More than 25 years after Yakima banned pit bulls within the city limits, animal control officers still confiscate dozens of the dogs every year. Just last month, three dogs described as pit bulls viciously attacked a man and his dog.
That attack has prompted a debate among city officials and residents over the usefulness of the ban. Some say the ban needs to be more strictly enforced, while others see it as evidence that the city still has a problem with dangerous dogs no matter the breed.
National experts, meanwhile, say bans on specific breeds simply don’t work and that cities would do better to focus on dog behavior, owners’ actions and on spaying and neutering dogs.
Eddy Gefroh, the man mauled in the recent attack in Yakima, said the city isn’t doing enough to enforce the ban.
“I don’t think pit bulls should be allowed in Washington state. They’re not good dogs to have around,” he said.
Yakima City Councilwoman Sara Bristol said she wonders if residents would be safer if the city replaced its pit bull ban with restrictions on problem dogs and bad owners.
“Personally, I don’t know what good the ban does,” Bristol said.
While she isn’t opposed to the ban, Bristol said she wants to make sure animal control officers have “the tools they need to deal with dangerous dogs.”
The city has a dangerous dog ordinance, which allows animal control officers to require owners to restrict dogs that have shown signs of serious aggression. The most dangerous dogs can be confiscated.
But it is rarely used, and the four animal control officers say they are hard-pressed to keep up with strays and pit bulls.
“We are not the dog Gestapo. We don’t just take your dog,” said Joe Caruso, the head of Yakima’s code enforcement division, which includes animal control.
Behavior, not breed
Groups ranging from the National Animal Control Association to the American Bar Association support dangerous dog laws and oppose breed-specific bans.
Opponents of such bans point to substantial empirical research indicating that there is no scientific basis for the bans.
“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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website.
In Prince George’s County, Md., a task force studied the county’s breed ban in 2003 and determined that it was ineffective.
A 2000 report by the center, the Humane Society of the United States and the American Veterinary Medical Association found that problem behaviors by dogs and their owners appeared to often precede attacks and “should be sufficient evidence for pre-emptive action” by animal control officials.
Local laws need to focus on factors like a dog’s behavior, its environment and owners. For example, female and neutered male dogs are much less likely to bite a human, said Todd Stosuy, president of the National Animal Control Association and field manager at the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter in California.
“Breed-specific legislation doesn’t work,” he said.
At least 12 states have prohibited cities from banning specific breeds.
Yakima placed severe restrictions on pit bulls in 1987 after attacks on two children and an elderly man were attributed to the breed.
Three residents challenged the law, but the state Supreme Court upheld it in 1989.
Selah, Moxee and Wapato also have restrictions or bans on pit bulls. In 2005, Prosser lifted its ban.
Gefroh, the most recent victim, was walking his 3-year-old cocker spaniel, Oreo, at night when three loose dogs attacked him for nearly an hour before he managed to escape with the help of a bystander, who was also bitten by the dogs. At times, he said, he was sure the dogs would kill him.
Given the extent of his injuries, the 47-year-old said he is recovering well.
“I get sharp pains some days,” he said. “You have good days and bad days.”
Oreo is already up and running around, but he is scared of the dark now, Gefroh said, who concedes to being uneasy himself at night.
Hard to be sure
One major problem with breed-specific bans is how often people — even animal control professionals — misidentify a dog’s breed, Stosuy said.
“Pit bull” isn’t actually a single breed, but rather refers to several similar breeds. Yakima’s ban applies to any dog that is wholly or partially an “American pit bull terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, American bulldog or American Staffordshire terrier breed.”
But other breeds with similar muscular builds or short hair can easily be labeled as a pit bull, said Ledy VanKavage, an attorney with the animal welfare group Best Friends Animal Society based in Kanab, Utah, where it also runs a large shelter.
DNA testing is the most accurate way to determine a dog’s heritage, but Yakima relies on its animal control officers to visually identify dog breeds. The city’s lead animal control officer, Ben Zigan, has been trained on identifying pit bulls and has been deemed an expert witness on dog breed identification by Yakima Municipal Court.
Loose dogs determined to be pit bulls are confiscated immediately, and turned over to the Humane Society of Central Washington in Yakima. If the dog isn’t loose and it’s the first offense, animal control gives owners 48 hours to remove the animal from city limits, Zigan said.
Fearing confiscation, owners often hide their dogs, producing unsocialized, timid animals more prone to biting out of fear, he said.
So far this year, the city has responded to 128 reports of pit bulls and impounded 37.
The owner is fined at least $250 for a first offense, but it can be more if there are other infractions, such as allowing the dog to run loose. The owner has five days to claim the dog, which can’t return to the city.
If the dog isn’t claimed, it’s put up for adoption either at the Humane Society or another shelter, often in Western Washington, said Wendy St. George, executive director of the Humane Society. Yakima contracts with the Humane Society for shelter services and three of the four animal control officers.
The society does not support the city’s pit bull ban, St. George said.
“Dangerous dogs aren’t limited to a specific breed,” she said.