by Natalie Roy
Breed specific laws have become more pervasive as the number of dog attacks in the U.S. grows each year — but for one targeted dog breed, life truly is the pits.
American pit bull terriers, commonly known as “pit bulls,” are the targets of breed-specific restrictions and bans in over 500 U.S. cities, and a recently proposed law is seeking to add the entire state of Texas to that list.
“Justin’s Law,” a controversial pit bull ban currently seeking legislative support, would make pit bull ownership in Texas a felony and would mark the first-ever statewide pit bull ban. The proposed law was named after 10-year-old Justin Clinton, who was mauled to death by two pit bulls in 2009.
“For that legislation to be passed would be disgusting,” said Winter Morvant, president and founder of The Pit Krewe, a Baton Rouge pit bull advocate group. “The incident that incited the legislation was horrible, but punishing an entire breed for the actions of two dogs just isn’t right.”
But with nearly 800,000 “serious” dog bites occurring a year, some may argue that more than a few pit bulls are to blame.
According to a 24-year study conducted by Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People newspaper, pit bulls, along with Rottweilers and Presa Canarios, are the breeds most likely to kill; they accounted for 65 percent of canine homicides — roughly 15 deaths per year — in the U.S. from 1982 to 2006.
“My department adopts out extremely few pit bulls,” said Hilton Cole, director of East Baton Rouge Animal Control. “There’s an inherent liability with adopting out pit bulls. It can be a beautiful breed, there’s no doubt about that, but it can also be your worst nightmare.”
Pit bulls, which make up 25 percent of EBRAC’s rescues, are also responsible for 75 to 80 percent of the shelter’s dangerous animal complaints, Cole said. For this reason, a pit is only adopted out on the rare occasion that it can prove, in a very short period of time, that it is not human or dog aggressive.
According to Cole, most rescued pit bulls at EBRAC are automatically euthanized.
“The federal government allows people to own six shooters and semi-automatics, but you don’t see them doling out machine guns,” Cole said. “Pit bulls are the machine gun of the dog world. And the good pits, unfortunately, may have to suffer just like the good machine gun owners who … don’t go around killing people.”
Cole, who supports heavy pit bull restrictions in East Baton Rouge Parish, has oftentimes butted heads with pit advocates like Morvant, who believe he and other proponents have a misconstrued and biased perception of the breed.
“Of course pit bulls make up a majority of complaints [at EBRAC] — no one’s going to call animal control on a stray lab or a pomeranian or a dachshund, and those are the ones I get bitten by every day at work,” Morvant said. “Even when it’s not being a menace, a pit will always be reported because of the stigma. But I would trust a pit bull before I trusted anything.”
Pit bull owner Kate Landry agrees.
“Pit bulls are not naturally aggressive, they’re just capable of doing more damage than other dogs because of their size and strength,” Landry said. “A lot of bad owners abuse this, and the stereotypes and attacks … are a reflection of this. It’s the deed — the irresponsible owners — that needs to be punished, not the breed.”
Morvant and Landry, who both have family and friends in Texas, fear that the stigma attached to pit bulls could propagate the push for a similar pit bull ban in Louisiana.
And their fears may not be unsubstantiated.
Google Maps: Breed-Specific Law in Louisiana
Two Louisiana cities, Morgan City and Welsh, have already banned pit bulls at the local level, while St. Mary Parish and Lincoln Parish have recently instituted heavy pit bull restrictions. There are also as many as seven other parishes currently discussing breed-specific pit bull regulations.
“The legislators who pass these restrictions and bans have obviously never gotten to know a pit bull,” Morvant said. “I invite them to meet my pittie, Deuce — he’s the sweetest dog you’ll ever meet; he is my son. And I would sooner move to another country than let someone take my son away from me.”
But Morvant and other pit bull lovers don’t have to start packing their bags — at least not yet.
After a failed attempt to pass breed-specific legislation on pit bulls in 2007, East Baton Rouge Parish resorted to strengthening its general “vicious dog” ordinance instead, and there is currently no discussion of breed-specific pit bull laws in the near future.
“We can only pray that the Texas law doesn’t pass,” Landry said. “If I had to leave Nola behind every time I visited family, I don’t know what I would do. She’s my best friend.”
Morvant and other pit advocates, on the other hand, know exactly what to do; every day, pit supporters send an influx of letters to Texas legislators in hopes of stopping the Texas ban and any precedents it might set.
“We just have to keep fighting.” Morvant said. “For every headline you read about an abused pit bull that kills, there’s two more pits that save lives. You just don’t hear about those. People give in to stereotypes, which is sad because you never know when you’re passing up on your best friend.”