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Tuesday, April 09, 2013

A Pit Bull Pox on Both Their Houses

If you think the phrase “epic fail” is reserved for pop culture, you’ve never visited the Maryland legislature. Yesterday, after a year of political debate, elected lawmakers squandered an opportunity to provide relief to thousands of Maryland families who may be forced to choose between their homes and their beloved dogs.

Almost exactly a year ago, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that pit bull dogs are “inherently dangerous,” and held dog owners—and anyone who controls the dog’s presence on their property—automatically liable for any damage caused by that dog. This unprecedented ruling has caused confusion and fear for dog owners, animal shelters, landlords, veterinary clinics and other small businesses. It ushered in legal chaos, as dogs that merely resembled pit bull types were swept up by canine profiling, and set the stage for expensive lawsuits about whether a dog is now or has ever been a pit bull.

Pit bullWe partnered with dozens of stakeholders ranging from landlords to animal shelters to formulate a pathway forward that was fair to dog owners and to victims of dog bites. Lawmakers were quick to take up this issue after the ruling came down last year, and a legislative task force considered solutions last summer. But as they delved into the details, it quickly became apparent that finding a solution that a majority of lawmakers could support wouldn’t be easy. Fortunately, lawmakers understood early in the process that singling out a particular type of dog is just bad policy—and breed-specific legislation doesn’t work. And they realized that sticking landlords and other third parties with this kind of liability is a recipe for disaster for dog owners who rent their homes all across the state, as it would incentivize property managers to adopt “no dog” policies and evict dog-owning tenants. What has been harder to nail down has been the standard of liability for dog owners whose dog injures someone.

As we have fought this battle alongside our coalition partners we entered into discussions about what happens when the human-animal bond is broken and someone is injured by man’s best friend. Who should be responsible for that, and how do we create standards that are fair to dog owners and provide meaningful remedies for people who are injured? We at HSLF know that those two goals are not mutually exclusive. Most dog owners welcome responsibility for their pets and take precautions necessary to prevent injuries. Everyone can agree we want safe communities, which are better for people and for animals.

Unfortunately, bridging the divide between positions taken by the Senate and the House of Delegates proved insurmountable, and last night the Maryland General Assembly adjourned for the year, leaving Maryland families and dogs without a remedy for at least another nine months. And this is failure on the part of leaders of both the House and Senate, who recognized the public outcry and expressed a will to work for a solution. Elected officials should be able to find ways to solve problems for citizens, and not get sidetracked by political yapping and finger pointing. 

We will continue to stand with advocates across the state and push for a solution to this stalemate and look forward to working with lawmakers over the summer and fall. We can do better than labeling “pit bulls” as “inherently dangerous”—better for dogs and better for our communities. And we hope you will join us. Visit humanesociety.org/protectmddogs for resources and information and follow our efforts on Facebook, at facebook.com/HSUSMaryland.

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