided and overreaching ruling treats all pit bulls and pit bull mixes as a category, rather than individual animals. It could make owners, landlords, veterinarians, kennels, animal shelters, rescue groups, and anyone in custody of a dog automatically liable, regardless of whether they know a dog actually poses a threat.

This is a major step backwards for the state of Maryland, and puts both dogs and people at risk. This sweeping decision is a case of canine profiling. It may force law-abiding citizens to face a painful and life-changing decision—move out of Maryland or give up their beloved dogs. It could increase the number of stray pit bull-type dogs on the streets and euthanized in shelters, turning back progress made by animal shelters and rescue groups over the past few decades.

PitbullThere are already reports surfacing this week of pit bulls abandoned in the wake of the court ruling, such as two unaltered dogs thrown out on the street in the Southern Park Heights neighborhood of Baltimore when their owner was threatened with eviction. Rather than protect public safety, the court’s fiat has the opposite effect: It has the potential to create packs of free-roaming pit bulls roaming Maryland neighborhoods, rather than living safely as beloved family pets. Taxpayers and municipal agencies will bear the financial burden of addressing public health and safety problems caused by feral dog packs.

The entire decision is misguided, because breed alone is not predictive of whether a dog may pose a danger. A dog’s propensity to bite is a product of several factors including early socialization, a dog’s living conditions and the owner’s behavior. For example, chained dogs and non-neutered dogs are much more likely to bite.

And who’s to decide whether a dog is a pit bull and therefore unwelcome with a cursory visual exam? According to a recent study by the Maddie’s Fund Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida, which looked at a group of 120 dogs at four animal shelters, 55 of those dogs were identified as “pit bulls” by shelter staff, but only 25 were confirmed as pit bulls by DNA analysis. Additionally, the staff missed identifying 20 percent of the dogs who were pit bulls by DNA analysis, while only 8 percent of the “true” pit bulls were identified by all staff members. (Even DNA testing is not 100 percent reliable, but it underscores why breed-specific policy is unworkable.) The National Canine Research Council has a clearinghouse of resources demonstrating that breed labels assigned to dogs of unknown origin are usually inaccurate.

Many dogs merely resembling the pit bull-type look will be swept up and punished by this ruling, and there may be expensive court battles over whether a dog is or isn’t a pit bull. With as many as 75 percent of shelter dogs being mixed breeds, this is not an anti-pit bull decision, but an anti-dog decision.

In issuing this ruling, the Maryland Court of Appeals has clearly overstepped its authority. Sound public safety policies should be made by the legislature after conducting appropriate fact-finding and hearings and considering the available science. We will be asking Maryland state lawmakers to immediately pass legislation to clarify the law and overturn this dangerous ruling. Concerned Maryland citizens and dog lovers should contact your state legislators today.

You can also show your support by submitting your favorite pit bull pictures to the “We Love Maryland Pit Bulls” photo album on the HSUS Maryland Facebook page. Or post them with the hashtag #LoveMDpitbulls on Twitter. Let’s show Maryland officials they should punish the deed, not the breed.


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