Barking up the wrong tree

Twin Cities lawmakers are in the position to implement legislation that could demand more of dog owners.

Jake Perron

Twin Cities lawmakers have blundered in irresponsible efforts to address “dangerous dog” ownership for quite some time. Though the ordinance proposed on Wednesday, Nov. 14 is an improvement from previous proposals, it demonstrates the amount of irresponsibility exhibited in the Twin Cities by lawmakers and citizens.

Last June, Minnesota Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, promised to propose statewide legislation in February 2008 that would ban five breeds: akitas, chow chows, rottweilers, pit bulls (which is actually a term for at least 20 different breeds) and wolf hybrids.

“You never hear stories about roving packs of golden retrievers attacking children, but you hear about the pit bulls,” said Lesch, citing a 2000 Center for Disease Control and Prevention report.

However, breed specific legislation breeds errors galore. For sake of brevity, I’ll entertain just two objections to breed specific legislation: First, classifying breeds is virtually impossible. As aforementioned, the term pit bull does not constitute a specific breed. Second, because breed specific legislation discriminates against seemingly threatening animals based on appearance, it neglects to take into account an animal’s temperament.

In late October, the Apple Valley City Council proposed an ordinance that would geographically segregate supposed dangerous dogs to industrial areas. Simply put, this proposal is a little too reminiscent of sex offender laws and redlining to tolerate.

The most current proposal introduced at a public hearing by the Minneapolis City Council is an improvement upon Lesch’s and Apple Valley’s legislation. Rather than proposing a ban on specific breeds, or marooning owners to domicile barren locations, this proposal focuses on repercussions when a potentially dangerous animal proves to be dangerous.

Among the many provisions, it proposes proper enclosures, annual registration fees, and proof of insurance bonds of at least $300,000 in case the animal should inflict harm upon an individual.

While the ordinance succeeds in avoiding the fallacious trap of stereotyping entire breeds, its inadequacies are manifold – as the majority of it establishes reactive legislation.

“Dangerous animal means: When unprovoked inflicts substantial bodily harm on a human being who is conducting himself or herself peacefully and lawfully Ö Any animal that kills another domestic animal without provocation while off the property of the owner or custodian of the attacking animal.”

More problematic is the significant amount of attention paid to restricting convicted felons’ future ownership, while devoting meager attention to the responsibility of all animal owners – which are so banal, and should be instinctual for any pet owner, that the effort is aimless in its intention:

“The animal shall not be subject to neglect, suffering, cruelty, or abuse Ö The location must be maintained Ö The owner may be required to complete an approved obedience class.”

Oh but so close they came to asserting the great responsibility that comes with power! In fact, if it were for all but one word, that being “may” as found in the last sentence, a step forward “may” have actually been made to decrease the threat of dangerous dogs.

The common failure in these three proposals is the misguided belief that targeting certain breeds is sufficient to abate attacks. A 4-pound Pomeranian killed an unattended infant in 2000.

Tragic as this and all attack incidents might be, the nurturing of pets is what must be addressed. Lawmakers can start by changing “The owner may be required Ö” to “The owner is required.”

Sorry Bill, this is not a debate about “what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” It is, however, a debate about the responsibility that comes with owning a pet, whether a Pomeranian or a potentially dangerous dog.

“Deeds, not breeds,” is the obiter dictum of anti-breed specific legislation advocates. Instead of trying to eradicate the problem by casting stereotypes on breeds, the focus should shift to mandates that will strengthen relationships between pet and owner.

This predicament is undoubtedly in immediate need of attention, as dog bites have increased 37 percent over the last 10 years. But nothing will be accomplished by banning breeds, segregating animals, or with aimless legislation because it does nothing to prevent irresponsible owners from raising their animal to be vicious. All the while, owners who have responsibly nurtured their pets will be punished for those who don’t.

Potentially dangerous dogs will not cease to exist unless owners with venomous rearing practices are dismantled first. If legislation provokes a dissipation of pit bulls, what’s to say that Pomeranians won’t take their place?

Twin City lawmakers are in the position to implement legislation that could demand higher expectations of pet owners and avoid future hindsight of being known as faunal bigots.

So come on lawmakers, are you going to bark all day, or are you going to bite?

Jake Perron welcomes comments at [email protected]