Pit bull advocates push for special session action

Erin Cox, Maryland Votes for Animals

Are all dogs created equal?

Del. Herb McMillan believes the Maryland General Assembly should answer with a resounding yes.

McMillan plans to introduce his Dog Nondiscrimination Act during this week’s special session, which starts Monday, even though legislative leaders have said nothing but the budget will be on the agenda.

He’s one of several lawmakers drafting bills to overturn a recent state Court of Appeals ruling that declared all pit bulls “inherently dangerous.”

“I see it as equivalent to racism to say that one breed is inherently one thing,” said McMillan, an Annapolis Republican and owner of Winston, an American Staffordshire terrier, a breed commonly known as a pit bull. “It’s the same to just say a race of people are inherently lazy.”

The ruling makes both dog owners and landlords responsible if a pit bull bites anyone. It no longer has to be proven in court that the dog had previously shown a propensity to violence.

Animal advocates have declared the law unfair; some landlords say the only way to protect themselves now is to evict pit bulls from their properties.

Calls for legislation to reverse the ruling began last week, but Gov. Martin O’Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Annapolis, have said the special session will tackle only the problem it was called to resolve: the legislature’s failure to finish work on the budget and pass revenue-raising measures.

O’Malley’s and Busch’s spokeswomen confirmed Friday that the budget remains the only item on the agenda.

But McMillan said filing the Dog Nondiscrimination Act serves a greater purpose.

“Frankly, to me, this is the tip of the iceberg,” McMillan said. “I don’t see how you can say that a pit bull is inherently dangerous, but not a Rottweiler.”

Del. Jon Cardin, D-Baltimore County, is drafting a more complicated bill to deal with parts of the court ruling he describes as “so overreaching and unworkable.”

Landlords already have begun sending notices to tenants that they must get rid of the dogs, according to the Maryland Multi-Housing Association. A report distributed by the association, which represents landlords, estimates that 84,000 dogs would be affected by the ruling, at a cost of $3 million.

“What’s going to happen with all of these pets that are going to be taken to shelters?” Cardin said. “We already underfund the shelters, and they’re going to be overrun.”

Cardin hopes the bill will pass, but he still sees value in promoting solutions, even if leaders refuse to consider them.

“To me, I think the chances of it coming to a vote is relatively slim, even though there is a great immediacy to it,” he said.

The ruling applies generally to both pit bulls and pit bull mixes, although it includes no guidelines for specifying which dogs would be affected. But Annapolis Mayor Josh Cohen believes it applies to Tula, the pit bull mix he owns.

“I truly believe that it’s the owner, not the breed, that’s the problem,” said Cohen, adding that he’d personally testify on any bill for which a hearing is scheduled. “Everyone I know with pits or pit bull mixes, they say they’re really like a lap dog trapped in a pit bull body. All they want to do is sit on your lap and snuggle with you.”

Carolyn Kilborn, chairwoman of the advocacy group Maryland Votes for Animals, said the organization plans to keep pressing elected officials throughout the session, hoping they change their minds and consider at least one of the bills.

“I’m hoping for a massive outcry from people across the state who own pit bulls or any type of dog,” Kilborn said.

“If it’s pit bulls who are being discriminated against today, it could be boxers or Rottweilers or German shepherds tomorrow,” she said.

Dels. Michael Smigiel, an Eastern Shore Republican, and Heather Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat, also have drafted a bill making it illegal to declare a dog dangerous based solely on its breed or heritage.

Smigiel said the court’s ruling on pit bulls has created a real crisis that needs to be addressed now - in contrast to the “manufactured” budget problem.

The ruling, he said, means “it’s going to be easier to sue you, so you have landlords all over the state of Maryland saying to their tenants: ‘I don’t care if it’s the sweetest dog on the planet, it’s a pit bull.’”

Another set of activists has planned a rally for Tuesday afternoon on the steps of the State House and has asked protesters to bring posters of happy pit bulls.

There will be no dogs allowed.