Photo courtesy of Cindi Drake
Ohio's move to overturn a statewide classification of pit bulls as vicious has attracted national attention.
Ohio lawmakers reworked a 25-year-old law Wednesday to end the Buckeye State’s status as the only state that automatically classifies pit bulls as vicious.
In a 67-30 vote, the Ohio House passed HB 14 with amendments from the Senate. In her address to the chamber, Rep. Barbara Spears, the bill's primary sponsor, remarked: "This is a great day. We have the opportunity to be the last state to eliminate our discrimination of breed-specific dogs.”
HB 14 amends Ohio Revised Code that defines a vicious dog as one that “belongs to a breed that is commonly known as a pit bull dog.” Since the definition was adopted in 1987, it’s triggered the need for strict liability insurance, restraint requirements and other restrictions for pit bulls and their owners.
The bill now will go in front of Gov. John Kasich for his signature. Kasich has 10 days from the time he receives HB 14 to make a decision. If the bill isn’t considered during that 10-day window, it automatically is enacted.
Getting the document to Kasich’s office can take weeks. In the meantime, proponents that include the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA) are celebrating — cautiously.
“It’s time to put the champagne on ice, but let’s not open the bottles yet,” said OVMA Executive Director Jack Advent, noting that the governor's office is a remaining hurdle. “I’m going to wait until we’re popping champagne corks before I get too excited about this.”
In addition to striking the words "pit bull" from state code, HB 14 creates a new classification called “nuisance” dogs, defined as dogs that without provocation and while off their home premises chase or approach people in a menacing fashion or try to attack.
Laws that brand pit bulls as dangerous aren't new or limited to Ohio. Breed restrictions of varying kinds exist in dozens of U.S. cities and even overseas, with supporters who argue that such laws guard against dogs capable of killing people, especially small children. A tough law marginalizing pit bulls and several other breeds went live in Victoria, Australia, last September, and is based on the notion that some breeds are inherently dangerous.
Incidents reported in the media enforce that concept. On Jan. 30, an 18-month-old boy reportedly was mauled by pit bulls in the backyard of his home in Fort Worth, Texas. Fifteen days earlier, a pit bull mauled a 9-year-old boy and attacked a woman in the Sacramento, Calif., area, according to a local news report.
However, organized veterinary medicine and animal advocates contend that certain breeds are not more likely than others to bite, and attacks by pit bulls are rare. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) considers pit bull bans to be an ineffective approach to public safety. What’s more, pit bull isn’t a breed, per se, but a subjective designation that can apply to the American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier and, in some cases, American bulldogs.
"How can you enforce a law when you can't even define what a pit bull is?" asked Dr. John Daugherty, owner of Poland Veterinary Centre in Poland, Ohio. "Ohio's regulation was ineffective and stupid in the first place. For the most part, the pit bulls that come in my practice are very nice. The German shepherds I see are much more aggressive."
Municipalities also are beginning to question the logic of breed-specific bans. Some officials in Miami-Dade County, for example, are looking to repeal a ban on pit bull-like breeds that's been in place since the 1980s. Hundreds of pit bulls are destroyed each year in the county, and now the Florida Legislature is stepping in. On Monday, a Florida House committee is expected to take up a bill that could end Miami-Dade's ordinance.
Florida already has a law on the books to prohibit breed bans. However, the Miami-Dade ban predates the 1990 law, and Florida is a home rule state, giving cities and towns the ability to pass laws to govern themselves so long as they abide by state and federal constitutions.
Ohio, too, is a home rule state, so HB 14 won't overturn breed bans enacted in municipalities. More than 20 have them.
In her speech Wednesday before the House, Spears laid out several amendments that the Senate made to HB 14 before the chamber voted in its favor on Jan. 31. One of the amendments made it so veterinarians could override the required spaying and neutering of dangerous dogs if it is contraindicated for medical reasons.
"That's just common sense," the OVMA's Advent said. The veterinary profession's fingerprint on HB 14 isn't garnering much attention.
That's not the case for the Utah-based animal rights group Best Friends Animal Society, which apparently helped craft the legislation.
The group’s website states that “Best Friends Animal Society has introduced Ohio House Bill 14, which would put an end to one of the most egregious laws on the books for man’s best friend — the state’s breed-discriminatory pit bull law.”
Officials with the organization could not be reached for comment. A Jan. 16 letter by a Cleveland-area resident and dog-attack victim took aim at the group's alleged influence on state politics.
“Ohio residents have the right to expect that Ohio law is written by Ohio legislators, with the best interests of their constituents in mind. Not so with proposed House Bill 14," stated the letter, published on the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s website. “A Freedom of Information Act request for State Rep. Barbara Spears' records tell us that HB 14 was written by Best Friends Animal Society, a multimillion-dollar animal-rights PAC headquartered in Kanab, Utah."
The VIN News Service could not reach Sears’ office to get the lawmaker’s take on such criticisms. Advent rejected the notion that Best Friends played a major role in crafting HB 14, noting that the job ultimately goes to the Ohio Legislative Service Commission, a nonpartisan group of lawyer, budget analysts, economists and researchers.
“If anyone says that a bill is written by any one group, that’s incorrect,” he said.