Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Report from the trenches of local politics: pit pull ordinance hearing

Last night I attended a city council meeting in Worcester, in which the public was allowed to speak about the proposed pit bull ordinance. As a reminder, this ordinance would require pit bull type dogs in the city of Worcester to be muzzled when in public, and would require owners to post a sign warning that a pit bull type dog was in residence. Last night’s meeting was ably reported by the Telegram and Gazette, the local paper. I’ll give my own report here, and I’ll say up front that I don’t support the ordinance, and my reporting is biased (for the unbiased version, see the T&G).

As a Grafton resident, I was not allowed to speak at this meeting. I attended because I was curious, and to show support from the nearby vet school for opponents of the ordinance. Four other vet students attended with me (and maybe others that I didn’t know about). The room filled to overflowing, and was standing room only by the time the meeting came to order.

The first speaker was a state representative, who said that he had served on committees for animal legislation. He felt strongly that this ordinance doesn’t go far enough, and that pit bull type dogs should in fact be banned. He believed that “punish the deed, not the breed” was not a good argument against breed specific legislation, citing anecdotal evidence of pit bull type dogs having injured people. (He did not explain why he felt that breed was a better predictor of a dangerous dog than irresponsible ownership, something that often frustrates me about proponents of breed-specific legislation, because it seems to be such an obvious question to me.) His speech was greeted with loud boos from the audience, causing Mayor O’Brien to have to ask for quiet and for people to behave respectfully.

A representative of the Worcester Animal Rescue League also spoke. She made her case well, I thought, covering the important points: we have no reason to believe this ordinance will be effective; accurate identification of pit bull type dogs is very difficult; this ordinance will make people think the problem is solved when it is not. She was a good public speaker, something not to take for granted when a busy urban shelter needs to find someone to present their case at a city council meeting.

One person spoke in favor of the ordinance, saying that he had seen pit bull type dogs owned by drug dealers. Again, I felt that his case was lacking in some logic — perhaps ownership by a drug dealer might be a better predictor of a dog’s temperament than its breed.

Then people from the floor started lining up to speak against the ordinance. Mayor O’Brien attempted to alternate pro versus con speakers, but no one else was offering to speak in favor of the ordinance. So for the next 45 minutes, we heard from people against it. One speaker was a veteran of two wars who has a pit bull type dog with a Canine Good Citizen title, who is training her dog to do therapy work (going to places like hospitals and nursing homes to visit sick or elderly people who want to spend time with a dog). She was an excellent speaker who made good, logical points, but also had good emotional appeal.

Other speakers appealed solely to emotion, but I think that’s as important as appealing to logic in a situation like this. One elderly gentleman explained in detail how sweet his neighbor’s pit bull type dog was and how it liked to lick his face. While speeches like this seemed useless to one of my vet school compatriots, who wanted logic, logic, logic, I’m guessing that the less scientifically-trained in the audience found that sort of appeal more effective in some ways.

The ordinance will be voted on at the next city council meeting, in early September. In the meantime, apparently some motions were brought after I left, to modify the text of the ordinance to target dangerous dogs regardless of breed. That sounds like a good change to me. I’m hopeful that the suggestions that were presented to the city council will cause them to think this ordinance through over the next month, and possibly even work with the Worcester Animal Rescue League to redesign the ordinance. Something does need to be done, but whatever is done needs to target dangerous dogs, not dogs of a particular breed.

[ETA: Unfortunately, the ordinance passed, 9-2. It takes effect April 1, 2011.]

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