Worcester, MA pit bull regulations nullified!

Very positive news coming out of Worcester, MA in response to the bill signed by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick last week which, among other things, provides that no dog shall be declared dangerous based on breed, and no city or town can regulate dogs in a manner that is breed specific.

Hopefully, we will see similar stories coming out of the handful of other cities in Massachusetts that have breed specific ordinances.

Worcester pit bull regulations nullified

NEW STATE LAW BANS BREED-SPECIFIC RULES

WORCESTER — An animal control law signed by Gov. Deval L. Patrick includes language that effectively nullifies Worcester’s pit bull ordinance.

The state measure enacted last week, titled “An Act Further Regulating Animal Control,” includes many types of animal protection and takes effect Oct. 31.

Tucked into the lengthy text is a provision that states, “No city or town shall regulate dogs in a manner that is specific to breed.”

Groups supporting pit bulls lauded the law and the prospect that it would crush breed-specific ordinances that have popped up in a handful of communities.

City Solicitor David M. Moore said he will have to review the new law and report on it to City Manager Michael V. O’Brien. Even if the city doesn’t repeal the pit bull ordinance, enforcing it will be moot when the state law takes effect.

On the heels of numerous reports of dog attacks, the city strengthened regulations on pit bulls in 2011.

“Cities and towns will need sufficient time to review and amend their ordinances, create the required legal structure for hearings, develop appropriate administrative procedures and allocate personnel to fulfill the requirements of this law,” Mr. Moore said.

The Worcester Police Department found that from Sept. 30, 2008, to Sept. 30, 2009, there were 55 complaints of dog attacks or fear of a dog attack, 29 of which involved pit bulls. Statistics also showed 25 percent of bites over a two-year period involved pit bulls.

The city’s pit bull ordinance put restrictions on pit bull owners.

“We believe that cities and towns will need to revisit their dangerous dog ordinances, as the law provides uniformity for the determination, procedure and actions to take if a dog is determined to be dangerous, as well as the restriction on ordinances that are based on breed,” said Kara Holmquist, director of advocacy for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals-Angell.

“The law takes effect in 90 days and we’ll be working with the coalition that advocated for the bill to help with the implementation of the many provisions of the new law, as well as ensuring municipalities and other stakeholders know about the law’s provisions,” she said.

Pamela Toomey, 28, of Worcester, owner of a pit bull named Carly, started a group called Worcester’s Responsible Pit Bull Owners around the time Worcester was considering the pit bull ordinance.

The push for the pit bull restrictions and registration grew out of pit bull attacks in the city, including serious injuries to a young boy. The ordinance requires, among other things, a $50 registration fee for pit bulls, on top of a $17 dog license for all breeds.

Ms. Toomey’s pit bull, a certified therapy dog and certified canine “good citizen,” does not have to be muzzled because of the dog’s certifications. Ms. Toomey said Carly was a shelter dog set to be put to sleep. Ms. Toomey is a well-schooled owner, has done work for animal shelters and is working with using companion dogs for veterans at her workplace. Her pit bull is registered with the city.

She was disappointed when the city put the pit bull ordinance in place, but enthused about the new law. She was concerned communities with breed-specific ordinances could be grandfathered in, but that is not the case. The city ordinance is “tackling a symptom and not the actual problem,” she said.

“It seemed more like they were trying to control the human population that they were having problems with. It didn’t seem to be as big as a problem as they were trying to make it,” she said.

Ms. Toomey wondered if the city did any research to see if the ordinance was effective. Irresponsible owners ruined it for others, she said. There are irresponsible owners of all different breeds of dogs, but pit bulls and the varying breeds considered in the category became popular, and Ms. Toomey believes that was a reason for an increase in reports of incidents. Statistics on attacks could be skewed because some people, even veterinarians, can’t distinguish a pit bull breed, she said.

Jonathan S. Rankin, a Framingham-based lawyer and chairman of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Animal Law Practice Group, said the new law says communities can make additional ordinances as long as the language is not breed-specific.

“I think these breed-specific laws have to be changed or they will be invalidated,” he said. “I find them to be ineffective. It would be nice to see if there was a study or stats to show that these laws are effective.”

Mr. Rankin has advised clients in communities with breed-specific ordinances. The ordinances don’t work, he said.

The persistent issue is irresponsible owners, he said, and that type of owner can have any breed of dog, he said.

The Worcester city clerk’s office said in 2010 there were 225 licensed pit bulls, and an estimated 275 unlicensed. From April 1, 2011, when the pit bull ordinance was enacted, to April 1, 2012, the number of registered pit bulls dropped to 118.

The number has dipped even further, to fewer than 70, since April 1.

Ms. Toomey believes there could be several reasons for the decline. Some people didn’t want to get a pit bull because of the ordinance, or got rid of their pets, or are just not licensing their pit bulls, she suggested.

The new state law also includes other changes to animal control regulations.

It establishes a Homeless Animal Prevention and Care Fund to be funded by voluntary donations on individual state tax returns, adds definitions of nuisance and dangerous dogs and regulates the import of dogs and cats into the state.

There are also standards for police chiefs in exercising discretion in dealing with dogs deemed dangerous or nuisance dogs. Within that are hearing procedures.

Mr. Moore pointed out that the bill prohibits chiefs from ordering dogs to be removed from a community.

http://www.telegram.com/article/20120807/NEWS/120809656/1116

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