Worcester Responsible Pit Bull Owners

Friend of the blog Pam has created a Facebook group for Responsible Pit Bull (and other bullied breed) Owners (and supporters) to network. 

From Pam:

I hope that together we can work together to:

  • encourage responsible ownership
  • rehabilitate the image of pit bulls, at the least in the city
  • sway our City Council that BSL is not effective

It is my hope that once the weather is nice we can all have an actual face-to-face meet up for all to network, City Council invited as well (though I doubt they would care).

(Hey, it’s an election year — they might care!)

Anyway — I encourage folks to join the group and pass on the message.  We need to stop looking to “quick fixes” that do nothing — and start making Worcester a model community for how to encourage responsible pet ownership.

Let the scapegoating commence!

Last year, we were told that there were 122 dog bites reported in the city.  If we assume that the population of Worcester is about 180,000, that means that you have a .06% chance of getting bitten by a dog (or, at least, getting a bad enough bite that you’d report it).

According to the CDC, 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs every year in the US, and 800,000 seek medical attention.  That means that on the US as a whole, you have a 1.5% chance of being bitten and a .26% chance of needing medical attention from a dog bite.

Which means that Worcester seems safer, dog-bite-wise, than the country as a whole.

We were also told that 56 of those 122 bites were from pit bulls.  That means you’ve got a .03% chance of being bitten by a pit bull if you’re a Worcester resident.

As a result of these shocking statistics, the City Council decided to make sure that pit bulls are muzzled when off their property, that pit bull owners pay an additional licensing fee, and other measures that do absolutely nothing to stop biting incidents.

In anticipation of tomorrow’s implementation of the pit bull ordinance, WorcesterWired had a long article about a woman who was attacked by a pit bull.  The Telegram [behind the paywall] also reports that a pit bull was stabbed to death after attacking another dog.

What neither of these articles tells us is if the dogs were unneutered males.

The CDC says that “there is currently no accurate way to identify the number of dogs of a particular breed, and consequently no measure to determine which breeds are more likely to bite or kill.”  The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) can tell you that “intact males are … involved in 70 to 76% of reported dog bite incidents.”  (I recommend reading the AVMA’s A community approach to dog bite prevention for a more comprehensive discussion of this topic.)

We don’t know how many dog bites in Worcester were caused by dogs off their leashes (because this is, of course, under the original ordinance).  We don’t know how many dog bites were caused by dogs on their owner’s property (which wouldn’t be affected by either ordinance).  We don’t know how many dog bites were caused by unneutered/intact male dogs. 

We don’t know any of these statistics because the City Council didn’t want to consider them when drafting this ordinance.  We continue to get news stories with “pit bull” in the title, instead of “intact male” or “unleashed dog” or “unlicensed dog” or any of a number of factors that are just as relevant to the issue of dog bites.

We need statistics to be kept that don’t just include the breed of the dog, but the location of the attack, whether the dog is licensed or unlicensed, fixed or not, healthy or unhealthy.  We need a news media more fully committed to giving the public an accurate depiction of the factors that lead to a dog bite.

We need a massive public education campaign about spaying and neutering dogs.  Frankly, I think we need to start identifying unneutered dogs in the same way we’re currently identifying pit bulls and offering real incentives (not $3 off a dog license) to those who spay and neuter their pets.  We need a thoughtful, rational approach that is lasting, not a quick fix that doesn’t have long-term goals (like increasing spay/neuter rates).

I know that what we need and what we’ll get are two very different things.  But a girl can dream!

Pit Tip

I’d been meaning to publish a tip that an anonymous reader had to say about pit bulls:

“Contrary to the city councils’ belief, veterinarians rely on dog owners to determine what breed of dog they have.  Every vet I have ever met also loves pit bulls and hates BSL.  I hope the number of registered pit bulls drops by at least 50% next year.”

Now, I’m not advocating deception, but there are plenty of folks out there who own mutts that may have been called a pit bull when the dog was initially adopted.  If you don’t feel your dog belongs in that category, discuss it with your vet.  (I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if I had a penny for every German Shepherd or Golden Retriever labeled as a Chow Chow on Petfinder, I’d be a rich woman.  This isn’t about deception, it’s about correcting a label a shelter may have assigned a dog.)

In related news, Brattleboro licenses both dogs and wolf-hybrids.  Really.

Balancing Worcester’s budget over breakfast

As a reminder that you should show up at tomorrow night’s City Council meeting (6pm, Esther Howland Chamber) regarding the proposed pit bull ordinance, here’s an actual conversation that occurred in my house this morning.

Me: “The City’s looking for bids on animal shelters for $50,000.  Who else but WARL is qualified to do that?”

Husband: “Well, all they really need is $500.”

Me: ?I?

Husband: “They give Bill Eddy $500 to buy a .45 pistol.  Every night after supper, he can shoot a few pit bulls and leave them on his front lawn for DPW to pick up in the morning and throw on the compost pile.”

(a few minutes later)

Husband: “Make that $600 and we can throw in a silencer.  That way we won’t have any neighbor complaints.”Puppy Doom

Lest you think that the only insults in our house are directed at city officials…

This morning I complained that my closet was too full.

My husband noted that I’m becoming the Imelda Marcos of pantsuits.

Just one more thing I have in common with Konnie Lukes!

Statistics without numbers

I’m a fan of the City Hall Notebook, but sometimes I wish Nick K. would call people out when they just make things up and/or have no numbers to support their claims.

In yesterday’s column, Stacey Coleman of the National Canine Research Council Action Fund said that “based on city statistics, Worcester has an 87 percent ‘failure to comply’ rate for dog licensing” and that “if existing dog licensing ordinances were enforced, the city would collect an additional $626,000 to $736,000 annually.”  (These are both quotes from the column, not from her.)

Again, I would like to point out that, in December, the City Clerk said that Worcester had approximately 10,000 dogs, and that they had a compliance rate of 72% for dog licensing.  Have things changed so much in the past eight months that we’ve gone from 28% “failure to comply” down to 87%?

Also, $626,000 in additional annual revenue would mean (at $20/dog) that there are 31,300 unregistered dogs (or, about 10 times the estimate the Clerk made).  If we estimate that there are about 7,200 registered dogs, that would be approximately 38,500 dogs in the city, or about 1 dog for every five people in Worcester.  It would also mean that we have approximately as many dogs as Boston, a city that has a much greater human population than our own.

It sounds like Coleman might be using some sort of pet calculator rather than “city statistics” — because, well, the city says there are 10,000, and the Telegram has used that figure previously — just see the end of this article from May.

And — for the record — I’m not a fan of non-residents or property owners inserting themselves into city affairs, whether the issue be Arizona or dog ordinances.

Three Thoughts on the Pit Bull Ordinance

I’ve been thinking over some comments from the last time I wrote about the pit bull ordinance. At the tail end of 508 episode 121, Mike mentioned how much he appreciates the comments and suggestions he receives every week. I, too, am always appreciative of feedback, positive and negative, because it helps me refine my thoughts and arguments.  Here are three short thoughts on the topic of pit bulls that I’ve had because of feedback.

1.

Both Jim and Bill recommended better enforcement of the existing leash and licensing ordinances.  Jim specifically felt that “it is not the job of the City or what I ask of the City Council to make the City more ‘friendly’ to dogs.”

I think Jim and I are discussing two different classes of people.  He mentions “young men with pit bulls pretty casually letting the dogs ‘lead’ them and wonder[s] all the time if that owner could control a situation if their dog got out of control.”  I would venture a guess that those young men don’t really want to be dog owners.  They want an accessory to prove their masculinity, and if it isn’t a dog, it’ll be a knife or a gun.  The solution to that problem isn’t going to be unlocked by a pit bull ordinance, or by a knife ordinance, or by a testosterone ordinance.  There are bigger things at play there than a guy who can’t control his dog.

I was in Crompton Park a few Saturdays ago, and there was a young woman there who’d brought her daughter and her (unleashed, and likely unlicensed) husky to play. I have rarely encountered a better-behaved dog (or kid, for that matter). But this young woman was violating the ordinances in every possible way: no dogs are allowed in parks (though we see them there every day), dogs have to be leashed when off private property, and all dogs residing in the city must be licensed.

And yet this woman had accomplished everything contained in the intentions of those ordinances: a dog that wasn’t bothering anyone, a park where no one felt threatened.

Is that young woman in the same class as the “tough” guys?  Would she really be served by having an officer issue her a ticket?

In the (great) book The Last Season, by Eric Blehm, one national park ranger gives another a piece of advice: “The best way to teach the public isn’t with a citation, it’s with communication.” (p. 54)

Wouldn’t that young woman, and many dog owners who are willing to be responsible (but don’t always know how) be better served by education — whether in the media, through a targeted campaign from vets or other public health personnel, or — yes — through the police?  What if they could talk calmly to her for a few minutes about the importance of leashing her dog, the reasons why she should have her dog licensed, and the benefits of spay/neuter?  What if they could direct her to a dog park where she could safely bring her pet?

While some of us don’t feel it’s the City’s job to do this, the City has already said that it’s ok for the Gang Unit to be paid to paint basketball courts.  Why can’t we take the community policing approach with this issue?

One of the results of violent attacks in the Tatnuck Square area was a proposal to create a skatepark on the West Side (see item 10b) by the very councilor who’s proposing such strict rules about pit bull ownership.  So, at-risk youth get positive police attention and improved park facilities; why don’t at-risk dogs (and their owners) get the same consideration?

2.

Kate Toomey wrote on Facebook that “Safety for all in our community is paramount.”  All this ordinance would (ostensibly) address is public safety, yet the example she cites is one of private safety.

All that muzzle will bring is a perception of safety.  It will do nothing to provide safety to the next second-floor neighbor with the unsocialized, unmanageable pit bull on the first floor.  The sign that will need to be posted on the property warning of a pit bull on the premises will only help those outside the property, not those inside.  The additional licensing fee that will need to be paid might go towards dog officers who are charged to help after something has happened, not towards proactively addressing potential issues.

Addressing any issue well requires a great deal of creativity and thoughtfulness, not knee-jerk reactions.  We’ve identified the problem (irresponsible dog owners), and now we’ve got a scapegoat (pit bulls).  This will do everything to make people feel better without helping those who actually need to be safer.

3.

I feel that in this, as with many other cases, Worcester is reactionary instead of visionary.  When considering any decision, we should not just look to the immediate benefit, but also to five, ten, or even twenty years down the road.

We know that Boston is really no different after the ordinance than it was six years before.

If — in ten years’ time — Worcester has magically restricted the ownership of pit bulls so that only responsible people own them, we still will not have addressed irresponsible owners.  So we’ll have uncontrollable labs and greyhounds and chihuahuas on our hands, and we’ll be cursing those breeds, and will be no closer to our ultimate goal.

We need to stop creating pieces of legislation that won’t stop the situations that inspire that legislation.

4.

For those of you who are interested in encouraging responsible dog ownership, I recommend reading Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation & The No Kill Revolution in America by Nathan J. Winograd.  While much of the book is about no-kill shelters, it also calls into question a lot of the rules many communities have (like severely restricting the number of pets per household) that should also be discussed if we really want more responsible dog owners in Worcester.

Consensus

I was discussing the pit bull question a bit with Jeff today.  (I mention this because anything decent that may follow might have been completely stolen from him.)

Councilor Eddy has mentioned that 2% of city dogs are pit bulls, and that they cause 25% of the dog bites in the city.  It’s been estimated that there are 10,000 dogs in the city.  That would mean there are 200 pit bulls in the city.  Raise your hand if that sounds really low to you.  (A brief look at the WARL dog list on Petfinder today shows 17 pit bulls.  To put it another way, that would mean WARL is in possession of 10% of all the pit bulls in the city.)

And, of course, Councilor Eddy hasn’t told us how many dog bites actually occur in the city.  I’ve asked Councilor Haller, and she’s told me that she still has not received any dog bite statistics.  Now, the cynics among us might feel that Eddy’s stats don’t pass the smell test — if Haller, the chair of Public Safety, doesn’t have reliable figures, where is Eddy getting his?

We know that the ordinance won’t prevent dog bites on the owner’s property, because dogs won’t need to be muzzled.  We know that the ordinance won’t protect police from situations where they may enter a home with hostile dogs because — again — in a home, a dog doesn’t need to be leashed or muzzled.  We know that the dog officers get reports of 5-10 loose dogs a week, and that the vast majority of residents obey the leash law.

We know all this, and the councilors know this, and yet our sympathies go one way, and their votes go the other way, time and again.

I’m inclined to appeal to reason, and — while I am not a fan of canned testimony — I do like to give people tools to be able to appeal to reason.  And Jeff pointed out to me, as others have, that that’s just not how this Council works.

Here’s how things work:

A citizen complains about something.  In this case, a perceived threat from pit bulls.  A councilor latches onto it because it gives the government the opportunity to address an issue which isn’t really a problem, but which makes everyone feel good.

Those citizens who would be adversely affected speak up.  They believe in what my philosophy professors called good faith; that is, that they can contact their representatives in the government, that those representatives will listen to all constituents, weigh the facts, and vote accordingly.

Those citizens attend a meeting.  They give testimony.  They see those councilors they sent emails to, those councilors they spoke to before the meeting, and they hope against hope that their words will be listened to, that they will be shown respect.

The Council, of course, has already made up their mind, long before testimony.  The Council’s mind was made up when the item was first brought up, when it was obvious how this would play to all those people sitting at home on their couches.  You see, it’s the people on the couches they really listen to, not the people sitting right in front of them.

Those are the kinds of people who want a pit bull ban, though they’ll settle for the muzzle law.  And, unfortunately, those are the kind of people who vote in this city.

So we end up with 11-0 votes, or 10-1 votes, or 9-2 votes.  Occasionally a Councilor will throw the rational citizens a bone (no pun intended) and vote their way.  But, in this city, in this Council, collegiality is big.  And — in their dictionary — collegiality equals consensus.

We keep asking the wrong questions about the right issues.  We keep wondering why college students don’t stay here, we keep wondering why nothing goes right in the downtown, we pine for passenger flights out of the airport.  We know what the issues are, but we aren’t willing to have a conversation whose direction isn’t predetermined.

In the case of the pit bulls, we are bypassing the questions we need to be asking in exchange for a temporary feel-good measure.  We prefer to fool ourselves into thinking that this will prevent horrible situations.  Goodness knows we shouldn’t see how well this is working in other cities, or ask the WARL whether this will cause an uptick in pit bulls at an already-overtaxed shelter.  We only care about the now.

What if we decided to encourage instead of discourage?  What if we decided we wanted to encourage people to be responsible dog owners?  What if we decided to waive a lifetime’s worth of dog license fees for those dogs who are altered and have completed a program like Canine Good Citizen?  What if we decided to open a dog park, to encourage responsible dog owners to live in Worcester?  What if we worked with veterinarians to identify dog owners who might be the perfect fit for a pit bull in need of a home?

What if we looked at pit bulls not as a problem to be tackled but an opportunity to distinguish ourselves from other communities?  What if we decided that, instead of punishing behavior that’s already against the rules, we decided to make it a rule to incentivize good behavior?  What if we decided to be the community for dog owners in Massachusetts?

What if we decided to be informed and act accordingly?  What if we dared to act differently — by doing so thoughtfully and creatively?  How about we stop being hung up on how we compare to Providence, but instead concentrate on how we can become the best Worcester we can be?  Knee-jerk ordinances don’t get us there — let’s educate ourselves, listen to those in Animal Control and rescue agencies, and craft a set of animal control laws that combine common sense and creativity.  And then let’s make sure that Animal Control has the staffing to enforce what we enact, since there’s no point to having laws in place that we’re unwilling to adequately enforce.

Pit Bull Ordinance

It’s finally upon us.

I’ve written about pits before, and what will likely happen tomorrow night is that the Council will refer the ordinance to the Public Health & Human Services subcommittee.

I know (because I’ve emailed her about this) that Councilor Haller has asked for detailed dog bite statistics, and that (when I emailed her) she had not yet received those statistics.  I had also contacted the dog officers and had been told that the figures I wanted on dog bites were not available.  One can only wonder where the Worcester statistics are coming from.  I will follow up with Councilor Haller again to see if she has received those statistics.

I would like to remind the readers who care about this issue that the last time an amendment to the dog ordinance was proposed, I was the only citizen of Worcester to show up at the Public Health & Human Services subcommittee meeting.  It does not matter how much you care about an issue.  If you do not contact the City Council and show up at a meeting, you cannot expect your views to be heard.

So — if you care passionately about this, here’s what you need to do:

After this is assigned to committee, write to city councilors.  You should focus on the members of Public Health (Palmieri, Haller, Lukes).  If this gets killed in Public Health, it will not come back to the City Council for review.  Focus on those councilors.

Remember that at the Council meeting in February where this was originally discussed, Phil Palmieri had a much better idea for a responsible owner ordinance.  I think it would be fair to ask him why we’re going to target a certain type of dog, versus irresponsible owners.  He was on the right track, and now we’re taking a step back.

I also think Councilors Haller and Lukes would be sympathetic to responsible dog owners’ concerns.

If you’re inclined to write, you should let the councilors know that the Boston dog ordinance does not, in fact, work, and that many incidents of dog bites would either not be covered (because they’re on the owner’s property) or are already covered by an existing leash law (from the examples in this post).   Tim Hart, previously interviewed on this blog and on 508, put together an excellent brochure about this issue as well.

Also, you need to show up when this is discussed in committee.  I cannot stress this enough.  Write emails, make phone calls, and show up at the meeting to discuss how this will affect you, or how wrong-headed it is.

Please let me know if I need to write in more detail about this topic.  (Or if you’re completely tired of hearing about it!)

Pit Bull Ordinance: It Ain’t Working in Boston

In our last installment, we noted that the City of Boston has not been forthcoming in releasing statistics regarding how well (or, as seems to be the case, poorly) its pit bull ordinance is working.

The Boston Herald reported today on the Boston pit bull ordinance.  Among other things, they found that:

  • Over the past 6 years, 518 tickets have been issued (at $100 apiece) to owners who failed register or muzzle their pit bulls.  (So, about 100 tickets a year.)
  • Of those 518 tickets, 80% remain unpaid.
  • Many of the people who received a fine decided to “donate” their pit bulls to Boston Animal Control.
  • There were 25 pit bull attacks in 2006.
  • There were 46 pit bull attacks in 2008.
  • There were 30 pit bull attacks in 2009.

In short, irresponsible dog owners will continue to be irresponsible dog owners, though it’s unclear whether failing to register or muzzle a dog automatically means you’re irresponsible.  And, of course, the pit bull ordinance has done little to prevent bites in the City of Boston.

The Herald article, however, does raise an interesting point: would the WARL be able to accommodate the additional burden that a pit bull ordinance would bring? 

I don’t have a lot of time to write today, but I will write more soon about what this ordinance would mean for responsible pet owners like Tim Hart and Pam Toomey, and what activities we should be trying to encourage in pet owners (like spay/neuter).

Pit Bulls: Would the Boston Dog Ordinance Work?

In the last installment, we discussed what pit bulls are and who’s really to blame for most cases of canine aggression.  Today, we’ll discuss one of the proposed ordinances the City Council has recommended: the Boston Pit Bull Ordinance.

What is the Boston Pit Bull Ordinance?
You can read the ordinance for yourself here, and this blog post is a good summary of the ordinance.

Here’s what you need to know about the Boston Pit Bull Ordinance:

  • Pit Bulls are defined as “any American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one or more of the above breeds,” or any dogs which “substantially” meets the AKC or UKC breed standards for any of those breeds.
  • The registration fees are higher ($50 for a pit vs. $6-17 for other dogs).  The owner must submit proof of rabies vaccination (as do all other dogs), proof of spay/neuter, a photo of the dog that is no older than 30 days, and a photo of the owner that is no older than 30 days.  The owner also needs to provide a description of the dog.
  • Owners must be 18 or older.
  • If an owner does not own his/her own home, s/he will need proof from a landlord to own a pit.  In addition, there must be a (quite large) sign on the property that either says “Pit Bull Dog” or “Beware of Dog.”
  • There are only two Pit Bulls allowed per household.
  • When a pit bull is off its owner’s property, whether on public or private property, it must be muzzled with a basket muzzle and restrained in a harness, or secured in a crate.

How does the Boston Pit Bull Ordinance differ from Worcester’s existing dog ordinance?

Vicious or victim?

A basket muzzle

The existing Worcester ordinance already has many of the restrictions in the Boston ordinance: owners must be 18 or older, can only own two dogs, and must leash their dog when not on the owner’s property.  Dogs still need to be vaccinated for rabies, and there is an incentive in the licensing structure for “altered” (spayed/neutered) pets.

The Boston ordinance is specifically about pit bulls, and I’m not sure how much the additional items (muzzling, signage, photographs) would make the public safer.

Why is this ordinance being proposed?
According to Councilor Bill Eddy, “it’s simply an effort to help people feel safer in their community.”  (1.18 mark)   “[The pit bull] is an intimidating dog, it’s a powerful dog, it’s an aggressive dog.”  (1 minute mark)  “Statistics don’t lie.  Pit bulls represent 2% of our city’s licensed dogs, yet over the past two years represent 25% of our dog bites.”  (1.35 mark)

Would a Boston-style ordinance work in Worcester?
I’m waiting to hear back from both the Boston and Worcester police on dog bite statistics, and I’ll do a post on that when I get more information.

According to Allie Simone, “Sixty percent of dog bites occur in the home or on the property.  So, muzzling your dog walking down the street isn’t the problem.” (1.45 mark)

When I spoke with Pam Toomey, she agreed with this assessment, and noted that the proposed pit bull ordinance will not address most of the situations that would cause dog bites.  If someone enters your house or your yard, for instance, your dog does not need to be muzzled.  And, in many other cases, dog bites occur when a dog is running loose.

While we wait for statistics, here’s a list of pit bull bites in and around the City of Worcester that made the Telegram:

1.  September 7, 2009 — an Auburn girl is attacked by two pit bulls who were running loose.

2.  September 26, 2009 — a Worcester boy is attacked by an (unlicensed) pit bull inside his home.

3.  September 2009 — a Southbridge police officer shoots a (loose) pit bull that attacked him.

4.  An August 2009 article describes an incident in which two dogs charged at police entering a residence.

5.  March 2008 — “This is a risk we have to take many times when we enter homes. We see a lot of pit bulls out there in the neighborhoods. On many occasions, officers have been attacked and hurt by uncontrolled animals,” said police spokesman Sgt. Kerry F. Hazelhurst (emphasis mine).

In cases 1 and 3, these are already violations of existing leash ordinances.  In cases 2 and 4, which both happened in Worcester, these dog bites occurred in the home, where a dog would not be required to be leashed, muzzled, or otherwise restrained, even under a Boston-style ordinance.

But Boston’s had this ordinance in place for over five years — surely they must be doing better!

1.  In December 2007, an off-duty Boston police officer shot a pit bull that was loose and which had attacked people.

2.  In November 2007, a Boston police officer shot a pit bull that was loose and had bitten people.

3.  In September 2007, a Roslindale woman sicced two dogs on Boston Police (in her home) as they attempted to arrest her.

4.  In July 2007, a Roxbury girl was bitten by a mother pit bull while looking at the mother’s puppies.  This appears to have been on the owner’s property.

5.  In May 2007, a Hyde Park toddler was bitten by a pit bull in the owner’s yard.

6.  In April 2006, a woman was attacked by loose dogs.

In cases 1, 2, and 6, these are already leash law violations.  In cases 3, 4, and 5, these bites all occurred on the owner’s property, so the owners were ostensibly in compliance with the Boston pit bull ordinance.

It’s been very difficult for me to find statistics about the Boston pit bull ordinance without going through the official channel of writing a letter to the police.  If the ordinance has been working so well, why has there been no mention in the media that there have been far fewer dog bites?  Wouldn’t the City of Boston be shouting from the rooftops if this were the public safety boon they’d expected?

What are some other problems with the ordinance?
In the next installment in this series, we’ll discuss other reasons the Boston pit bull ordinance isn’t effective, and how a pit bull ordinance would negatively impact responsible pet owners like Tim and Pam (the pet owners we met in the last installment).