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Letter to the Editor: My Pit Bull Changed My Life

Pit bull owner responds to a letter to the editor posted on Patch earlier this month by Kevin Dunne, the attorney who argued the "pit bull" case before Maryland's Court of Appeals.

Adopting a pit bull-type dog is a life-changing experience. First and foremost, one experiences the sheer joy and emotional fulfillment these types of dogs can bring into one's life.

Far from the constant aggression and violence typically reflected in the snarling stock photos accompanying news headlines, the pit bull-type dog is, by nature, a jester. They respond to laughter like no other dog I have owned, and their relaxed, pleasant demeanor inspires that laughter like no other dog I've owned. They are athletic enough to accompany me on trail runs and hikes, but lazy enough at the end of the day to be a lap dog.

Adopting a pit bull is a life-changing experience for a second reason: it starts with living every day in defiance of those snarling, bared-teeth stock photos accompanying news headlines and ends with the fight against breed-specific legislation which seeks to remove these happy, gentle dogs from homes and,in many cases, to euthanize them. To kill them. Not because they expressed any "inherently dangerous" behavior, but because they conform to some abstract set of properties that collectively describe a "pit bull."

Maryland now has a law that pit bulls (recently amended to “pure-bred pit bulls,” a ridiculous impossibility; “pit bull” is not a breed) are "inherently dangerous." Regardless of whether or not this law will have any kind of longevity in its current form is anyone’s guess; how it became law, however, is a matter of public record and should be a source of shame for all Marylanders.

Kevin Dunne, the attorney whose successful appeal to Maryland's highest court is the cause of this "back door" breed-specific legislation, wrote a troubling letter to the Annapolis Patch editor, posted August 9. Troubling because it conflated two essentially unrelated issues; both issues are controversial, and both are inextricably linked.

The first issue is that a landlord should be liable for the actions of his or her tenants. While this might strike many as absurd, the idea gains legs if it is proved that the landlord was somehow complicit in a tenant’s crime. In Dunne's case, the landlord had explicitly allowed the tenant to possess two "pit bulls."

The problem is that this didn't really mean anything under the law as it stood at the time. As "pit bulls" were not considered inherently dangerous, how could the landlord have been culpable for the subsequent violence?

The answer is simple, albeit ethically repellent: simply make "pit bulls" and "pit bull mixes" "inherently dangerous." Thus was the link between landlord and culpability forged, never mind the scientific and anecdotal evidence against the basic premise.

Landlord liability is not my concern. Lawyers will argue the issue, judges will opine, precedents will beset, and laws will be enacted. My concern is the science behind Dunne's assertions, spoken before the Court of Appeals, repeated before the Task Force convened to investigate the ruling, repeated at the recent legislative hearings and repeated in the Letter to the Editor on August 9th.

The first statistic Dunne presents is this: "studies have shown that pit bull dogs are responsible for 60 percent of U.S. fatalities caused by dogs." This language also appears in the Court of Appeals ruling. This statistic is drawn from a special report in the September 2000 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association.

What Dunne omits however, is the qualifying language so critical to interpreting this figure. The authors of the report themselves warn against misinterpretation of this datum and the rest of the data in the report. Their points are summarized as follows; quoted material is from the report verbatim:

  • “Attacks by 1 breed are more newsworthy than those by other breeds, our methods may have resulted in differential ascertainment of fatalities by breed.”
  • “Because identification of a dog’s breed may be subjective (even experts may disagree on the breed of a particular dog), [dog bite related fatalities] may be differentially ascribed to breeds with a reputation for aggression.”
  • “It is not clear how to count attacks by crossbred dogs.”The report considered only fatal dog bites; “fatal bites constitute less than 0.00001% of all dog bites annually.”
  • “Fatal bites are rare at the usual political level where bite regulations are promulgated and enforced, we believe that fatal bites should not be the primary factor driving public policy regarding dog bite prevention” (emphasis mine).
  • “Breeds responsible for human [dog bite related fatalities] have varied over time.”
  • “Because all types of dogs may inflict injury to people and property, ordinances addressing only1 breed of dog are argued to be under-inclusive and, therefore, violate owners’ equal protection rights.”
  • “A ban on a specific breed might cause people who want a dangerous dog to simply turn to another breed for the same qualities they sought in the original dog (eg, large size, aggression easily fostered).”
  • “A dog of any breed can become dangerous when bred or trained to be aggressive.”
  • “Our reading of the fatal bite reports indicates that problem behaviors (of dogs and owners) have preceded attacks in a great many cases and should be sufficient evidence for preemptive action.”

In his Letter, Dunne also mentions the “gruesome” case of Darla Napora; in brief, “Darla Napora, 32, was attacked by her unneutered, 2-year-old male pit bull Thursday” (ABC News). Dunne asserts that this is proof that “pit bulls…are, in fact, an inherently dangerous breed…a certain segment of the population will simply not be convinced of this until they observe it themselves.”

Callous as this “they’ll get theirs” language may sound, it’s essentially meaningless. The American Veterinary Medical Association states that:
"Intact (unneutered) male dogs represented 90 percent of dogs presented to veterinary behaviorists for dominance aggression, the most commonly diagnosed type of aggression. Intact males are also involved in 70 to 76 percent of reported dog bite incidents."

So, while Dunne’s inference might be correct if he took the Darla Napora story to mean that “unneutered male dogs” are potentially dangerous, this was not his inference. He took a fairly straightforward case and introduced breed specificity where it made no sense to do so.

This is only the tip of the iceberg with respect to the flawed data used to formulate the Court’s decision and the resulting change to Maryland law. Dunne’s entire case and the decision of the Court of Appeals are based on data of (at best) questionable interpretation and (at worst) dubious quality. That the justices found his argument persuasive is nothing short of stunning and is an embarrassment to the judiciary and the state.

As a final word, I take exception to Dunne’s assertion that “victims’ rights should be paramount.”While I certainly believe that Dunne is interested in ensuring that his client (the victim) is remunerated, I believe that his paramount goal is retaining this win, regardless of the contortions of science and reality that are required to make it happen.

See Kevin Dunne's letter:

Tim Hoelscher August 23, 2012 at 06:36 PM
The 2011 Annals of Surgery study by Bini, et al. has proven problematic for many of the same reasons described above. Further, animal and bite experts were not consulted for any part of the report, and the study uses data from non-peer reviewed studies which were in turn drawn from media reports of dog bites. I'm not sure if this is everything in the Wikipedia link or not?
Tim Hoelscher August 23, 2012 at 06:37 PM
Gracias, Brian!
Heather Fleegle-Williams August 24, 2012 at 11:21 AM
Exactly, Janet. But we can't bother the nay sayers or law makers with these facts now can we? They just dont have time for all of that "nonsense" >sense the sarcasm<
Crime Solver August 26, 2012 at 02:15 PM
Great Article. As a proud owner of 3 pitbill mixes I know these dogs are very loyal and loving although they have capability to do severe damage if provoked. Just like any other domesticated animal there is a chance animal instincts will prevail. But I can't count how many times I have been bit by small breeds of dogs that was unreported because of minimal damage. Now I wish I would have so statistics could accurately reflect dangers of Pits.
Associate September 04, 2012 at 07:06 PM
I am a long time dog lover and currently have two Great Danes. You would not believe the fear that I see in people and how they react when my girls come to the front door, stick their heads out of the van window at the grocery store, or even walking down the sidewalk. The thing is, they are scared just because of how they look because if they took a second to know them then they would realize what lousy "guard dogs" they make because they just want to slobber kisses on you. I have had Danes for 15+ years and it has never changed. Another fact, I have ONLY had issues with small (even tiny) dogs directed at either my dogs or myself. Why is that? And Great Danes are banned in some cities in Colorado. They don't know what they are missing! I grew up in the 70's and one of my uncles had "pit" bulls and we lived around the corner from us so we saw him daily. Never had a problem with them. The only one of our dogs that bit me was our cocker spaniel. And he went for my face when I picked up a tennis ball I was playing with and was even 3-4 away from him.

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