Chicago trib article
Pit bull backers on guard for bans
Lawmakers who seek limits can get earful
By Carolyn Starks
Tribune staff reporter
Published February 22, 2006
When state Rep. Michael Tryon proposed legislation last month to control pit bulls, he quickly learned that some dog owners could be as difficult to handle as their pets.
The evening after Tryon (R-Crystal Lake) proposed a law that would let municipalities ban specific breeds, his fax machine started whirring non-stop. It finally jammed after spitting out nearly 500 protest letters, some from as far as California.
Large groups of dog owners wearing "Pit Bulls Have Rights" T-shirts protested in Springfield each time a committee discussed the bill. They cried, threatened and eventually got Tryon to table the bill Feb. 1.
"I became Public Enemy No. 1 to the pit bull people," Tryon said. "What I did was underestimate the energy that is needed to be put in to change this to protect the public. We need a consensus."
As the momentum to control dangerous dogs swells across Illinois and nationwide, dog owners have emerged as a well-organized and loud group of activists.
After Tryon's bill was introduced, the American Kennel Club issued a bulletin on its Web site urging "immediate help."
Members were asked to write letters, send e-mails and attend committee meetings to oppose the bill and others like it. The message listed the names and phone numbers of about a dozen Illinois legislators.
"There is a huge network out there of hundreds of thousands of people who are aware and keeping their eye open to these threats," said Lisa Peterson, a club spokeswoman. "When a threat comes, they send e-mails and letters to educate politicians that generic dangerous-dog laws would be better than breed-specific legislation."
Nationwide, roughly 230 cities in 32 states have pit bull legislation either passed or proposed, said Alan Beck, a professor at the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University.
So Tryon is not alone, Beck said.
"It's not like there is just this huge groundswell of pit bull people," said Beck, who has testified in Canada in support of a pit bull ban and has been on the receiving end of hate mail from dog owners. "They are just organized and noisy."
In Illinois, about 10 dangerous-dog bills or amendments are being discussed, most of them from politicians in districts where pit bull attacks have occurred.
Tryon acted in response to a Nov. 5 attack near Cary in which two children and four adults were severely injured by three pit bulls that escaped from their owner's home.
"In Illinois our laws are all about the animals and not the people," Tryon said. "Every time we try to do something about this, the lobbyists for [animal-welfare groups] get 5,000 people to jam our fax machines."
Legislators sometimes make the mistake of writing a knee-jerk law after an attack, legislation that is usually flawed, Beck said. Proposing breed bans is not typically a successful tactic, he said.
The dog advocates "attack the flaw, then the laws get readjusted and you get to something people can live with," Beck said.
Tryon hasn't backed off completely.
He joined with state Rep. Mike Boland (D-East Moline) as a co-sponsor on House Bill 4238. Under the proposed law, a dog owner would face a felony charge if the animal runs loose and severely injures someone.
It also adds provisions urged by the McHenry County Dangerous and Vicious Dog Task Force, such as giving county boards the authority to decide fines and penalties against owners whose dogs run at large.
The bill passed its committee Feb. 14 and is before the full House.
"I found that the dog advocates are pretty responsible folks," Boland said. "With this bill we're sending out a strong message that if you have a dog that could do damage, you better make darn sure it's in an enclosure or that you have a strong leash if you're taking it out."
Even those with what they believe is a friendly dog would do well to pay attention, he said.