A vicious dog attack on a 10-year-old boy in Maryland led to an appeals court decision in April declaring pit bulls and pit bull mixes “inherently dangerous” breeds. The decision makes pit bull owners — and their landlords if they rent — liable for any damage or injury their dogs cause. The ruling may be on hold, but this kind of “breed specific” ruling is always controversial, renewing the debate about whether some types of dogs are more dangerous than others. We explore this legally and emotionally complex issue.
- Kevin Dunne Principal, Ober Kaler Attorneys at Law
- Colleen Lynn Founder and President, Dogsbite.org
- Tami Santelli Maryland State Director, Humane Society of the U.S.
- Gary Weitzman President, San Diego Humane Society
- Heather Mizeur Maryland House of Delegates (D-20th Dist) (former Member, Takoma Park Council, now represents Montgomery County)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. In a controversial decision this spring, an appeals court in Maryland ruled that pit bulls and pit mixes are inherently dangerous animals, making the dogs' owner and even potentially a landlord responsible if the dog injures someone. The Maryland ruling might be on hold for the moment, but since the decision, some dog owners say they've gotten eviction notices from landlords concerned about liability.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMore than 300 jurisdictions around the country have laws on the books regarding pit bulls with some, including Prince George's County, banning them outright. It's an emotional debate. Some say pit bulls are unfairly demonized, especially by the media. Others, often victims or their families, say they are, in fact, more dangerous than other types of dogs. Joining us to discuss this by phone from Austin is Colleen Lynn, founder and president of dogsbite.org, which is a national dog-bite victims' group. Colleen Lynn, thank you for joining us.
MS. COLLEEN LYNNThank you for inviting me.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone from Baltimore, Md. is Kevin Dunne. He is a principal with the law firm Ober Kaler. He represented the 10-year-old victim of a dog-bite attack in a controversial case that went to the court of appeals in Maryland. Kevin Dunne, thank you for joining us.
MR. KEVIN DUNNEThank you.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation -- and we'll be hearing different voices later on in the conversation -- you can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think pit bulls or other types of dogs are more dangerous than others? 800-433-8850. You can send a tweet, @kojoshow, email to email@example.com, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, where you may ask a question or make a comment. Kevin Dunne, I'll start with you. You were the attorney who brought the original case that led to the appeals court ruling we mentioned. Can you briefly tell us about that case?
DUNNESurely. Dominic Solesky was playing with his friends in a east Towson, Md. neighborhood when they were playing NERF tag. Four boys were playing it. The boys were between 10 and 13 years old. And two of the young boys told Dominic that they couldn't find Scotty, that they think Scotty was attacked by a dog. And they went looking for Scotty, and they were in the alley behind their homes.
DUNNEAnd they found a small amount of blood, and the next thing that Dominic heard was he heard a dog riling in a -- about a four-foot-high cage, and there were actually two dogs in the cage. One was using the back of the other dog to help itself up. The dog got out, and Dominic took off running towards his house. The other boys were a little older and a little faster, and they got away.
DUNNEThe dog brought Dominic down, I guess, just like you would see a cornerback take down a tight end from behind. The dog started biting Dominic in the face and neck. Of course, Dominic, who was playing in lightweight football as even a 10-year-old, was trying to fight the dog off, and he kept beating on the dog. And the dog released him only to grab him in the groin and ended up severing Dominic's femoral artery, and Dominic nearly bled out in the alley.
DUNNENeighbors came to help. The dog was literally beat off of him by the owner, although -- Dominic passed out, and he almost died in the spot. He was taken by ambulance to Johns Hopkins where a pediatric specialist saved his life and his leg. He was in the hospital for 18 days in pediatric ICU and had about a year of rehab. The dog was a tenant's dog, had been permitted explicitly by the landlord to have the pit bull.
DUNNEIn fact, the lease had two pit bulls in this residential neighborhood. There was no adequate fencing. There was no fencing around the house. There was no adequate area. The owner, the tenant had erected a four-foot-high barrier which was inadequate for any purpose. And ironically, the other boy, Scotty, have been bitten by the same dog only minutes before, and the owner had Scotty inside, was cleaning him up, trying to make him presentable because the owner knew that this might cause a problem.
DUNNEAnd then the same dog got out and almost killed Dominic. We filed suit in circuit court about six months later, and the case went through discovery. And we went to trial. We overcame a summary judgment motion to get to trial, but at trial, the trial judge said that I had failed -- we had failed to prove the landlord's actual knowledge of the dangerousness of this dog, and, therefore, the judge threw our case out.
DUNNEOf course, when we sued -- we sued both the tenant and the landlord -- and the tenant immediately filed bankruptcy, and so we didn't get to have a day in court against the tenant. We took the case down to appeal, and on the first appeal in the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, we prevailed. The court said that we had proven enough to get to a jury, and the case was remanded to the trial court.
DUNNEBut the insurance company for the landlord filed what's called a petition for certiorari to the highest court in Maryland, the court of appeals, and we filed a cross-petition because the issues presented were strikingly similar to a 1998 case that the Maryland Court of Appeals had decided called Matthews v. Amberwood.
DUNNEAnd then the case was fully briefed, an oral argument was held in the court of appeals in January of 2012, and the court released its decision in April of 2012, holding that, under the facts of our case, where the landlord knew that the pit bulls were there, where the landlord had written a lease itself that said that two pit bulls were permitted and that the landlord was -- had attempted to absolve itself of liability, the landlord wrote -- the landlord is no way responsible for any injuries caused by these dogs.
DUNNEUnder those circumstances, the court of appeals held that the landlord would be liable and declared, as a policy matter, the pit bulls were inherently dangerous so that if your pit bull injured someone else, you would be exposed to liability, but if your dog never hurt anybody, you would have no issue.
NNAMDIThat's the voice of Kevin Dunne. He's a principal with the law firm Ober Kaler. He represented the 10-year-old victim of a dog-bite attack in a controversial case that went to the court of appeals in Maryland that you just heard him describing. Colleen Lynn joins us by phone from Austin. She's founder and president of dogsbite.org, a national dog-bite victims' group. If you have comments or questions, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Colleen Lynn, you started a blog, dogsbite.org. Why did you launch it, and what information do you include there?
LYNNI launched it in 2007 after I experienced a pit bull attack of my own. I'm a Web designer by trade, and after I was attacked by the pit bull -- at that time, I was living in Seattle -- I went online to find information -- was there a victim advocacy site, information about pit bulls -- and what I found was, you know, there was no dog-bite victim advocacy, that's for sure. But there was a lot of misinformation about pit bulls -- imagery of pit bulls and babies, pit bulls are nanny dogs, pit bulls are the all-American dog.
LYNNAnd I knew that wasn't true just as a common citizen, having been a dog owner. So I decided that I definitely needed to create a website to help victims in these attacks have some kind of voice out there.
NNAMDIWell, apparently, you started a blog first.
LYNNWell, it was the whole site. It was...
NNAMDIOh, I see.
LYNNThe blog was the most active part, yes.
NNAMDIOh, OK. And then when you started the blog, you felt, it is my understanding, that you were somehow being attacked again.
LYNNYes. Well, actually, it was within hours of launching the site, you know, and then a couple of days later, numerous threats began pouring in from pit bull lobbying groups, pit bull breeders, pit bull owners, threats to my life, threats of lawsuits, threats to my Web design clients. There are, you know, an untold number of horrific statements that were sent in to me that I can't repeat on the airwaves. I mean, when I would forward one of these emails to my friends, they would say this is insane, Colleen. You've got to stop this.
NNAMDIWell, we won't ask you to repeat any of those things, and we all know what people can do under the cover...
NNAMDIBut tell us a little bit about what happened in the attack that -- in which you were attacked by a pit bull.
LYNNAt that time, I was on a sidewalk in my neighborhood, jogging, and there was a person in front of me. The person with that dog, by the way, was not the dog's owner. She was a neighbor taking that pit bull out for a walk. I didn't know her at all. I was, you know, coming up behind them, and, about 20 yards behind them, she turned around. And she saw me, and she took the dog and moved all the way over to the left-hand side. The left of us was grass, right? And then the street was left of that.
NNAMDISo she tried to move the dog farther away from you?
LYNNYes. I have been a runner for 20 years, so when someone does that, it usually means, hey, it's nice, first of all, but it also usually means that there might be an issue, right? Because they're trying to, you know, they're trying to get out of your way.
LYNNAnd so that's obviously one thing you notice as a runner, so I just kept going and great. And as I continued to go by them, the pit bull lunged out suddenly, and she dropped the leash. And it ran in front of me, and it was so odd because it sat down on the sidewalk. It's a small-size, narrow sidewalk. And I recall distinctly, I -- at that time, I, you know, sort of -- as I put my hands above my head, I mean, I think I knew something was coming, but I didn't know what.
LYNNAnd so I stopped. I've got my hands on my head. That dog takes off, jumps directly onto my chest, nudged me to the ground and bites the first thing it can which, fortunately for me, I had put -- placed my right forearm in front of my face. So that dog was clamped down, chewing on me, just inches from my face. I mean, it -- the attack only lasted a few seconds and the...
NNAMDIWhat injury did you suffer physically?
LYNNIt was a broken ulna, was pretty crushed. And so I have, you know, a plate in my right forearm. You know, there was an E.R. doctor, just literally, who flew out of his house. I was near a trauma center. I mean, literally, within moments of the attack, a doctor was taking me through steps of -- do you feel your fingers? And so that clearly -- my ability to, you know, not have suffered permanent damage in my right hand, by the way, really moved me to become greatly concerned, and that I needed to get back.
NNAMDISo you started a blog and your website to create a safe space where victims could go.
NNAMDIKevin Dunne, as we mentioned, there are those who say pit bulls get a bad rap in the media. You apparently have a different issue with the media. What is it?
DUNNEWell, the day decision came out from the court of appeals on April 26, I think, to the present time, the presentation about these issues have always been hijacked. The issue is always what's going to happen to my pit bull, or where am I going to be able to take my pit bull, instead of what are we doing about the victims who are being killed? Most recent statistics are that, you know, I think 12 people have been killed by pit bulls in the United States in the last five or six years.
DUNNEThey are very dangerous animals, and this is a public health issue. The public health perspective needs to be the first and foremost consideration because we need to place human beings and human health, particularly children and elderly because they are the two groups that are most often the fatal victims of pit bull attacks...
DUNNE...and not to simply listen to the apologist say, oh, no, you can't take my dog away from me. I don't want to take anybody's dog away, and the Court of Appeals of Maryland didn't say pit bulls are banned. This is not a ban. It simply said, if your dog does harm, you are on the hook for liability.
NNAMDIThat's what I need you to explain for me. The appeals court decision said landlords and owners can be held strictly liable. What does that exactly mean?
DUNNEWell, in the law, we have concepts of negligence. Negligence is a violation of a standard of care. Proving negligence in -- when it comes to dog attacks required the victim to prove actual knowledge of the owner or landlord of previous violent or vicious propensities of the animal. In this instance, the Court of Appeals of Maryland has declared the public policy of Maryland to be that if a pit bull attacks somebody, the victim no longer has to prove that there was actual knowledge of viciousness.
DUNNEThe mere fact that the attack occurred and that the person was injured will be enough to start the liability issue. And now, we're going to deal with the question of damages.
NNAMDIDoes that mean even if the pit bull attacked someone who happens to be trespassing in the yard where a pit bull is enclosed?
DUNNEIt doesn't mean that at all. In fact, the court did not take away any actual defenses that might exist. If the person instigated the attack, that would be a defense. If the person was committing a crime, that would be a defense. Now, none of those defenses were taken away. Simply because the opportunity to obtain strict liability was there doesn't mean that we -- we've lost all reason, no.
NNAMDIColleen Lynn, it's my understanding that you feel that insurance is very important. Why is that?
LYNNWell, because victims need compensation after one of these attacks. Now, I mean, the Tracey court, it's very interesting because, you know, the owner files bankruptcy as renter. Now, you know, what we see a lot of -- we see a lot of this. Now, if it's a homeowner at stake, there's usually some type of insurance policy to go after, whether it's, you know, $100,000 or $300,000. But with renters, there's often nothing.
LYNNSo not only does the victim suffer serious injuries -- you know, mine -- my own injury was a baseline pit bull bite, just baseline, $20,000 just for that, you know, two days in the hospital, that surgery. So we're looking at extreme cost. We all know or should know how expensive emergency medical care is. Now, if you're going to get -- add an air flight to that, that's another $10- or $15,000 right there.
LYNNSo just getting to the hospital today after one of these attacks can be very expensive. So, you know, we need to find a way so that, you know, victims in these cases can receive, at least -- at the very least, medical compensation.
NNAMDIMany jurisdictions around the country and around the world have what's known as breed-specific legislation regarding pit bulls. Colleen, what would you like to see?
LYNNI would like to see the adoption of mandatory pit bull sterilization laws right off the bat. We're seeing excellent results out of California. California is an interesting state because they do not allow municipalities to ban a dog breed or declare a dog breed dangerous. What they do allow on state level is to regulate the spay-neuter status of a dog breed. And so we see San Francisco, we see city after city, county after county in California adopting mandatory pit bull sterilization laws. Humane...
NNAMDIWe're running out of time in this segment. Very quickly, Kevin Dunne, what would like to see?
DUNNEI'd like to see dog owners to be responsible. We live in a society where personal responsibility seems to be the number one word we hear, particularly in this election year in 2012. Personal responsibility is where it's at, and I'm all for that. Dog owners need to be responsible, and too often, people buy large, aggressive dogs for some purpose and don't have the means or the ability or the mindset to take care.
DUNNEAnd we had 1998 decision in the Court of Appeals where a child was killed by a pit bull, and the Court of Appeals announced where it was heading. And it didn't have another pit bull case get to until 2012 in the person of Dominic Solesky. And that's when it announced the new rule because nothing was done legislatively between 1998 and 2012.
DUNNEAnd so now, we have a Maryland legislative committee looking at making a strict liability to law for all dog bites in the state of Maryland, which would be a step forward so that people who are injured in dog bite cases don't have to prove that the owner knew or had knowledge of anything. I mean, that's fairly ridiculous.
DUNNEIf we drive a car down a road and we hurt somebody, somebody doesn't have to prove that we knew we were a bad driver in order for them to get compensation for the injuries we caused. If you want to buy a dog and own a dog, you need to be responsible, and personal responsibility is the first rule that I'd want to see followed.
NNAMDIKevin Dunne is a principal with the law firm Ober Kaler. He represented the 10-year-old victim of a dog bite attack in a controversial case that went to the Court of Appeals in Maryland. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIColleen Lynn is founder and president of dogsbite.org, a national dog bite victims group. There's a link on our website to Colleen's website, dogsbite.org. Our website is kojoshow.org. It has a section at her website on state-by-state legislation on breed-specific dog laws. Colleen Lynn, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on the recent ruling from the Maryland Court of Appeals on pit bulls. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call. But the lines are filled, so you might want to go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there or send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIn the wake of this last spring's ruling by the Court of Appeals in Maryland, describing pit bulls or ruling that pit bulls are inherently dangerous, joining us in studio now is Heather Mizeur, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates. She's a Democrat representing the 20th District. Delegate Mizeur, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. HEATHER MIZEURThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Tami Santelli. She is the Maryland state director of the Humane Society of the United States. Tami Santelli, thank you joining us.
MS. TAMI SANTELLIThanks for having me.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone from San Diego, Dr. Gary Weitzman is president of the San Diego Humane Society. Gary Weitzman, thank you for joining us.
DR. GARY WEITZMANOh, Kojo, really happy to hear.
NNAMDIGood to talk to you again since you deserted us here for San Diego.
WEITZMANYeah, my heart is still there, though. Don't worry.
NNAMDIGary, one of the issues is that pit bull is not actually, it is my understanding, a single recognized breed. Can you explain?
WEITZMANRight. Not necessarily, and that's part of the problem, identifying the dogs. We rely very much on visual identification. But there could be Staffordshire terriers. There are dogs that have pit bull lab in them. Pit bull really is a mutt breed. And we can recognize them visually, but you can't with infallibility say that a dog is necessarily a pit bull or more of a lab.
NNAMDITami, pit mixes were also named in the Maryland ruling. Do you see that as problematic?
SANTELLIYes, definitely, Kojo, that's a big problem. One of the big problems with the ruling is that they've singled out pit bulls and pit bull mixes but haven't given any indication of what that might mean. And as Gary said, it could mean many things. It's sort of a socially constructed category of dog, so it's definitely problematic.
NNAMDIHeather Mizeur, getting back to the ruling, calling the dogs inherently dangerous, you felt that that ruling in April was too broad an approach. Why?
MIZEURWell, first, I think it's important for us to recognize that our top priority is public safety, and we want to make sure that we figure out a way to prevent to the maximum extent possible dangerous dogs from attacking. We want to protect our children when they're playing outside. And we need to hold bad dogs and irresponsible owners accountable when an unfortunate situation occurs. We're very sympathetic to the Solesky situation. Dominic had to have five hours of surgery, 17 days in a hospital and one year in a rehab facility, and that's an awful situation.
MIZEURAnd that family deserves liability protection and to have damages paid. But the court ruling went beyond the relief that was being sought by the Solesky family and their attorney in that case and made this gigantic, broad brush determination that labeled all pit bulls and pit bull mixed dogs as an inherently dangerous breed. And that's a separate standard for just one breed of dog that has created liability confusion for landlords, veterinarians, dog groomers, pet store owners, shelters and families across Maryland, which have been impacted by eviction notices.
MIZEURLandlords have been issuing eviction notices because they fear they can't get the liability protection necessary if an attack were to occur. If they knew that they had a pit bull dog or a pit bull mix on their property, they'd be held liable. There are housing denials. The confusion over the insurance liability protections have been large scale. And a record number of pit bulls are being abandoned. And as Dr. Weitzman said, what really is a pit bull?
MIZEURThe American Kennel Club, which is the go-to resource for breed determinations, doesn't even recognize pit bulls or pit bull mix. I have a shelter dog. I rescued him six years ago. He appears to be mostly Vizsla, a Hungarian hunting dog, but he's mixed with other things, could be pit bull, some have said, looking at him. You can't tell by looking, and that's part of the problem here.
NNAMDIAllow me to interrupt because Adam in Washington, D.C. is a property manager. Adam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ADAMHi, Kojo. How are you?
ADAMThis just sparks a lot of confusion for managers of condominium and HOA properties in particular. And I echo the sentiment of your guest that, you know, emotions are running high both in terms of victims and dog owners, but there are legal implications that people in my industry need answers on. One question in particular is, is the rule ineffective?
ADAMI understand that a motion to reconsider was filed and, until this court takes it up or denies it, that the ruling is still in the air. And then, second, what is the Maryland House of Delegates going to do to clarify some of the uncertainties left by the ruling?
NNAMDIYes. That was filed by the Maryland Attorney General's Office, and Delegate Mizeur can respond to both of your questions
MIZEURYes, thank you for the questions, Alex. I submitted a letter of inquiry to the Attorney General's Office to seek clarification because I had a good feeling that State Farm Insurance Company, which represented the landlord in this case when it went to appeal, was -- had filed a motion for reconsideration. And the question was, does the court's ruling stand and can these eviction notices be sent out, or is it -- is the opinion stayed while that reconsideration is being reviewed?
MIZEURAnd the answer that came back from the attorney general's office was that, indeed, the motion for reconsideration stays the opinion in the Solesky case. And so it's very important and using an opportunity like your show to get the word out there for people to understand that through this attorney general opinion, they have protection from having their landlords proceed with any eviction notices.
MIZEURI was starting to get calls from some constituents that were choosing to live in their car with their animals rather than have to give up their pet. And we don't want people to have to choose between their beloved family pet and their family home. As far as what the general assembly is doing next, we do have a Bipartisan, Bicameral House-Senate Task Force on this issue that has been appointed so that we can come to an agreement on consensus approach to fixing this in the general assembly.
MIZEURAnd it appears at this point that our first hearing -- we had nine panels. We spent an entire day hearing from stakeholders across the board, including the Solesky family, including animal rights concerns, including the landlords, tenants, insurers. And what started to consistently come forward in that testimony was that Maryland needs to update its common law standard practice that allowed for what some call one bite rule and, say, instead of allowing a get out of jail free card, if you will, we're going to look at having a strict liability standard that's not specific to a breed.
MIZEURIt will apply to all dogs and all dog bites so that if your dog does something bad, you are the person who is held accountable for it as the dog owner. Two-thirds of the country uses this approach in other states. And there are some exceptions that we are looking at. If you tease and torment a dog or reach into a mom with pups and you get bitten, that is not an exemption for a strict liability.
NNAMDIIf you, in fact, provoke the attack in some way or the other. Adam, thank you very much for your call. Tami Santelli, we just heard Delegate Mizeur make reference to it. But what was the law regarding dog attacks in Maryland prior to this decision?
SANTELLIWell, as Delegate Mizeur said, most states have a law on the books, sort of determining what happens if somebody's bitten by a dog. But in Maryland, that wasn't the case and still isn't the case. Maryland relied on common law that's come up through various dog bite cases in the courts over the years. And it was a negligent standard, so in order to be liable for damages in dog bite, you had to know or have reason to know that the dog was dangerous.
NNAMDIThat was called the one bite law?
NNAMDIThe dog had to have bitten someone before?
MIZEUROr you had to have some other way, some other reason to believe that the dog might be vicious.
NNAMDIGary Weitzman, we've all heard the phrase, ban the deed, not the breed. What do we know about pit bulls and attacks?
WEITZMANYeah, I mean, that's a phrase we do hear even more now. You know, the actual -- the truth here is as common sense. It's not necessarily the actor. It's the action. And when the action is the responsibility of the human end of the leash, that's the place that we should be targeting responsibility and personal responsibility. You know, in my view, all dogs should be treated equal in the eyes of the law because all dogs -- depending on who is at the other end of the leash or in many cases not on a leash at all, that's the part that's responsible.
WEITZMANSo I really applaud what Delegate Mizeur said and what Tami just reiterated that it really is a personal responsibility issue, not necessarily the breed. We know pit bulls can be strong dogs. They need training like every dog. They need nurturing. They need security. They need all those things. They are strong, big dogs. But there are a lot of strong, big dogs out there that we're not even talking about.
WEITZMANI've personally seen more bites from chows and labs than I have from pit bulls. So it's just a fact that these are big, strong dogs. They need training. They need the attention, the security that we advocate for every dog that's adopted. And we really, really want to concentrate on the education part. That's the human part.
NNAMDIGary Weitzman. Dr. Gary Weitzman is the president of the San Diego Humane Society. He joins us by phone from San Diego. In our studio is Heather Mizeur. She is a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, a Democrat representing the 20th district. And Tami Santelli is the Maryland State Director of the Humane Society of the U.S. You can call us at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIAre you a dog owner? Are you worried about your liability or your lease? 800-433-8850. Do you have a pit bull or a pit mix? What do you think of laws that target pit bulls? You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Here is Ryan in Northwest Washington. Hi, Ryan.
RYANHi, Kojo. How are you doing?
RYANI just want to say I've been working with dogs for about two years, and, anecdotally, I found pets to be very sweet. But, I mean, that's just my experience. The point I actually wanted to raise is similar to Dr. Weitzman's, about other dangerous dogs. And my experience has been in D.C., there's a type of dog called an Akita that is very popular. And if your listeners aren't familiar, they are a lot like Siberian Huskies except way bigger and way beefier. I mean, these are big, very strong dogs, and they're also known for aggression.
RYANThey're really popular as watch dogs and for that reason, especially in the neighborhoods that are maybe less affluent and people are more worried about crime. A lot of people have these dogs, and a lot of ignorant people have these dogs. I see them in homes that are just way too small for a 100-pound dog that's been bred to, you know, pull sleds around. So I guess I just wanted to make the point that I agree that there are plenty of dangerous breeds out there, and it's largely the owner's responsibility to be able to deal with these sorts of dogs.
NNAMDIAnd see how familiarly Ryan addressed Dr. Weitzman? That's because he also knows him as the co-host of "Animal House" right here on WAMU 88.5. Gary Weitzman, care to comment on Akitas?
WEITZMANWell, you know, that's true. Akitas are an even larger breed than a pit bull. And they can be very strong. They're a guard breed. You know, they originated as guard dogs in Japan. And they can be kind of stealthy. I don't want to say dangerous, but they can be a stealthy breed that you can get a bite from without even a warning shot from them ahead of time. But they are a great dog. My next-door neighbor had an Akita that was a gigantic teddy bear. And that's just exactly to Ryan's point.
WEITZMANIt is not the breed. It is -- it's a specific situation in a specific environment with owners that are either not training or are having difficulty with their breed and they need additional help managing their breed. Akitas are very big dogs, but there are a lot of big dogs. You know, Presa Canarios, we've seen reports about those dogs and dog bites as well. And it's so often the environment.
WEITZMANI'm not going to say -- and nobody should -- that any particular dog is the perfect dog for every family, every home. And in shelters, we never say that. We try to match a particular family with a particular dog or a cat or whatever they're adopting. And it's very case specific. But there is no one breed that should be outlawed in every case, and that's the whole argument against the breed-specific banning.
NNAMDIRyan, thank you very much for your call. Ken Wilcox is on the phone. He, it is my understanding, is a councilmember in North Beach, Md. Ken Wilcox, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MR. KEN WILCOXYes. Hello, Kojo. Thank you for having me on the air. And hello, Delegate Mizeur. I'm down here in North Beach, Md., which is in Calvert County in Southern Maryland. And we used to have a pit bull ban ordinance on our books from -- dating back to the -- about 2000. And this year, in fact, just last month, we revised it to what is -- what we've described as a dangerous animal ordinance.
MR. KEN WILCOXGoing along with what everyone has said is we now approach what -- not what -- who the dog is, but what the dog does because we found last year, we had an unprovoked attack by a dog in town. And by our ordinance, we thought it was -- well, we thought it was a pit bull, but we could never prove it. And Dr. Weitzman can probably go along with this. There's really no genetic tests that you can specifically say, you know, a breed of dog is a particular breed of dog.
MR. KEN WILCOXSo after nearly a year in investigation in -- for our little tiny town, which, you know, cost us a lot of money, we could not get that dog out of town. So we've changed it over now to, you know, the actual attack. Was it unprovoked attack along the lines what is proposed up there in Annapolis, that it's much easier for enforcement for towns where you can deal with an actual attack and know that it is -- that it was an unprovoked attack, and then our remedy is the dog is out of our town.
WILCOXSo, you know, I just wanted to re-emphasize that those of us on the ground of the municipality -- I think delegate remember the days when she was in the town council -- that, you know, we, you know, we'd have limited resource...
NNAMDISays she doesn't remember those days at all.
WILCOXYeah. Limited resources...
NNAMDINo. She says she actually does remember those days.
WILCOXYeah. Yeah, remember those days -- and that you have limited resources and you need to attack the problem and deal with the safety of your citizens. So we just did it last month. And if there's any help we can give to, you know, the delegate with our experiences, we'd love to help.
MIZEURThank you, Ken. And I think that what this also points to is a reminder that over periods of time, there have been different breeds that have been considered the breed that is inherently dangerous at that period of time. In the '70s, it was the German shepherd. And then it was the Doberman Pinscher. And then it was Rottweilers. And, now, it's the pit bull. And what we're wanting to say is that the law needs to be very clear, we need to hold people accountable and that everyone should get the same legal protection whether they're bitten by a Chihuahua, a Saint Bernard or a pit bull.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Ken Wilcox. We've got to take another break. If you are on the phone, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call. If the lines are busy, join us at our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question at -- by email at email@example.com, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about a Maryland court ruling in a court of appeals that specifically identified pit bulls as inherently dangerous. We're talking with Dr. Gary Weitzman. He is the president of the San Diego Humane Society. He joins us by phone from San Diego. He's also co-host of "Animal House" right here on WAMU 88.5. Tami Santelli is the Maryland state director of the Humane Society of the U.S.
NNAMDIShe joins us in studio along with Delegate Heather Mizeur, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates. She is a Democrat in the 20th District. Your calls, 800-433-8850. We have a lot of calls. So I'll start with Lisa in Washington, D.C. Lisa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LISA LAFONTAINEYes. Hello. Hi. I heard my good friends Tami and Gary on the phone, and I want to join in the conversation. I'm the CEO of the Washington Humane Society. And we probably catch 30,000 animals every year through all of the programs that we have. And, you know, one thing we can say with authority is that dogs that bite and attack have three things in common. One is they're almost never spayed or neutered.
LISA LAFONTAINEThey almost always have been chained up in a yard. And it's very common that they had no socialization and human contact. So those are -- when we talk about the other end of the leash and the owner's responsibility, those are three things that we see, almost without fail, whenever there's a tragic circumstance.
NNAMDILisa LaFontaine, I'd be interested in hearing what you think about the laws being proposed here by Delegate Mizeur and the phone call we got about not making it breed-specific. It's the deed, not the breed.
LAFONTAINEI could not agree more. And, as a matter of fact, in 2008, we worked with the leaders in D.C. to craft legislation. And I think it's been tremendously successful. We have on the books here on Washington a law that talks about dangerous and potentially dangerous animals. And that's based on observed behaviors. A dangerous dog is a dog that has actually acted in a way to harm someone.
LAFONTAINEA potentially dangerous dog is one who has acted in a menacing way or who has been stray and unable to be caught more than three times. And so we've been using those laws very successfully. And I think they have a lot in common with what Delegate Mizeur and the caller from Maryland has been proposing. And it's working.
NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much for calling. Lisa LaFontaine...
NNAMDI...is president of the Washington Humane Society. Tami Santelli, why do think there's so little agreement about whether pit bulls are, in fact, more dangerous than other dogs?
SANTELLIWell, I think it has something to do with what you mentioned about the perception of pit bulls as being dangerous, portrayed often in the media or just sort of public perception. There's actually no evidence -- scientific evidence from studies of dog bites that one type of dog is more likely to injure somebody over another.
SANTELLIBut there is evidence that when a pit bull bites somebody, that story is more likely to be reported. It's more likely to be reported more than once than if it's a dog bite from a different kind of dog. So I think there are a lot of education that needs to happen and there a lot of great people advocacy groups that are working hard to sort of change that public perception.
NNAMDIOn now to Joe in Alexandria, Va. Joe, your turn.
JOEHello, Kojo. I just want to say I really loved your LeVar Burton episode last week.
JOEThat was great. And you have an excellent show. I have adopted two pit bull mixes. One was badly physically abused, and my wife and I have spent a long time trying to get him back to the point where he is 100 percent. And we adopted him when he was about nine months old. He's now five. And to this day, it's really under our responsibility. It's on me because I know there are certain situations that are no-win situations for Boomer.
JOEI know that, you know, my dog, I know there are certain situations I would not put him in, and I try not to put him in that situation. I think that, really, what this all needs to focus on is the owners understanding their animal and understanding their responsibility to put them in a winning situation and protect people around it.
NNAMDIJoe, I'm glad you raised the issue about understanding the animal. Dr. Gary Weitzman, it's my understanding that more than 30 people a year are mauled to death by dogs in this country. And by some estimates, the family dog is responsible in some half of those cases. Can we really say it's just about responsible owners?
WEITZMANYeah, I think you can. And I think it's just what this caller -- I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name -- is just saying from Alexandria. You know, it depends on the dog. I've got two. One is a pit bull mix, and she's wonderful. She -- as many listeners of the "Animal House" know, her name is Betty Crocker. And we named her that so that we could use her as a teaching model for kids in our humane education programs, sweet as can be, absolutely not a worry in the world in my mind about having that dog, you know, interact with anybody.
WEITZMANNow, my other dog is a German Shepherd. You absolutely have to know your dog, and I know that my German Shepherd is one that I cannot put other people in his path. He's not terrible, but I have to have my eyes open about him. So I take the responsibility. I make absolutely sure that nothing happens that would be my fault with that dog. And he's not that bad a dog, but...
NNAMDISo you're saying that when it's the trusted family pet, it is that the owner still may not fully understand the dog?
WEITZMANAbsolutely. There is a lot of, well, "denial," including in my mind with my beloved pets, too, and you have to get past that and realize, OK, this is the reality. This is -- and this is what we talk about on the "Animal House" all the time. There are realities of your animals. There are limitations. So you teach and you train and you do as much as you can to be responsible, but know your animal. And it can be a pit bull, it can be a German Shepherd, it can be a dachshund. You just have to know your animal.
WEITZMANAnd in the cases where 30 percent come from a family's pet, it's exactly what Lisa LaFontaine just said. And Washington Humane has done some extraordinary work with pit bulls. And she wrote a wonderful blog in The Huffington Post just about this case recently. But what you need to do is make sure that those dogs are the responsibility of the family and that they are spayed and neutered and that they are cared for and not left on chains in the backyard and not unattended. You've got to know your situation and know your animal and take personal responsibility.
MIZEURI always say you never want to set your dog up for failure, and part of that socialization that Lisa from the Humane Society talked about as being so important is that it's incumbent upon us to be observationists of our animal's behaviors. I know, as sweet as my dog is, that Chester hates anything that looks out of the ordinary. If somebody has on a strange hat, if they're walking with a cane, if they are a roadside worker with a uniform on, he's going to get aggressive because it frightens him.
MIZEURHe doesn't understand the situation. He thinks he needs to protect me from this different thing. And so I have to be very extra careful, when I have him in those situations, that a situation doesn't escalate. And that comes from socialization and observation and being a responsible pet owner and understanding how to not set your animals up for failure.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Joe. On to Chris in Springfield, Va. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISHi, Kojo. I got to say upfront I really dig your show, man. That thing you did on mushrooms a couple of months ago was just -- there's no comparison. You really -- really, really good stuff. I have one question. I'm hearing a lot of discussion about anecdotal evidence, you know, and a lot of opinions about feed not breed. But I haven't heard anything really about, you know, serious studies, talking about breed, talking about the environment, talking about dependent and independent variables.
CHRISHasn't anybody studied this issue to really get down to something we can hang our hats on as far whether specific breeds are dangerous or not other than these really anecdotal discussions that are going on?
NNAMDIFirst you, Tami Santelli, and then Dr. Weitzman.
SANTELLIYes, there have been studies. Both the Centers for Disease Control and the American Veterinary Medical Association have done studies. The most recent one, a report from the American Veterinary Medical Association, summarized studies of serious dog bite injuries over the last 40 years and concluded that you couldn't really identify a specific type of dog.
SANTELLIThere's all kinds of factors that contribute to aggressive behavior from dogs and that breed ban or breed-specific restrictions haven't actually been showing to reduce the rate of dog bites in communities. So there definitely are studies out there that address all these points.
NNAMDIGary Weitzman, you ran the animal shelter here in Washington and now in San Diego. In addition to answering the question about the studies that have been conducted, tell us a little bit about how many of your rescue animals are pit bulls and if they're adopted out.
WEITZMANRight. Thank you for asking that. That's the big issue. I would agree wholeheartedly with what Tami just said. The academia logical evidence out there does not conclude that any one breed is a "dangerous" breed. It's a personal responsibility again, and I can't say that enough. We're still looking, and there still are ongoing studies by the ABMA to catalog dog bites and identify breeds so that people can learn and know what they need to be training for.
WEITZMANSo I would agree completely with what Tami just said. As far as the issue, in my mind, for shelters, it's a huge one. We are already in every urban environment, Washington to San Diego, overrun -- and I don't use that word lightly -- with pit bull-type breeds. And the issue is, again, it's the lack of care in most cases. It's the lack of actual good housing for these animals, and they're relinquished in droves. And it's -- again, the biggest thing, lack of spay and neuter.
WEITZMANAnd that's why we've got them in Washington D.C., at both the Washington Humane Society and the Washington Animal Rescue League and everywhere surrounding and all the way across the country. And we certainly have them in San Diego as well. My worry with breed-specific bands is that the huge problem that we've already got will become an avalanche of epic proportions that we can't handle, and we will be euthanizing all of those dogs. You know, we don't want everyone to run out and go and adopt a pit bull.
WEITZMANThat's not the solution. We want pit bulls to go to the right homes like we want chocolate Labs to go to the right homes. And we know that there just aren't enough homes for those dogs. So the people that already have them, that love them, that named them silly names like Betty Crocker, that really enjoy that this is a breed that is loyal to the family and is a great friendly happy dog, and, in so many cases, we want those people to be able to safely hang on to their beloved pets.
NNAMDITami, your organization the Humane Society focuses on education and making...
NNAMDI...pet owners responsible. But is that enough to prevent dog attacks?
WEITZMANWell, right now we think education and constant support and good facilities, like the San Diego Humane Society, like the Washington Animal Rescue League and Washington Humane Society, like Animal Humane in Minnesota, there are so many, really, really adopt the adopter as well as sending out an animal. And those resources should always be available to people that adopt from shelter so that you have your training advice and help in education and spay and neuter and constant support for families who adopt. That's the key.
NNAMDITami Santelli, you get the last word.
SANTELLIYeah. Kojo, we definitely work on education. We're also working in Maryland to do -- pass laws that prevent dog bites, like increase spay-neuter services and prevent 24-hour tethering of dogs. So we work on all those issues a lot with Delegate Mizeur.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we're out of time. The aforementioned Delegate Mizeur is Heather Mizeur, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates. She's a Democrat from the 20th District. Delegate Mizeur, thank you for joining us.
MIZEURThanks so much, Kojo.
NNAMDITami Santelli is the Maryland state director of the Humane Society of the U.S. Tami, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Dr. Gary Weitzman is the president of the San Diego Humane Society. He also is the co-host of "Animal House" right here on WAMU. Gary Weitzman, good to talk to you.
WEITZMANYou too, Kojo. It was a pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.