New Orleans is the city of the pit bull. Last year Gambit reported that New Orleans has one of the highest rates of pit bull ownership per capita in the country. It is home to the Sula Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at “fostering responsible pit bull ownership” which raises money by selling yearly calendars of the “Pit Bulls of New Orleans.” It is home to “Ban Ignorance, Not Pit Bulls,” a group established to “advocate for pit bull rights and educate the general public in a positive way that will help lessen the ignorance concerning pit bulls.”
For you TV junkies out there, the evidence is even more apparent. The Animal Planet reality series “Pit Bulls and Parolees,” which pairs ex-cons with pit bulls, aired its 2012 season in New Orleans after relocating its rescue and adoption facility to the Lower 9th Ward from Los Angeles. The show cited onerous regulations as the primary driver of the move.
It is only natural that New Orleans would fall in love with the pit bull, a broad category of canine that has largely fallen into disrepute. One of our chief virtues is acceptance in defiance of popular prejudice, and with pit bulls, the prejudice is enormous. Shock columnist Dan Savage has written “pit bulls should be boiled alive like lobsters and fed to their idiot owners.” Groups like Dogsbite.org promote breed-specific bans on pit bull breeds, arguing that they are inherently dangerous after having been selectively bred for bull baiting and dogfighting.
These breed-specific bans are a major point of contention, and continue to be debated nationwide. Miami and Denver both have long-standing bans on pit bulls which have been subjected to repeated legal challenge. Closer to home, St. Landry Parish already bans pit bulls and the Covington City Council mulled restrictive pit bull legislation last year.
Ironically, it was a New Orleans case that established the legal authority under which pit bull bans operate. In Sentell v. New Orleans and Carrollton Railroad Company, 166 U.S. 698 (1897), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the regulation of dogs fell within the police power of the state, upholding a law requiring the licensing of dogs as a prerequisite to recovering damages in court related to the death of a dog. The Court reasoned that while the destruction of purely innocuous property must be compensated, dogs can cause trouble. Noting that dogs can kill livestock or just be “vicious, noisy, and pestilent,” the Court held that they may be regulated.
Sentell’s legacy is excessive deference by the Courts to legislative decisions pertaining to dogs. If the government shoots my cow, it has to pay. If it kills my dog for no good reason, the legislature can ask me to whip out a pet license before it cuts a check.
Thus, the Courts have generally upheld pit bull bans as part and parcel of this broad regulatory power. Still, this power has its limits, and the deference of the Courts in this area has, in my view, devolved into sheer laziness.The chief legal problem these bans face is that the word “pit bull” is not a very meaningful one. It isn’t even a specific breed. The term actually encompasses three breeds: the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier. However, most dogs dubbed “pit bulls” aren’t pedigreed. They don’t have official papers. Thus, there’s a “I’ll know one when I see it” attitude whereby any medium-sized dog with a broad chest, short hair and a wide head will be dubbed a pit bull. Precise it is not. The last I checked, vague laws are supposed to be unconstitutional.
The International Municipal Lawyer’s Association model pit bull ban, the standard for such legislation, defines “pit bull” as including the foregoing three terrier breeds plus “any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one (1) or more of the above breeds, or any dog exhibiting those distinguishing characteristics which substantially conform to the standards established by the American Kennel Club or United Kennel Club for any of the above breeds.”
All of this might sound highly technical, but it’s just amounts to a fancier say of saying “kinda looks like a pit bull ya’ got there, boy.” These laws don’t regulate pit bulls; they regulate dogs that look like a very broad public conception of pit bulls. This is a major problem, because a large percentage of dogs that resemble the accepted pit bull mold have little, if any, ancestry from the established triumvirate of pit bull breeds.
Last year in Toledo, Ohio, the Toledo Blade performed DNA tests on six dogs labeled as “pit bulls” based on their general appearance by the county dog warden. Only one of the dogs was predominantly descended from pit bull breeds. Two others had some smaller percentage of “pit” in them, and the remaining three, or half of the test sample, had absolutely no pit bull DNA whatsoever. Looking at the photos, it is clear why the dog warden was mistaken. One dog’s DNA revealed him to be a mix of Boxer and Bullmastiff, but was a dead ringer for a pit bull.
Of course, your average police officer isn’t even as knowledgeable about dog breeds as a county dog warden, rendering breed-specific bans completely and utterly arbitrary in the cases of non-pedigreed dogs.
To top it all off, the entire reputation of pit bull breeds is a myth. It’s a recent invention based on the breed’s relatively recent popularity in poor communities as a guard dog and in illegal dog fighting rings. If you go back to a time before our inner-cities fell apart, you’ll find that pit bulls had a reputation for a good temperament. They were viewed as “non-aggressive” and even a “nanny dog” appropriate for the company of small children. Among experts, that view hasn’t changed. The United Kennel Club, whose own standards are cited in the model pit bull ban, recommends against the use of pit bull breeds as guard dogs because they’re too friendly to strangers.
The whole situation reminds me of an old fable, told for centuries in countless variations. A woodsman lived on the frontier with his infant daughter and trusted dog, Prince. One day he came home, axe in hand, and found his daughter’s crib overturned next to his bed and stained with blood. Prince timidly wandered out from behind the bed, bloodied and averting his gaze. Stuck with grief and anger, the man plunged his axe into Prince’s head, killing him. The woodsman then heard his daughter crying behind the bed, next to a dead wolf clenching a patch of Prince’s bloody fur in its mouth.
We’ve mistaken pit bulls. We’ve judged them without thinking. It is certainly true that in recent decades pit bulls have been co-opted by irresponsible dog owners and twisted into something they’re not, but that’s nothing more than an overturned cradle and an averted gaze. It’s bad evidence. It’s not a justification for rejecting a trusted companion.
Thankfully, New Orleans has rejected the trend. New Orleans has no breed specific bans, and revisions to the New Orleans’ dangerous dog laws proposed this past fall focus on actual behaviors (as they should). Unlike countless other jurisdictions, New Orleans maintains sane laws regarding pit bulls. I just wish the rest of the country felt as we do.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.