Etowah, TN: Registration ordinance opportunity to discuss multitude of problems with visual breed identification

The town of Etowah, Tennessee passed a pit bull ordinance in October 2012.  I was one of a limited number of people permitted to be present in the hearing room during the commissioner’s meeting, and I can tell you without a hint of doubt, passage of the ordinance was a done deal long before the meeting took place that night.  You can find my summary of the  2012 commissioner’s meeting here.  After a very well organized and extremely positive campaign led by Etowah resident, Sherri Cooper, to prevent the ordinance from passing, pit bull owners were treated with what can only be labeled as disdain.

With regard to the most recent incident which generated this headline by WTVC news, “Dog bite forces city of Etowah to begin stricter pit bull ban enforcement,” I spoke with an Etowah Public Works official today for clarification on what exactly is going on.  I was advised that as a result of the incident on March 9, 2016, ALL dogs must be registered with the city.  This is actually a policy that’s been in place for years, but it hasn’t been enforced.  In order to comply with the law, all dog owners are required to bring their registration paperwork to the city.  If the breed of the dog is left blank, or the dog is labeled a “mixed breed,” owners will have to provide photographs of their dog.  The official then went on to explain that visual identification is not left up to a single employee, and that multiple employees or city officials opine on what they believe the breed of the dog in question is.

I took the opportunity to stress the inaccuracies and the problems associated with breed identification via a dog’s appearance alone – especially when dealing with mixed breed dogs and those that are labeled “pit bulls,” and, it can’t be stressed enough, when performed by individuals with no particular experience or expertise in breed identification or, for that matter, dogs in general.  In fact, many veterinarians and animal control officers – those who work with a variety of dogs day in and day out – agree that visual breed identification is not an accurate method to determine a dog’s breed.  The city official agreed, and for the record, is not a fan of the pit bull ordinance or this procedure.

With respect to the “pit bull” ordinance specifically, I was advised that it is the city’s position that dog owners have the responsibility to prove their dog is or is not a pit bull.  This is absolutely incorrect.  It is the city’s obligation to prove the dog is or is not a member of a regulated breed and, as such, the city should foot the bill for DNA testing.  However, the city acknowledged in 2012 that they did not have the funds to enforce the law, nor did they have all the procedures in place to implement the law.  Rather, the city manager advised that  all the details would eventually just fall into place.

So…how’s that working out?

You cannot pass ANY law, animal control or otherwise, knowing (1) the funding or means to enforce the law are not available and (2) procedures and/or plans on the law’s implementation have not been considered or worked out.  This law was passed simply so city commissioners could say that they did “something” to fix a “problem” that never existed in the first place.

If you plan on going to the commissioner’s meeting on March 28, it’s important to understand the issue on the table – the rules currently being discussed apply to all dogs. I would  recommend bringing to the commission’s attention your suggestions on how to promote responsible dog ownership in Etowah and how to hold dog owners accountable for the actions of their dogs without trampling on the property rights of any given group of people (i.e., pit bull owners or dog owners in general).  I would also suggest providing the commissioners with copies of studies** on the inaccuracies and the many problems associated with visual breed identification.  An inaccurate visual breed identification could have a devastating impact on a responsible family whose dog has never caused a problem or had any issues.  It could result in a good dog ending up in a shelter or worse simply because its owners couldn’t afford to comply with a discriminatory law that shouldn’t apply to them in the first place.

Despite the dramatic headline, the pit bull ordinance is not being strengthened.  Its been in place since October 2012.  That being said, by all means, residents are strongly encouraged to urge the city commission to take up the issue of repealing the pit bull ordinance and keep asking until the issue is put on the agenda.  City officials change.  As I always say, your voice matters, and your vote can bring in a new commissioner that could upset the apple cart on the vote tally of those in favor of the existing breed specific law.  In fact, two new commissioners were elected in 2014 – David James and Jason Cardin.  Have you asked them what their position on the pit bull ordinance is?

Moreover (and very importantly), the terms for Jim Bull and Jim Swaye – both of whom voted for the pit bull ordinance – are up in August 2016.  VOTE THEM OUT!   If there are no viable candidates, consider running yourself.  As the saying goes, be the change you want to see in the world (or at least in your little part of the world).  Etowah deserves city commissioners who will be fair and open-minded, not enter into discussions with their minds already made up on an issue, and not judge fellow residents based on stereotypes.

As we all know, a dog’s appearance is an inappropriate and flawed manner in which to ascertain the threat a dog poses to the community. A more reasonable and accurate method to identify a dangerous dog is by its behavior, not its breed. The pit bull ordinance in Etowah penalizes all pit bull owners while allowing owners of dogs who do pose a real and actual threat to the community to be let off the hook.  Residents of Etowah should continue to convey this message grounded in concern not just for their dogs, but for the welfare and safety of all the members of their community to their city officials.

Bottom line, don’t give up.  There are a lot of dedicated and determined dog owners in Etowah – I’ve met them, I’ve worked with them.   Positive change is possible, and you can make it happen! It may not happen overnight or even right away, but it can happen.

**Studies on the inaccuracies of visual breed identification:

Inconsistent Identification of Pit Bull-Type Dogs by Shelter Staff

Is that Dog a Pit Bull?  A Cross-Country Comparison of Perceptions of Shelter Workers Regarding Breed Identification

Incorrect Breed Identification Costs Dogs Their Lives

Inaccuracy of Breed Labels Assigned to Dogs of Unknown Origin

Comparison of Visual and DNA Breed Identification of Dogs and Inter-Observer Reliability

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