Just over twelve years ago, when I was interviewing for the job of CEO for the Washington Humane Society (WHS) in Washington, DC, I was given a tour of the New York Avenue shelter. When we walked in the front door, I saw a family sitting with their pit bull/boxer-type dog. I smiled when I saw him because he reminded me so much of my own dog Nicholas. The shelter I was running in New Hampshire cared for so many dogs who looked like this, and it always made me feel good to walk through my community and see our alumni walking with their families.
This dog’s entire body was in motion, propelled by his wagging tail. His happy and excited gaze moved back and forth with anticipation, from his family to the WHS staff members who were helping them.
Fifteen minutes into my tour I rounded a corner, and saw that wriggly, happy body lying lifeless on a stretcher.
I had been working in an animal shelter for over a decade. In fact, I was a euthanasia technician, and had sadly seen hundreds of dead animals in that time. But to see a seemingly healthy and happy family dog euthanized immediately on intake was shocking to me, and deeply disturbing. I asked the staff what was wrong – did he have cancer or a terminal disease? Was there some aggressive behavior in his past?
They told me, with a sense of shame, that WHS had a policy against adopting out pit bull-type dogs. Those surrendered by their owners, like the guy I saw, were walked immediately to the euthanasia room. And those who came in as lost or ‘stray’ were held for seven days and then killed.
I did some homework and found out that this policy had been in place at WHS for many years. Even more concerning, the nation’s capital was on the verge of passing legislation that would have enabled the city leaders to put breed-specific legislation in place. At that moment, I made myself a solemn promise that I would get the job, and the first thing I would do is to reverse this policy and give these dogs the chance they deserved.
My first day as CEO was in August of 2007. I pulled the team together, and we started the process of ending the long-held, breed-based policy that had resulted in the unnecessary deaths of thousands of dogs. The staff and volunteers were thrilled; this policy had been deeply painful. Over the next few months, we made the operational changes to welcome a couple more thousand dogs a year into our animal care and adoption program.
We also worked in partnership with our City’s leaders and dozens upon dozens of animal advocates to establish an approach that effectively creates a safe community for both animals and people: In DC, dogs are deemed dangerous or potentially dangerous based on a set of observed, concrete behaviors and criteria, not based on what they look like. Twelve years after that initial policy change, our community is more balanced and humane, and every day we see and hear from families who have been made more loving and complete by the adoption of one of these wonderful dogs.
Breed-based policies purport to keep people and communities safe from dangerous animals, but the reality is much different and more problematic. One obvious flaw with breed-based selection is that it is tremendously difficult, if not impossible, to determine a dog’s breed. I’ve been in the animal welfare profession for 20 years. Tens of thousands of dogs have passed through shelters on my watch, and I would be considered well-placed to make this determination. The longer I do this work, the more hard-pressed I am to identify a mixed-breed dog. If I feel this way, you can see that these policies create obvious practical and legal difficulties in proving a dog falls within a particular category.
While Washington, DC, and many surrounding municipalities have made great progress, our neighbors in Prince George’s County, Maryland – people and dogs – are not so fortunate. Their long-standing ordinance prohibiting the ownership or keeping of a pit bull terrier dog has failed to enhance public safety, and is ineffective for the following reasons:
That number doesn’t even include all the lost revenue opportunities caused by the ban: the many families with pit bull-type dogs who bought homes and settled in other counties, and spend their resources there; the animal-related businesses who didn’t set up shop in Prince George’s County because of the complications with the ban, and the many animal related events, like dog shows, that moved to other counties taking millions of dollars of revenue with them.
Currently, Prince George’s County is the third largest municipality in the U.S. to have a breed-specific ordinance. Now, they are considering repealing it. All of Prince George’s County’s neighbors including DC, Fairfax County, Montgomery County, and Ann Arundel County have repealed breed specific legislation and we have offered our full support as a collective to help the County make the transition toward a more progressive and humane approach – one that is favored by so much of the electorate. Together, we can ensure that this region is safe, humane, and takes into account the needs of the community, as well as the people and animals who call it home.
If you live in Prince George's County, please contact your Prince George’s County Councilmember and the At-Large Councilmembers and urge them to support the repeal of the ordinance.
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