Government & Politics

In a quiet trend, pit bull bans are disappearing

Shandy (left) and Pippa are among pit bulls and pit bull mixes at Kansas City’s animal shelter at 4400 Raytown Road. The breed makes up about half of the shelter population on any given day, says Brent Toellner of KC Pet Project, which runs the shelter.
Shandy (left) and Pippa are among pit bulls and pit bull mixes at Kansas City’s animal shelter at 4400 Raytown Road. The breed makes up about half of the shelter population on any given day, says Brent Toellner of KC Pet Project, which runs the shelter. Special to The Star

Firefighters needed an ax and a pike pole to pry the snarling pit bull off of 71-year-old Jimmie Mae McConnell’s torn and bloody body.

That fatal dog attack in 2006 led to calls for tougher enforcement of the now-24-year-old pit bull ban in Kansas City, Kan., while prompting other area cities to tighten their restrictions on a breed known for its muscular build and savage bite.

Yet thanks to research that shows little correlation between fatal dog bites and the breeds of the dogs inflicting those wounds, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., is now considering what would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

Unified Government commissioners this month will take up a comprehensive animal-control ordinance that repeals the ban on pit bulls.

Instead, the proposed policy would impose new rules and restrictions aimed at preventing dog attacks without regard to breed by focusing on the behavior of animal owners and their pets.

Owners who mistreat or neglect dogs in ways that could make them mean, such as leaving them chained outside all day, would be subject to higher fines and possible jail time. Dogs that threaten or bite people, whether a German shepherd, pit bull or Chihuahua, would be subject to a zero-tolerance policy.

Reversing Kansas City, Kan.’s ban on pit bulls, however, is far from a sure thing, says Commissioner Hal Walker, who sat on the committee that has been studying the proposed changes since last spring.

“I do believe our ordinance should deal with all vicious dogs,” he said, but he also was friends with someone who needed 200 stitches after being attacked by a pit bull.

“Therefore, I’m not committed to exempting pit bulls yet.”

Roeland Park is also rethinking its pit bull ban. A proposal much like the one under consideration by its neighbor to the north will be discussed at a forum set for 7 p.m. Monday at the Roeland Park Community Center.

This breed-neutral approach has had fits and starts nationally. Nineteen states have enacted laws prohibiting local governments from banning specific dog breeds.

A similar bill passed through committee in the last session of the Missouri General Assembly, but it never became law.

On Tuesday in Aurora, Colo., voters defeated a measure that would have erased that city’s ban. Opponents feared that the Denver suburb would become a magnet for pit bull owners when bans remained in place throughout much of the rest of that metro area.

But the trend is starting to take hold in the Kansas City region. Topeka got rid of its pit bull ban in 2010. Closer to home, Bonner Springs did so last January and Riverside the year before.

Kansas City, Kan., is the most populous city in the metro area to seriously consider dropping its ban. If it is repealed, animal welfare advocates hope it will cause other area municipalities to reconsider their prohibitions.

“It’s not good public policy anymore, it’s just silly,” said Katie Barnett, a Lawrence attorney who leads a coalition of animal welfare groups campaigning to update local animal control laws.

Professionals for a Humane & Safe KC wants changes or tweaks in everything from pet adoptions to managing the surplus of feral cats.

But reversing pit bull bans, and the thinking behind them, is the biggest challenge given what the breed’s advocates say are unfair characterizations of the dogs as vicious killers.

While Kansas City has never prohibited the breed (but does require the dogs be sterilized), bans remain in some of the larger suburbs, including Overland Park, Independence, Shawnee, Liberty, Grandview, Prairie Village and Leawood.

Most were put in place in the 1980s and 1990s after a string of highly publicized pit bull attacks. Some blamed that on the breed, while others put the blame on irresponsible owners who purposely (in the case of drug dealers) or through neglect allowed their dogs to become mean.

“They’ve gotten a bad rap,” said Roeland Park resident and former pit bull owner Geoff Geist. Because of the dogs’ strength and forceful bite, he agrees, pit bulls can be very dangerous “if they go bad.”

But when well-treated by responsible owners, they make great pets, says Geist, who recently sent Roeland Park City Council members a video of his toddler being licked by a pit bull mix that his family once owned named Lady.

“She was one of the most loving pets I’ve ever had,” he said.

That’s also the image portrayed on “Pit Bulls and Parolees,” a popular show on Animal Planet the last several years. Host Tia Torres was recently a guest on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” another pit bull lover.

“They’re incredibly affectionate dogs,” Stewart said on the show. “Super sweet.”

Although the breed is still demonized by some, the latest research shows pit bull bans are not only unfair to pet owners because they don’t distinguish between well-behaved and vicious dogs, but they are also a waste of limited resources.

The American Veterinary Medicine Association, the American Bar Association and other groups say that animal control departments are better off addressing the public safety risks of problem animals than on impounding every dog that happens to look like a pit bull.

Indeed, that’s how many local ordinances are written because, technically speaking, there is no breed known simply as a pit bull.

Liberty’s ordinance is typical. It defines a pit bull as any of several types of bull terriers, or “any dog which has the appearance and characteristics” of those breeds: square head and bulky body.

That vagueness has led to court challenges, but a Kansas Supreme Court ruling set a precedent when it upheld Overland Park’s ordinance.

Brent Toellner is one who hopes local policymakers rethink the pit pull bans now on the books. He’s co-founder of KC Pet Project, which runs the Kansas City animal shelter, and says 25 percent of the dogs the shelter impounds are some form of pit bull. Yet they make up about half of the shelter population on any given day.

Toellner blames that on scattershot local policies where, for instance, it’s legal to keep a pit bull in Lenexa, but one block away in Shawnee or Overland Park, it isn’t.

“So many people come in and fall in love with them and want to adopt them,” he said, “but find out they can’t keep them in their community.”

In a region where space in today’s no-kill animal shelters is always at a premium, that’s a huge impediment.

But ultimately, the issue is not about fairness to dog owners, crowded animal shelters or even the statistics that dog attacks are more the fault of pet owners than the dogs themselves.

It’s about public safety.

“I’m told by experts that what we need is a vicious dog ordinance as opposed to singling out a breed,” Walker said, but he remains uncertain about relaxing the ban.

“What we need is a good discussion,” he said.

To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738, or send email to mhendricks@kcstar.com.

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