Michigan may dump cities’ bans on pit bulls

Joel Kurth
The Detroit News

Two mauling deaths by pit bulls in two days in Michigan come as state lawmakers consider legislation that would make it illegal for communities to ban specific dog breeds.

In October, the state Senate approved legislation to prohibit communities from banning or regulating specific breeds such as pit bulls. About two dozen communities statewide do so now, including Melvindale, Waterford Township and Grosse Pointe Woods — but not Detroit.

Nineteen other states have passed similar restrictions and bills are pending in seven states with the blessing of animal-welfare groups such as the Michigan Humane Society.

“We oppose breed bans because virtually any breed can be trained to be dangerous,” said Ryan McTigue, a spokesman for the group. “We believe in laws that treat animals as individuals and individually assess them.”

The bill is in the state House. Its sponsor, Sen. Dave Robertson, R-Grand Blanc, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

It comes amid a nationwide reconsideration of pit bulls, which for decades have had a reputation as one of the deadliest breeds on earth. Advocates say they’re misunderstood and groups as diverse as the American Bar Association and National Animal Control Association now oppose breed-specific laws, while communities including Hazel Park have dumped their bans.

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Foes say the numbers don’t lie: Pit bulls account for 27 of the 32 fatal attacks this year in the United States, said Colleen Lynn, founder of the Texas-based DogsBite.org, a nonprofit that advocates for breed bans.

The tally two deaths this week. Xavier Strickland, 4, of Detroit died after he was walking on the sidewalk with his mother and snatched and dragged by an unlicensed pit bull and three other dogs, Rebecca Hardy, 22 of Port Huron died after climbing a fence into a yard Thursday holding two pit bulls.

“I don’t know how you can defend them, given the piles of legal documentation and medical studies about these dogs,” Lynn said. “It’s been proven again and again this dog breed is more dangerous than other breeds.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association this year, though, published a position paper concluding pit bulls are not “disproportionately dangerous.” It argued “there is no evidence that breed-specific bans reduce the rate or severity of bite injuries” and attributed the number of pit bull attacks to their popularity.

Last year, Michigan ranked sixth nationwide in dog bite insurance claims, with 693 costing $26.5 million, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The group doesn’t track bites by breed.

Local leaders acknowledge that breed ordinances aren’t perfect. Most ordinances identify pit bulls as three main breeds, Staffordshire bull terrier, American pit bull terrier and American Staffordshire terrier.

“I’m sympathetic, but we have to protect people,” said Dearborn Heights Mayor Daniel Paletko. “If you’re walking down the street, minding your own business, you shouldn’t have to worry about dogs attacking you. ... This is common sense.”

Dearborn Heights doesn’t ban pit bulls, but it makes it harder to keep them. Owners must install microchips in the dogs, pay $25 per year and submit an annual statement from veterinarians saying they aren’t vicious.

He acknowledged some owners simply avoid registering their dogs, but said the ordinance has served as a deterrent.

In Melvindale, the City Council next year could reconsider its ban on pit bulls. Mayor Stacy Striz said she favors an ordinance regulating dangerous dogs instead — and argued that Lansing should butt out.

“They should let each individual community govern their own community,” she said. “What do they have mayors and local governments for? If you’re making all the rules, why are we here?”

David McMurtrie runs a pit bull rescue and registered his dogs as bull terrier mixes when he lived in Melvindale. He said pit bulls are “far and away the most misunderstood dog” and credits their love for turning around his life. He blamed the attacks on bad owners and likened breed-specific bans to discrimination.

“Lansing has to step in. You have so many cities making these bans, which are nothing more than knee-jerk reactions based on scare tactics,” said McMurtire, who owns Pit Stop for Change Rescue and Rehabilitation in River Rouge.