Last Monday, I participated in a presentation on the topic of breed-discriminatory legislation (BDL) to an audience comprised of members of the general public, which was acting as a focus group. Such legislation tends to focus these days (though not exclusively) on pit bulls and dogs who look like pitties. Basically, any medium-sized dog with a muscular build and a short coat is targeted.
One of the surprising moments from the presentation was when the audience poo-pooed the idea that police would ever go house to house and forcibly confiscate family pets as part of a BDL enforcement. This group of trusting folks could not imagine that such Gestapo-like tactics could ever take place in America, where one’s home and property are thought to be sacrosanct. In fact, house-to-house pit bull seizures – complete with scenes of family pets being pulled from the arms of crying children – have characterized BDL enforcement wherever it has been implemented. And, in places like Denver, where pit-bull-type dogs are banned outright, even families driving through with a suspect dog have been victimized by BDL.
Little did we suspect as we spoke to a disbelieving audience about such Draconian measures that officials in Sikeston, Missouri, were about to launch a pit bull round-up.
Here is how it went down on Wednesday, December 5, according to reporter Chris Hayes of the St. Louis FOX TV affiliate KTVI:
The reported pit bulls may have no reported problems. Some may not even be pit bulls, like Yulonda Mitchell’s dogs. Mitchell said officers took her brother’s dogs, even though she believed they were bulldogs.
She said her family dogs were ‘licensed and up to date on their shots. We did everything, you know, complied with the city ordinance, but they still wanted to remove the dogs.’
Chris Hayes asked, ‘This was a family pet?’
Mitchell, ‘It was a family pet.’
After witnessing the Sikeston round-up, Hayes contacted Best Friends’ Ledy VanKavage, who heads up our pit bull initiatives and also serves as our chief legislative analyst. Hayes wanted to confirm his understanding that the trend in Missouri, where it applied, was toward the repeal of local BDL ordinances. He also wanted to alert Ledy to the fact that, contrary to the trend, Sikeston was ramping up enforcement of its anti–pit bull law with a round-up that was taking place now.
Ledy, who is also head of the Animal Law Committee of the American Bar Association, swung into action:
I called the city attorney and asked if he knew that the American Bar Association had passed a resolution calling for the repeal of all breed-discriminatory or breed-specific laws and the enactment of good generic dangerous dog/reckless owner laws. He did not, so I emailed him a copy of the ABA resolution, the USDOJ COPS (U.S. Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services) book on dog-related incidents and encounters and got a Best Friends’ Action Alert up on Capwiz to time it to coincide with the FOX 2 St. Louis news report. I also immediately emailed the city council members on behalf of Best Friends, asking that they repeal their breed-discriminatory law.
Chris Hayes included a link to the Best Friends’ Action Alert in his online story accompanying the FOX 2 TV footage, and the response was amazing. In the first 24 hours, 300 residents of Missouri had contacted Sikeston’s mayor and city and council members with an email requesting that the city cease its pit bull round-up, repeal its discriminatory law that does nothing to advance public safety, and enact the type of general dangerous dog/reckless owner–based ordinance that has a proven public safety track record. After two days, that number had soared to over 1,300 emails.
The results were positive and immediate. Sikeston suspended its round-up of pit-bull-type dogs, and on Friday, the city manager was claiming that it didn’t really happen that way, etc., etc.
Sikeston’s surreal and seemingly un-American seizure of personal property and, more truthfully for most, family members, is only the most public and painful component of the failure and misrepresentation of BDL as a public safety measure.
Let’s be clear: We all want safe communities, and we certainly don’t want kids or anyone else to be bitten or attacked by a dangerous dog. Unfortunately, the Sikeston law and all others like it are not about confining, managing or removing dangerous dogs from the community. Sikeston’s breed-based law doesn’t target dangerous behavior on the part of dogs or their owners that might pose a threat to the public. Such laws target dogs and their families based on the appearance of the dog and how much their look conforms to that of the target breed in the eyes of the enforcement officer. It doesn’t matter if the dog in question is a gentle family pet, with no history of undesirable behavior. So, pit bulls, pit mixes, and other random short-coated, muscular mutts are at risk, regardless of how well-behaved they are, how social they are, or how many years they have been responsible members of the community simply because the law declares them dangerous by the fact of their birth. Behavior-based dangerous dog laws, on the other hand, go after threatening behavior in dogs of whatever breed and irresponsible owners who encourage or permit such behavior before attacks occur. Proactive enforcement includes management, restraint and confinement requirements as appropriate before anyone gets hurt.
Behavior-based dangerous dog laws actually work in protecting the public from dog bites because they target the real problem rather than play to the pit bull stereotype.
So if you, like our Monday audience, think that the house-to-house seizure of pets is just our version of “black helicopter” paranoia, please check out Chris Hayes’ piece, and if you live in Missouri, please let your voice be heard through Best Friends’ Action Alert.
Best Friends’ advocacy and legislative work on behalf of pit-bull-type dogs has been spectacularly successful. Over 380,000 dogs so far this year alone have been spared from Sikeston-type injustice thanks to the efforts of Ledy and her team and, of course, thanks to you and your generous support of the work of Best Friends.
Best Friends Animal Society