Councilman Weiner offers to assist in exploring better ways to address dangerous dogs
By ANGIE BASIOUNY
The News Journal
New Castle County Councilman Jea P. Street wants to tighten the leash on pit bulls with legislation that would place the dogs under the same restrictions as a vicious animal, even if they have never attacked.
The tougher measures are expected to be introduced during tonight's council meeting. They would require specific breeds of bull terriers or pit bull mixes to be muzzled while off the owner's property. Owners also would need at least $100,000 in liability insurance in case the dog causes property damage or injury to a person or animal.
But opposition is mounting from critics who say such breed-specific legislation is unfair and doesn't address the real problem of owner accountability. Street said he feels compelled to protect residents, especially after a pit bull mix severely injured a 3-year-old girl last month in an unprovoked attack in the Oakmont development in New Castle County.
"They can duck that and they can vote it down," he said. "But at least I will have stood on my principles and done what I can do as one council person with limited capability to make a change."
Street said he was working on changes to the county's animal control laws before the Jan. 30 attack, citing continual problems with aggressive dogs. In 2002, a pit bull killed a 2-year-old boy in the boy's Edgemoor Gardens yard.
"You've got a specific breed that's terrorizing the community," Street said. "I'm doing it because the dogs are dangerous, people are afraid of them, people have been complaining and nobody wants to step to the plate."
The proposal has drawn the attention of the American Kennel Club, which sent a letter to council last week stating its longtime position against breed-specific legislation.
Lisa Peterson, spokeswoman for the AKC, said communities need to combat dog problems with stronger enforcement of leash laws rather than targeting certain animals. Pit bulls are bred to be aggressive and are stronger than most other dogs, she said, but owners are responsible for socializing them to be gentle or ferocious.
"We would like to see generic dangerous dog legislation that puts responsibility at the other end of the leash with the owner," Peterson said. Mark Riley of New Castle agrees.
Riley, a local musician, has a pit bull puppy he is trying to sell because he can no longer care for it. But he loves the breed and thinks the spotlight should be trained on bad owners rather than bad dogs.
"I don't understand why they would separate them legally from other dogs," he said. "It's how you bring your animals up. My grandmother had a cocker spaniel that she trained to attack."
Street thinks punishing owners after an attack is too little, too late. He hopes toughening the ordinance will help stem dog attacks before they happen.
Breed-specific legislation is nothing new in Delaware and across the country.
Cities and counties nationwide have tried to ban or control pit bulls, Rottweilers and other aggressive breeds with limited success. The city of Denver last year won a challenge to its ordinance banning pit bulls when a district court determined the legislation was fair.
"That sort of opened up the door," Peterson said.
The American Kennel Club has tracked breed-specific legislation efforts in 37 cities in 17 states since Jan. 1, she said.
If Street's proposal is approved, the legislation would be the first of its kind among Delaware's three counties.
Kent and Sussex counties have no breed-specific provisions, and House Speaker Terry Spence, R-Stratford, removed language from a 2002 bill that would have included five breeds in statewide dangerous-dog legislation that never came up for a vote.
Wilmington is the only municipality in the state with laws specifically governing pit bulls.
After a series of pit bull attacks in the city, Wilmington in 2000 mandated registration of the dogs, banned new pit bulls and required owners to keep them muzzled outside.
"I'm a little surprised at the immediate outcry because my legislation is consistent with the city ordinance," Street said. "To me it was compromise legislation from the gate, because in my heart I think pit bulls should be banned. But I knew full well I wouldn't get any support for that."
Street still may not have enough support for his proposal.
He attempted to get the revised ordinance to the floor for a vote on Feb. 14 as an additional item that wasn't posted on the council agenda. Under the law, at least seven of the 13 council members must agree to allow a vote on an unadvertised item. Street didn't have those votes.
Now that the legislation has been advertised, it will come up for a vote no earlier than March 14. At least two council members -- David Tackett and Robert Weiner -- have said they will not support it.
"His goal is laudable, but it's misdirected," Weiner said, adding that he plans to work with Street to form a coalition of residents and animal control experts who can explore better ways to solve dangerous-dog issues.
Both Tackett and Weiner said they are concerned about the enforcement of breed-specific legislation. Street's proposal defines pit bulls as American Staffordshire terriers, American pit bull terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers or any dog with physical traits of one or more of those breeds. That definition leaves a lot of room for interpretation, they said.
"You're going to get frantic calls from somebody walking a poodle down the street," said Tackett, who breeds and shows English bulldogs.
Officers with the Delaware Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals handle animal control in New Castle and Sussex counties. John Caldwell, the organization's executive director, said the proposed legislation would be an enforcement nightmare without any real chilling effect on the number of pit bulls.
Under Wilmington's law, the SPCA confiscated 75 pit bulls in the past several weeks. Only nine were adopted and 10 were taken back by their owners. Fifty-six were euthanized because their owners abandoned them.
Caldwell said most owners of confiscated pit bulls simply get another dog rather than pay the fines, licensing fees and medical costs to retrieve their dog.
Pit bulls are capable of inflicting much bodily harm because "when they bite, they don't release," Caldwell said. "He locks onto you and he does not let go."
But he said they are also loyal dogs that make great pets.
"It really comes down to responsible pet ownership."
Lynn King, who lives in Edgemoor Gardens, where the boy was killed by a pit bull several years ago, doesn't care that the dogs can be trained to be gentle. A member of her block watch, she said many people in her neighborhood live in fear of pit bulls there.
"People see a pit bull puppy and they think they're cute and cuddly, but they're not lap dogs," she said.
She supports Street's proposal and said she's incensed when she hears critics hide behind the bad-owner argument.
"I've said this before about pit bull owners: It's their weapon of choice," King said. "They don't need a gun, they have a pit bull."
Contact Angie Basiouny at 324-2796 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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