Local pit bull owners experienced victory Monday night as an effort to ban the breed from Aberdeen failed by a six to three vote.
The motion would have allowed existing pit bulls to remain in the Hub City, as long as they're licensed and have been vaccinated for rabies. New pit bulls would have been prohibited.
Opposing the breed ban were Tom Agnitsch, Todd Campbell, Jeff Mitchell, Jennifer Slaight-Hansen, Mark Remily and Clint Rux. In favor of the ban were David Bunsness, Mayor Mike Levsen and Laure Swanson.
Twenty-six members of the public crowded into the City Council chambers to hear the discussion. Five of those people spoke at the meeting.
The council also considered banning pit bulls at two meetings in March 2011. An amendment offered by Bunsness at one of those meetings generated a 4-4 vote, failing to pass because it didn't obtain a majority.
The first person who spoke Monday, Melissa Murray, said banning a whole breed of dog is not the answer. Dogs should be looked at on a case-by-case basis, she said.
Amanda Boulais, a local trainer, disagreed with parts of the proposed ordinance. She took exception to the section of the ordinance that says breeds of dogs known as pit bulls “have been selectively bred for the purpose of bull baiting, bear baiting and dog fighting for hundreds of years.” Boulais said that at one time the dogs were bred for fighting, but that tendency has been bred out of them.
Boulais also said it's easy for authorities to make a mistake in determining whether a dog is a pit bull. She pointed out that the American Kennel Club is against breed-specific legislation. A dog is dangerous because of the way it behaves, not because of the way it looks, she said.
Education is the key, Boulais said. People need to be taught how to act around dogs and how to raise dogs.
Citing information from the National Canine Resource Council, Brandon Black said that breed-specific bans fail to produce a safer community.
Brooke Meyers appeared before the council, as she did in March 2011. Meyers said that the city's leash laws are not being enforced. When she drops off a child at day care, she notices an unleashed pit bull, accompanied by its owner, at a nearby home. She is aware of pit bulls because her 5-year-old son was attacked by a pit bull in 2010. Slaight-Hansen said that the current leash law allows a dog to go loose as long as it remains on the owner's property.
Also speaking to the council was Barb Greiner, who wore a sweatshirt that read, “Judge the deed, not the breed.” She said dog owners should be trusted the same way that alcohol license-holders are expected to follow the law.
City attorney Adam Altman drafted the proposed ordinance and also did research at the request of the council.
He reported Monday that since 2008 in Aberdeen, pit bulls have been involved in more incidents than any other breed or species.
Altman used the statistics to conduct a nonscientific poll. He compiled a list of 45 most serious incidents, removed any information about the breed involved, and asked people to vote on the 10 most serious incidents. Altman reported Monday that pit bulls were involved in six of the 10 serious incidents. Of those 10 serious incidents, five involved a human as the primary victim.
Based on the data, city staff members could comfortably say that “the removal of pit bulls from the community would reduce the number of serious dog attack incidents,” Altman said.
Altman also responded to some of Boulais’ comments. He said that people are still breeding pit bulls to fight, pointing to the case involving football player Michael Vick. Responding to a question posed by Black, Altman said that when pit bulls are taken 10 miles away from Aberdeen, animal control and police officers tend to see those animals again “pretty quickly.”
During the discussion, Swanson said she sympathizes with dog trainers and pet owners. But “as a City Council member, I have a hard time ignoring” the fact that pit bulls are involved in 60 percent of the serious incidents in Aberdeen.
Levsen said that backers of the ban are “not asking for a lot here.” They simply ask that people moving to Aberdeen buy a dog that isn't statistically proven to be likely to injure a person.
Mitchell said the council will never be able to “legislate the safety of every citizen out there.”
Rux agreed, saying there are many other dangers in society, such as drunken driving.
Remily said he's a dog owner, but he's “never even met a pit bull.” He's done a lot of research over the last couple of weeks, including talking to veterinarians. They all agreed that a single-breed ban doesn't work, he said.
Bunsness said pit bull attacks are “happening to our citizens at an alarming rate. You'd think we would do something about this.”
Bunsness said the next time a pit bull attacks an Aberdeen citizen, he will bring the issue back. He told the ban opponents in the audience to tell their friends to be responsible pet owners. Because if there's another attack on a human, it will come before the council again. “And it'll get closer every time,” he said.
At the end of the meeting, Campbell said he'd like to look at other ways to reduce the problem short of banning the breed. He'd like to study the effect that spaying and neutering has on animals, why more people aren't licensing their animals and take a broader look at dangerous animals.
Levsen, though, said, “We just commissioned a study and we ignored it tonight.” So he's not very optimistic about action in the future.