A group of citizens wants the Independence City Council to consider repealing the pit bull ban passed in 2006, claiming that breed of dog and its various mixes have received an unnecessarily bad rap and that bad owners are the bigger root of pit bull problems.
Mayor Eileen Weir, however, suggests it’s a matter that should be voted on by the citizens.
In two council meetings this month, five people expressed their disapproval of the breed-specific legislation, with many more in attendance to support them.
Sherry Snyder, one of those who has spoken to the council, said the big reason pit bull supporters have come forward lately is some cities in area have reversed or considered reversing their pit bull bans. She knows several of the people on a Facebook site created for the cause in the city.
“We were hoping to get them to think, ‘If other (places) are reversing, maybe it’s a good thing,’” said Snyder, who has been a dog owner most of her life, has family and friends who own pit bulls or pit bull mixes and has volunteered more than 20 years with animal services and shelters. “One of the reasons a lot of us voted for these council members and the mayor is we thought they would be open to looking at it.”
Courtney Thomas, executive director of the Great Plains SPCA, which operates Jackson County’s Regional Animal Shelter in eastern Independence, also does not favor city’s ban because “it’s just not the most effective tool to address aggressive and dangerous animals.”
“What we should be doing is examining the true behavior – the demonstrated behavior – of the pet ...” she said.
The City Council enacted the ban in 2006 after a handful of high-profile attacks, mostly notably the 2006 attack by two pit bulls on Alan Hill, who nearly died, losing five pints of blood and being in intensive care for two weeks. A relative carried a petition that gathered more than 4,000 signatures, and the council later that year enacted the ban.
The issue went through the city’s Advisory Board of Health before going to the council. Weir said the city was diligent and thorough in that process.
“I’m not going to second guess the decision they made,” she said.
She also points out that none of the current council members, including herself, were on the council at that time, and she acknowledged that council majorities can change over time and the issue could be brought up again and again.
“I don’t want to do that,” she said.
She also points out that the city has had no attacks as vicious as those on Hill and others nearly a decade ago.
So has the ban worked?
“If the intent of the ordinance was to prevent people from being brutally mauled by pit bulls, the answer is yes,” Weir said. “Has the number of bites (fallen)? No.”
“I think the results, in some sense, speak for themselves,” she said.
Weir also said the ordinance has public support, although those wanting to lift the ban are the most vocal.
“But that’s not the majority of the community,” she said.
As for the attack on Hill, Thomas said, “I understand why the community ... felt like there needed to be reaction to that tragic event.”
What’s a pit bull?
Snyder says part of the problem with the city’s ban is that far too many dogs get misidentified as pit bulls or pit bull mixes.
“Our shelter has a huge number of pit bulls because we can only adopt them out to people outside of Independence,” she said. “That takes up space that could go to other dogs.”
Thomas agreed. Most of the animals the shelter takes are from Independence, and it’s a no-kill shelter, so animals often stay there for long periods before someone adopts them. Thomas said one-third of the dogs at the shelter are pit bulls.
“And they’re coming from this community,” she said.
But under the ordinance they can’t go back to the community. The city’s ordinance bans dogs that are predominantly pit bull, and Thomas points out that’s not even a breed recognized by the American Kennel Club. A vet at the shelter has to make a determination, essentially deciding if it looks 51 percent or more like a breed such as the American Staffordshire terrier.
“Right now, it’s visual,” she said.
Thomas, who has testified in Jefferson City on breed-specific legislation, says other cities are lifting their bans. Those include Grandview, Roeland Park and Bonner Springs. Thomas favors Independence doing the same.
“It is a game changer for our mission, for sure,” she said.
Snyder said a breed-specific DNA test costs about $90, something a good number of people who have dogs taken by the city can’t easily cough up.
“It would be really great if we could get that negotiated down or subsidized, until we get this changed,” she said.
Snyder said she would support a clause that said pit bulls must be sterilized (as in Kansas City), and echoed the sentiment of Lacy Moore, another speaker who told the council that the ban doesn’t address the root cause of pit bull problems and legislation that holds irresponsible owners accountable would be better.
“If a dog attacks, deal with that dog...,” Snyder said. “It’s human interaction that’s made them be bad. That’s who we need to address.
“It’s all what they perceive about the breed.”
Thomas also said the critical piece is how a dog is trained and treated.
“Absolutely,” she said. “That plays such a prominent role. ... Pets behave the way they’ve been treated.”
Dogs that attack, she said, are usually those that haven’t been spayed or neutered and that are chained up. That dog can interpret a human interaction as a threat.
“It’s fight or flight,” she said.
The mayor said the city largely relies on voluntary compliance with the ordinance, and she stressed that owning a pet brings with it responsibilities. She said that covers several things. An animal needs to be kept off the streets and kept from barking excessively. It needs to be spayed or neutered, and it needs to be chipped. As for dogs that might be pit bulls: “When you take possession of an animal ... have your animal tested,” she said.
“Owning an animal is a big responsibility,” she said.
Strong points of view
The Examiner asked about this on Facebook and got a variety of strong opinions, on both sides, in response.
Kristeena Cloud favors lifting the ban.
“It is ridiculous,” she posted. “I know many pit bulls and they are sweet dogs. They are kind, loving and want the same in kind. They have to be taught to be mean. Any dog can be a bad dog if trained to do harm. Lift the ban and allow these animals to be loved.”
That sentiment and the idea that owners are the real problem were common among the posted comments.
“I really think the owner is ultimately responsible for their dog,” Vicki Braton-Sifuentes posted. “I think there should be stiffer penalties for dog attacks. Make the owners pay the price, not the animals.”
But others said the city has it right.
“YES! The ban is most definitely a good idea!” posted Mary McQueen Montgomery.
One person said that despite the ban, the city still has a problem.
“We moved out of Independence because the ‘Ban’ wasn’t actually being enforced,” posted Kelly Black. “A quiet street with mostly elderly and a couple of young families changed the instant that a group of people moved into a house with a pit bull.”
“One morning,” she continued, “my husband was taking out the trash and the pit bull knocked the wood window casing out of the house and actually jumped out of the house coming after my husband, who then injured himself getting inside our fenced-in backyard, which thank God he was close to the gate or he may have been bitten in this vicious situation.”
“Our attempts to do anything about this with the police, city and animal control were, in retrospect, a waste of time,” she writes. “The owners didn’t care. We moved, leaving behind a house and city we loved to protect our children. Keep the ban, but try enforcing it.”