Proposed Pit Bull Regulation
By: Brian Kehrl
Since Canton adopted a strict bylaw regulating pit bulls, town officials in the Boston suburb feel they have gotten a better handle on the dogs and their owners. Most of the owners have complied with the bylaw, but not without heavy pressure from the town. A small group of other owners have not complied and are now facing fines and possible legal action.
Several of the dogs have been given away or the owners have left town.
After more than two years since the bylaw was adopted, the jury is still out on the bylaw, according to Canton Animal Control Officer Paul E. Bastable. “All in all, I’d have to say that I am still waiting to see,” he said in a telephone interview this week. “I was initially against this bylaw, but the more I see it, the more I think I’m not sure.”
Canton Town Clerk Tracy Kenney said, “I suppose it has worked to make us aware of where every pit bull is in town right now, so in that sense it has been effective. The dogs are being tracked. We know where they are; we know who the owners are. But the registration, filling out all the forms that are required, that is the tougher part. Maybe it is that some of the owners are upset. They already license their dogs annually, they follow the rules, their dog has never bitten anyone, never caused a problem. They feel their dogs are not a nuisance, so why should they have to go through all these extra hoops?”
There is no data available on the regulation’s effectiveness in reducing bites from pit bulls.
The experience in Canton, whose bylaw a pair of Mashpee residents used as an exact model for a petition article set to be considered at October Town Meeting, is likely a precursor for what can be expected in Mashpee if the petition is passed.
The Mashpee petition was proposed by residents Carmen E. and Melissa H. Shay, the next door neighbors to a residential kennel with six grown pit bulls behind Heritage Park. The Shays adamantly opposed the kennel, and soon after it was approved by the Mashpee design and plan review committees, filed the petition that would limit future kennels to just one pit bull per residential property.
The regulation requires a special license for pit bulls, with proof of a liability insurance policy of at least $1 million. The dogs are required to be caged or leashed and muzzled when the owner is not at home, and that the dogs be neutered or spayed, except for in circumstances involving the health of the dog. Signs would have to be posted at each entrance to the pit bull owner’s home that say “Warning – Pit Bull Dog.”
Dogs that are found on the loose, in violation of the bylaw, or to have attacked or “in any way menaced” someone or another dog are to be impounded by the animal control officer, who can then “dispose of” the dog “at his/her sole professional discretion,” according to the proposed bylaw.
The Mashpee Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to oppose the petition, which will be considered at Town Meeting on October 19.
The bylaw has proven to be explosively controversial, with Mashpee selectmen having received several dozen e-mails each from individuals and animal advocacy groups, arguing that “breed-specific legislation” does not work to reduce dog bites and unfairly treats even owners of dogs that have never caused problems. Instead of targeting specific breeds, their argument goes, laws should regulate “dangerous dogs” more broadly, so that if any dog proves to be a nuisance, the town can act swiftly and sternly to ensure it does not happen again.
The state Attorney General’s office reviewed the Canton bylaw, as it does every bylaw adopted by Town Meeting, and found that it does not conflict with other state laws. The ruling, however, came with the caveat that the bylaw may not stand up to a legal challenge in the court system. No such challenge has been attempted.
In Canton, the bylaw came up after the town had tried several times unsuccessfully to control a group of pit bulls that were consistently running loose in a residential neighborhood, according to Animal Control Officer Bastable. The family had four or five pit bulls—it was hard to say the exact number, because they seemed to come and go—and the dogs would often escape, cruising the neighborhood for extended periods of time, he said.
“One of the dogs, the one that would get out the most, he was real playful, so he would run up to kids in the neighborhood, wanting to play. He was friendly, but the families, they didn’t see a friendly dog. They saw a big pit bull running up to their kids,” Mr. Bastable said.
It got to the point that the neighborhood, a middle-class suburban area with lots of families, was like a ghost town, he said, with no children playing outside, he said.
The town cited the dog owners repeatedly, to no avail. The dogs were eventually taken by the town, he said.
The regulation was proposed by the previous animal control officer, under whom Mr. Bastable served as an assistant, and the Canton Board of Selectmen. After some debate in town about the bylaw, it passed handily by a voice vote at Canton Town Meeting, Ms. Kenney said.
He said there has not been much opposition to the bylaw in town, beyond a handful of pit bull owners.
“Their complaints are usually that their dog is sweet, that it has never bitten anyone. Though one time I was at a house, standing there explaining to a woman why it was in place and what she needed to do. She was complaining about it, saying her dog is good, and it lunged through the door and bit me on the leg,” he said.
Since it has passed, the number of pit bulls in Canton has dropped from about 20 down to 9, Ms. Kenney said.
The town has had a difficult time, however, keeping track of what dogs are pit bulls. The town has used the veterinarian’s breed identification on rabies vaccine documents required to register all dogs. But whether and how much of different mutts’ lineage is pit bull is not always known. One person, whose license information labeled her pet as part pit bull, complained after the bylaw was passed, saying that it was less than 10 percent pit, she said. But the bylaw prevents changing the breed once a veterinarian has identified it as pit bull, she said.
On one occasion, Ms. Kenney said, the town received several complaints about a dog that was being walked without a muzzle. When an officer responded to the complaints, the dog turned out to be a boxer, she said.
“To be honest, I don’t even know how easy it is for a veterinarian to determine what breed it is,” she said.
“I think we are doing better than we were a year ago. But we have spent a lot of time trying to hash it out how to deal with it,” she said.
There have been several cases where the owners would not comply with the new rules, some of which have been resolved, some of which have not, Mr. Bastable said. Two owners continued to walk their dogs in public without muzzles, but after the threat of fines, one has started using a muzzle and the other just walks his dog in his fenced-in back yard, he said.
Other owners have not filled out the paperwork or not put up the pit bull warning sign on their property, he said. The biggest noncompliance issues, however, are surrounding the liability insurance requirement, which costs a few hundred dollars a year. “That is money they should have as responsible dog owners, because of medical expenses or anything else that could come up. We are trying to get away from the younger kids who don’t have the means or the desire to be responsible owners,” he said.
He said the cases appear headed to court. “But from what our town counsel says, this is bulletproof and they don’t have much of a leg to stand on. So they are either going to have to comply or lose their dogs,” he said.
Helyn Spierdowis, president of the Norfolk County Humane Society, based in Canton, said the small, relatively affluent suburb has never been a major problem for pit bulls. The shelter has received dogs from other larger, more urban areas like Lynn and New Bedford, but never from Canton, she said.
She said the dogs have been rehabilitated, put through training and placed in appropriate homes given their history.
She said pit bulls get a bad reputation because of the owners, though the dogs can be raised and trained to be good pets.
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