Views split on pit bull ban effectiveness
BY TOM SHAW
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
Don Bauermeister, assistant Council Bluffs city attorney, is convinced that the city's 2005 ban on new pit bulls is responsible for a significant drop in pit bull bites.
"I don't think there's any debate about that," Bauermeister said. "It's had the impact that we hoped it would."
Denver, which reinstated its pit bull ban in 2005, also has seen a sharp drop in pit bull bites.
But as a vicious pit bull attack renews debate in Omaha about whether a ban is needed, a national animal rights attorney says there's no proof that such bans are effective.
A pit bull attacked and severely injured a 15-month-old girl Wednesday near 14th and Pine Streets.
The girl, Charlotte Blevins, was listed in serious condition Thursday at Creighton University Medical Center. She lost part of her scalp and was bitten on the chest and one ear, and she faces further surgery.
Another toddler and two adults also were attacked.
The dog was euthanized Thursday, and its body will be tested for rabies.
The Nebraska Humane Society has questioned the effectiveness of pit bull bans. Spokeswoman Pam Wiese said Thursday that "there's just a lack of information out there about whether pit bull bans work or not."
The Humane Society has consulted with Ledy VanKavage, an attorney for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. VanKavage believes that targeting a specific breed is misguided because an owner's actions and a dog's individual temperament determine how dangerous it is to others.
"It's a reckless owner problem, not a breed problem," she said.
Omaha City Councilman Jim Vokal, who represents the area where the attack took place, said it's time for the city to weigh some kind of pit bull ban or restrictions, such as confining pit bulls to fenced yards.
"It's my intention to start up the dialogue," he said. "What happened (Wednesday) can't happen anymore. We've got to protect the public."
Vokal was to meet this morning with the Humane Society. The city contracts with the society for animal control services.
Most council members said they were open to weighing a ban, though some cautioned that the city shouldn't be too hasty in its actions.
"The worst time to propose legislation is when everyone is emotionally charged," said Councilman Chuck Sigerson. "We need to sleep on this awhile to make sure we get it right."
Sigerson said attention in past years had been on Rottweilers, German shepherds and other dogs deemed dangerous, but the spotlight in recent years has shifted to pit bulls. He said the city would have to consider what to do about those other dogs if pit bulls were banned.
Mayor Mike Fahey, who said he was "deeply disturbed" by Wednesday's attack, plans to meet Monday with Humane Society and police officials to consider ways to prevent future attacks. A Fahey spokesman said a pit bull ban will be on the table for discussion.
Omaha already has laws on harboring dangerous animals. The owner of the dog in Wednesday's attack has been cited for harboring a dangerous animal, having a dog that displayed menacing behavior and improperly restraining an animal. Each of the three violations carries a maximum penalty of a $500 fine and six months in jail.
Wiese said the Humane Society will share with Omaha officials information about bans elsewhere, as well as research on alternatives to bans. They include registration and neutering requirements and anti-tethering laws. Tying up a dog in a yard can agitate the animal, leading it to attack when untethered.
Council Bluffs has had a pit bull ban since 2005. The ban meant that no new pit bulls could be licensed in the city. Existing pit bulls could stay if their owners had them registered, got them spayed or neutered, had an identification microchip implanted in the dog and had a minimum of $100,000 in liability insurance on their property.
Since the ban, the number of pit bull bites has dropped in Council Bluffs. So far this year, no pit bull bites have been recorded in the city. The number of bites from all kinds of dogs has dropped in Council Bluffs as well.
Galen Barrett, Council Bluffs' chief animal control officer, said another type of dog has not stepped in to replace pit bulls as a major cause of bites.
Denver passed its pit bull ban in 1989. It was reinstated in 2005 after the city successfully challenged a state prohibition on breed-specific bans. The number of pit bull bites there dropped from 39 in 2005 to nine last year, according to the Rocky Mountain News.
But VanKavage challenges whether officials know for sure that a pit bull mix was responsible for some incidents.
A better course of action, she said, is to target owners. Cities such as Tacoma, Wash., and states such as Minnesota prohibit people deemed to be reckless owners from having dogs.
"We want people protected against any dangerous dog," VanKavage said.
Bauermeister, the Bluffs attorney, said the problem with targeting only reckless owners is that their dogs have to do something dangerous first. "That policy," he said, "is a one-free-bite policy."
Omaha City Councilmen Dan Welch, Franklin Thompson and Jim Suttle also said they are willing to look at the pros and cons of a pit bull ban, although Welch also said more study is needed.
Councilman Garry Gernandt, however, opposes a pit bull ban because it could lead to bans of other breeds.
"You start banning pit bulls," he said, "and it goes to Rottweilers, then Doberman pinschers."
World-Herald staff writer Jason Kuiper contributed to this report.
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Bless the Bullys