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January 20 2006 - Detroit weighs tough pit bull restrictions

The Detroit City Council is proposing a pit bull ban that would place costly restrictions on current owners, require visitors with pit bulls to obtain a permit and require any puppies older than 8 weeks to be taken out of the city or put to death.  

Current owners, who would be grandfathered in under the proposed new law, would need to have their pit bull licensed by the city, take out $ 100,000 worth of liability insurance for each dog and have the animal spayed or neutered, among other restrictions.

Victims of dog attacks and residents sick of stray pit bulls roaming the streets are behind the proposal, but it relies on enforcement from a department that was one on the first casualties of the city’s worsening budget crisis.

The city's animal-control and care division has been decimated in the last four years, losing more than a third of its people and making it virtually impossible to enforce the law, manager Angela Hines said Thursday.

In addition, Hines said, the pit bulls' reputation for ferociousness -- seen as a status symbol by some -- may be more the by-product of nurture than nature.

Hines, a veterinarian, said pit bulls have been bred for fighting because of their massive, powerful jaws. But they were not bred for attacking humans.

"Inbreeding and irresponsible owners have led to that," she said.

The American Canine Foundation says that while the American pit bull terrier shares terrier traits, such as prey drive, it does not make them inherently vicious or dangerous.

The ban was proposed by City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson in the wake of three high-profile dog killings in metro Detroit last year -- only one of which involved a pit bull.

Pit bull owner Krandall Pettway called the proposed ban ridiculous.

"I understand the name pit bulls have, but it's about how people raise their dogs," said Pettway, who owns a five-month old American pit bull terrier named Mimi that he plans to enter in dog shows. "My dog is not vicious at all. ... Don't punish the breed; punish the owners doing bad things."

But supporters of the ban say it is about time the city toughened its dangerous-dog laws.

"I'm glad, but I wish they had done something sooner," said Frankie Tortonesi, 40, a former Detroit mail carrier attacked by a pit bull while on her west-side route seven years ago.

A pit bull terrier mauled Tortonesi six weeks before her son's birth, leaving her arms broken, shredded and bloodied. She said she was unable to return to work after the attack.

Detroit joins several cities nationwide considering solutions to so-called dangerous dogs. Denver, Miami, Cincinnati and Windsor have passed pit bull bans. In Florida and Virginia, several counties are creating online registries for vicious dogs similar to those for sex offenders.

In Detroit, there has been talk of a pit bull ban for almost 20 years. The issue was revisited in the wake of several bloody attacks in metro Detroit last year, including the Waterford mauling.

In April, two pit bull terriers killed 6-year-old Cassidy Jeter as she walked with her younger brother near their Hamtramck home. And in December, Detroiter Mary Stiles, 91, was fatally mauled by her bullmastiff. In all cases, the dogs were family pets.

Detroit modeled its latest proposal on the city of Denver, which has one of the toughest pit bull bans in the country. The 17-year-old ban applies to any dog that looks like a pit bull, regardless of its behavior.

It was challenged when Colorado prohibited breed-specific bans in the state. But last year, a judge ruled it was an unconstitutional violation of local control. For the first four months after Denver reinstated its ban, the city destroyed more than three pit bulls a day.

Animal advocates and owners say pit bulls are not inherently dangerous to humans and that such a law will not work because it doesn't address the real problem -- irresponsible dog owners. Plus, they say the law singles out pit bulls, but doesn't take into account other big dogs, such as Rottweilers.

Deborah MacDonald, chief cruelty investigator for the Michigan Humane Society in Detroit, worries that a ban on pit bulls will make it harder to find abused dogs because it will force those people already using the animals for illegal activity to go further underground.

"I just hope the city does not have a knee-jerk reaction to solve the problem because it's more complicated than that," said MacDonald, who has been featured on the Animal Planet series "Animal Cops." "Another dog will just replace the pit bull as a status symbol."
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