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Controversial Pit Bull Ordinance Unenforceable Under New MA Law

Thursday, August 09, 2012

 

Governor Patrick declared Worcester's breed-specific pit bull muzzle law unenforceable. The city’s ordinance forced owners of pit bulls to spay or neuter their dogs, pay an additional fee to have the dog, and muzzle the dog when in public.

The new law, which was signed last week, states, that “No city or town shall regulate dogs in a manner that is specific to breed” “no dog shall be deemed dangerous … based upon the breed of such dog.”

Worcester’s law, “An Ordinance Amending the Dog Control Provisions of the Revised Ordinances to Include Requirements for Responsible Pit Bull Ownership,” was put into effect April 1, 2011 and accuses pit bulls of having inherently aggressive behavior, including “powerful instincts for dominance which naturally results in a proclivity for fighting,” “prey drive,” and “natural chase instinct.” It was modeled after Boston’s Responsible Pit Bull Ownership ordinance.

“I’m really pleased that the state lawmakers are seeing the benefit that this will bring to the animals and the residents. This bill outlined a lot more than breed-specific legislation. It brought animal welfare to the 21st century,” said Allie Tellier, Executive Director of the Worcester Animal Rescue League (WARL). “Studies have shown breed specific legislation is not effective and is costly for cities and towns.”

Effects of Worcester’s Law

In late March, about a year after the legislation was passed Worcester Police Chief, Gary Gemme said that the Worcester Police Department had seen an increase in the number of dogs that would fall under the definition of pit bulls, adding that three out of five abandoned dogs in Worcester were pit bulls at that time.

“[The city] enacted a dangerous dog and nuisance animal ordinance in 2004 and it enacted a pit bull ordinance in 2010. That ordinance imposed additional regulatory requirements on owners of pit bulls,” said City Solicitor, David Moore. “The language in the new law ‘No city or town shall regulate dogs in a manner that is specific to breed,’ would make that ordinance unenforceable once the law becomes effective in 90 days.”

Worcester’s Animal Control had also seen an increase. Gemme said that the primary reason the officers give for the increase in abandoned pit bulls is the cost to have them spayed or neutered, something required by the city ordinance.

Under the ordinance, pit bull owners had to also get written permission from their “landlord, lessor, property owner, or the duly authorized agent thereof for the presence and housing of the pit bull…” The property owner must then submit written permission to the City Clerk within ten business days, causing more difficulties for dog owners.

What to Expect from the City

Under the state law, standards are set for the chiefs of police in the exercise of their discretion to deal with dangerous and nuisance dogs. The law also establishes a system of public hearings in order to determine when there is a dangerous dog.

“While the breed specific provision is clear, the new law is comprehensive and new to the city and it will need to be studied and addressed,” Moore said. “The new law addresses dangerous dogs and nuisance dogs and sharply defines the city’s authority in dealing with dangerous and nuisance animals, including the creation of a hearing procedure to respond to complaints.”

The law states, “Situations involving dangerous dogs have been highly controversial. After lengthy discussions with those enforcing dangerous dog laws, those engaged in the administrative process involved with dangerous dog issues, as well as those involved in defending dogs deemed dangerous, provisions have been drafted to improve these laws.”

Tellier of WARL says she is looking forward to working with the city to create a better education program in response to the new law.

Moore said that the new law will require a substantial review and revision to the city’s animal control ordinances, policies and practices.

“In replacing the city ordinances with the provisions of the new law, the city will maintain its efforts to address the public safety and public health issues associated with dogs and cats,” he said. “The city council could repeal the pit bull ordinance, or leave it on the books (knowing it is unenforceable).

WARL: Education is the Way to Go

Tellier says that WARL is pushing for what they see as the only solution to the problem – education.

“We are one of the largest shelters in the state and we are working to educate the community about how to identify a dangerous dog with increased training and breed-neutral training. It’s really going to tackle the problem of public safety,” she said.

She said that the best solution would be a partnership with the city.

“It would be most beneficial if an agency like our shelter could work collaboratively with the city of Worcester whether in public schools or neighborhoods or at our shelter – what do you do if you see a dog – Dog behavior 101,” Tellier said. “For example, children are more likely to be bitten by an animal. They’re excited and nervous and education should be there to be able to address that. It doesn’t say pit bulls bite kids, dogs bite kids.”

“I’m excited and looking forward to working with the city of Worcester and providing an educational program,” she said. Tellier was also thrilled about the law’s other services to animals, including their stopping of inhumane euthanasia, and plans to reduces the number of homeless animals. 

 

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