Friday, October 24, 2008

You Win Some

One of the most depressing parts of our job here at PBRC is reading reports of newly enacted breed-specific legislation. As last summer’s battle in Lakewood, Ohio illustrated, such laws are based on little more than personal opinion, flat-out untruths, and a total unwillingness to accept empirical evidence. In Lakewood, for example, Councilman Brian Powers publicly admitted that he had no proof that pit bulls were more dangerous than other breeds, then went ahead and pushed through an unpopular ban. In the process, he managed to insinuate that the entire field of veterinary medicine is lying about pit bulls, because they don’t want to offend anyone. The gist of his message was this: nobody—including the AVMA, the CDC, and the AKC—knows the truth about pit bulls except for me, Brian Powers.

It's encouraging to hear, then, that a twenty-year-old breed-specific ordinance will be repealed in Canton, Illinois, where a little bit of knowledge, a whole lot of legwork, and old-fashioned gutsiness are winning out.

Back on September 25th, Canton resident Joy Ashwood e-mailed us with a request:
I am looking for information on ordinances that state that "pit bulls" have to be muzzled if they are off the owners property. Canton is enforcing this ordinance by issuing tickets to owners. The City Attorney said she is unsure if it is enforceable, however, she is looking forward to proscuting the first case.

My son has a pit bull that is a big baby and I would hate to see him labled as a "vicious dog," which is what the ticket is for. Are there any websites that you know of that deal with this type of thing, or any insight you can give me?

Thank you.
Apparently, for a long time, Canton has had an ordinance requiring pit bulls to wear a muzzle in public. Such laws do nothing but stigmatize and shame owners who are responsible enough to exercise their dogs on a leash, making it less likely that pit bull owners will socialize and exercise their dogs. Public health studies show that dog bites rarely occur when dogs are on leash in public. In fact, you are most likely to be bitten on private property by a dog that you know (say, your neighbor’s dog or your friend’s dog). Attacks that cause serious injuries overwhelmingly involve dogs that are chained, penned, or roaming around.

For this very reason, Illinois has one of the country’s better state-level dangerous dog laws. HB184, more commonly know as “Ryan’s Law,” prohibits breed-specific legislation while laying down strict guidelines as to how dangerous dogs should be classified and handled. (Incidentally, Senator Barack Obama supported this bill as an Illinois State Senator. He is the first presidential candidate to have signed off on legislation prohibiting BSL.)

We wrote back with the following:
Hi Joy,

As far as I know, Illinois has a law, "Ryan's Law," that prohibits breed specific legislation. I'm not sure of the specific language of the law, but you can read it here:

This would supersede any local ordinances. I believe it also sets the criteria for which dogs should be labeled vicious (being a "pit bull" isn't one of them).
Good luck, and please keep us updated.

, PBRC Volunteer
Some Illinois municipalities have gotten around Ryan’s Law by claiming “home rule,” so we weren’t sure how it would work out. But a few weeks later, we heard back from Joy:
Hi Josh,

Thank you so much for your information. My son contacted the humane society of Illinois and through his local chapter a law suit was filed against the City of Canton. I have attached the article out of the local paper. Once again, without you bringing this law to our attention we would not have known about it. So, on behalf of all pit bull owners in Canton (several received tickets) thank you!

Joy Ashwood on behalf of Jonsey, my Son’s beloved Pit Bull
So Canton’s breed-specific legislation was unconstitutional, but the law was severely out-of-date, and nobody had bothered to challenge it. According to The Canton Daily Ledger, at the urging of about two-dozen concerned dog owners, the city council immediately repealed the section of the ordinance defining pit bulls as vicious: “Citations for violating that section of the ordinance will not be enforced, and anyone who has received such a citation will not have to appear in court.”

This is great news for the dog owners of Canton, and it’s one hearting example of how courage and the right information actually works sometimes. PBRC thanks Joy Ashwood, her son Bill, and the other diligent pit bull owners in Canton, as well as the Human Society of Central Illinois, for taking action against an unfair and ineffective law. Pit bull owners everywhere should take a second to thank Alderman Jason Strandberg for lending a sympathetic ear to his constituents and for taking action to remove the unconstitutional section.

— Josh

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