A pet owner has filed a federal lawsuit challenging a central Mississippi city’s ban on pit bull dogs.
The city of Richland, a Jackson suburb of about 7,000 residents, passed an ordinance in April 2006 that bans American Pit Bull Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers and mixed-breed offspring of those animals.
Arthur Young, 21, said in a recent interview that he was walking his pit bull, Apollo, last year when someone called the police. A Richland animal control officer later contacted Young’s family and said the dog would be seized and possibly put down if he didn’t get it out of the city, Young said.
Young, a student enrolled at Jackson State University for the fall semester, said he moved the dog to an animal shelter in Madison. He took a job there to offset the cost of boarding Apollo and so he could see the dog more often.
Young said his dog has never shown any aggressive behavior.
“The argument they are making is that pit bulls are aggressive. There’s no scientific evidence of that,” Young said.
Richland Mayor Mark Scarborough says that isn’t true.
“That’s not the argument we’re making. It’s not that they attack more than any other breed, it’s that when they attack, it’s the results of the attack.” Scarborough said. “If my lab bites you, he’s going to bite you, release and back away. Most dogs do. But when that pit bull or that type breed bites, it doesn’t back away, it continues to attack.”
Scarborough said the ordinance was passed after two attacks in the city; one on a police officer and one on a child.
“I understand people’s love for their dogs … but there’s not a dog in this world that’s worth somebody’s life,” the mayor said.
A 2011 study published in the Annals of Surgery said attacks by “pit bulls are associated with higher morbidity rates, higher hospital charges, and a higher risk of death than are attacks by other breeds of dogs.”
“Strict regulation of pit bulls may substantially reduce the U.S. mortality rates related to dog bites,” the study found.
Some experts argue that responsible pet ownership is the key and that blanket statements suggesting that entire breeds are dangerous go too far.
“It seems to me that certain individual dogs are bad, rather than certain breeds,” said Dr. Joey Burt, director of the Animal Health Center at Mississippi State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
“Most breed-specific laws should be looking at responsible pet ownership,” Burt said.
Regardless of whether it’s based on science or perception, many communities across the country have passed laws banning or restricting pit bulls, including big cities like Denver and Miami.
William Featherston Jr., the attorney who filed the lawsuit on Young’s behalf, said some legal challenges to such bans have been successful. Others have not.
Featherson said the Richland ordinance allows animal control officers to make subjective and arbitrary decisions on what constitutes a pit bull.
“Under the ordinance, the animal control officer, in his discretion, if he deems the animal dangerous, can put the dog down,” Featherston said.
The lawsuit argues that the ordinance violates animal owners’ 14th Amendment right to due process. Featherston said in a telephone interview that the 14th Amendment provides that people have the right to a hearing before the seizure of property.
Scarborough said the ordinance doesn’t violate due process because pet owners can go before the board of aldermen to challenge the determination that a dog is a pit bull. He also said the ordinance doesn’t deprive people of their property because they can keep their dogs, just not in the city.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Jackson, seeks a preliminary injunction to prevent the city from seizing Young’s dog. It also seeks a declaratory judgment that the ordinance is unconstitutionally vague.
The ordinance bans any dog “commonly recognizable and identifiable” as any kind of pit bull. The lawsuit says that kind of language leaves pet owners to wonder: Commonly identifiable by whom, “by dog wardens, by animal control officers, by the general public, by dog enthusiasts, by dog breeders, etc.”