Repeal the breed-specific legislation against pit bulls or at least put the question to voters, many people said during Wednesday's public hearing on the pit bull ban in Independence.
But several personal stories aired during the hearing in the Utilities Center meeting room, which initially had an overflow crowd, showed that not all public sentiment would be for lifting the ban that has been in place for 13 years.
“There's no gene that makes any dog more likely to attack,” Erin Garrison from the Lee's Summit non-profit Animal Justice League of America.
The ban is hard to enforce, and the stories of attacks in town, while sad, are evidence to that, many said. They said attacks stem not from inherently dangerous dogs but from bad owners. They encouraged the city to better enforce its dangerous dog ordinance instead of banning pit bulls.
A joint subcommittee of the Independence Advisory Board of Health and the Animal Welfare Committee hosted the hearing in response to Mayor Eileen Weir's desire to revisit the issue after the city this summer took over operation of the Regional Animal Shelter. Citizens can also submit written testimony via email to BSLpublichearing@indepmo.org through Wednesday.
Susan Jackson said the current description for the ban encompasses 20 breeds, including mixes, and dogs are not always accurately identified.
“A dog's behavior and disposition should be examined on a case-by-case basis,” she said.
Trish Witte said pit bulls used to be called by some as “nanny dogs” because of well they treated children, and their extreme loyalty is part of what's used against them by those who train them for fighting. Witte recalled her late pit bull that was grandfathered into the ban but then lost his enjoyable walks.
“Children turned in fear of him due to his muzzle,” she said. “He whimpered because people would get away from him.”
“I encourage you to research and make an educated decision.”
Said Jessica Salazar, a dog behavior specialist, “matching the right dog owner with the breed is essential.”
Dora Firmin lost part of her leg but survived an unprovoked and near-fatal mauling by her American bulldog four years ago in rural Independence. She said the current ordinance didn’t help her. Dog regulations should require stronger background on the animals and consider their size and propensity, she said.
Police Officer Michelle Sumstad said she's seen nearly every kind of dog in more than 20 years on the job, as well as the effects of the ban on shelters. IPD doesn't have enough staff to handle both the pit bull ban and dangerous dog issues, she said.
Her work and personal experience lead her to believe “it's an owner issue,” she said.
Tom Heinkel, former animal control director and currently the manager of customer services, said there's “no easy answer for this,” but the current ordinance doesn't appear to work. He suggested sponsoring further training for adopting dogs and having municipal judges issue harsher punishments to dangerous dog owners.
Former City Council Member Lucy Young said she remains opposed to the ban and said it has contributed to overcrowding at the animal shelter. She compared it to when Independence wanted to ban fireworks but police were so inundated with calls they were stretched too thin.
Added Laura Dominik, who used to work for animal shelter operator Great Plains SPCA, longer stays by dogs due to inability to adopt out often lead to higher costs.
A couple weeks ago, director of animal services Christina Heinen said the shelter currently has about 100 dogs, one-fifth of which are considered pit bulls.
Shelter volunteer Susan Knittle said she used to be hesitant to walk the pit bulls, but now is more hesitant to work with chihuahuas. It's difficult to compartmentalize bad dog owners, she said, and even harder to do so with dog breeds.
Another city employee, Dan Smith of Power & Light, offered a different take.
He recalled having to do a residential shutoff in a backyard and the resident let five dogs out. He remembered them as a pit bull, three pit mixes and a German shepherd, the pit bull being the most aggressive as he tried to keep them at bay with a screwdriver.
“I encounter everybody's dog. Is one breed worse than any other? Maybe, maybe not,” he said, adding that pit bulls have tended to be dangerous the most.
Neal and Ena McGregor talked of attacks by pit bulls against them and family members over the years – in Independence and elsewhere.
“I'm sorry, my opinion is different,” Ena said, recalling how she tried to protect her grand-niece and small dog from a pit bull during a walk. “My life has changed, I can't walk my dog because I'm afraid.”
“I'm not saying pit bulls are the only one dangerous,” Neal said, but “why is they were not bitten by a German shepherd? We have been victims of this.”
Jennifer Byrne said she and a neighbor lost their cats when they were mauled to death by pit bulls roaming free, and another neighbor barely made it inside to avoid attack from the same dogs.
“We know there are good dogs and bad dogs, there's no doubt about that,” Byrne said. “But cats matter to their owners, as well.”
“Dangerous dogs will be dangerous dogs. How do we bring good minds to bear to come up with something sensible.”
Sub-committee members include chairperson Jason White, physician Terry Morris and veterinarian Matthew Wingate from the Advisory Board of Health and Tim Watkins and Cindy Marshall from the Animal Welfare Committee, which has some members appointed by the mayor and some by the Jackson County executive.
White said it could be February before the subcommittee submits a report to the standing committees for a possible recommendation that could go to the City Council. The current ban happened after a handful of high-profile attacks led to one victim's relative leading a petition drive that netted more than 4,000 signatures. A council majority then voted for the ban.