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Maryland court ruling hearkens back to Middle Ages

Medieval English forest laws required dogs who had heads larger than a certain size and who lived within or close to royal hunting forests to have three toes chopped off their front paws so that they would not be able to chase royal game. It didn’t matter whether they had a history of or inclination to chase the game reserved for royal hunts, or were ever used for illegal hunting by their owners. If a dog’s head could not fit through a seven-by-five-inch metal loop, a two-inch chisel was used to handicap them for chasing deer. This preemptive sentencing and crippling mutilation was called expeditation, from the Latin root word for foot, “ped” (as in “pedestrian,” someone who travels by foot).

Medieval dog laws were unjust, unpopular and inequitable, and they landed disproportionately on common folks who were just trying to survive. The laws undoubtedly fed into the popular resentment of the aristocracy that gave rise to folk heroes like Robin Hood, whose main claim to fame was his resistance to aristocratic abuses in and around Sherwood Forest and whose dogs were unlikely to be the victims of expeditation.

In a strikingly similar, and equally outdated and inequitable, ruling this past April, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that “when an attack involves pit bulls (or pit bull mixes), it is no longer necessary to prove that the particular pit bull or pit bulls are dangerous.” Appearance alone is sufficient justification to deem a dog dangerous.

So, your “pibble” pit bull, Missy, who sleeps with the cat and allows the neighbor’s kids to tug on her ears, is officially dangerous in Maryland. Furthermore, if you are a renter, the liability for harboring a “dangerous” dog such as Missy also extends to your landlord, and he or she, too, can be sued. Good luck finding an apartment or a rental home in Maryland if lovely Missy is part of your family.

Like the medieval dog laws, Maryland’s ruling falls disproportionately on regular folks who don’t own their own homes or can’t afford to move out of Maryland where their pets are not welcome. The same goes for the hard-pressed homeowner who will now be unable to find homeowner’s insurance owing to the de facto liability of owning a pit bull or pit bull mix. Thousands of family pets will be surrendered to shelters and most will die.

Thankfully, there is a Robin Hood riding into the picture in the form of State Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin (R.). In an interview, Pipkin stated, "Before the unprecedented and misguided court decision on pit bulls, a bite victim seeking damages would have to prove that the dog's owner knew that the pet had a history of being dangerous or violence-prone. It is no longer necessary to prove a pit bill is dangerous."

Pipkin intends to redress the injustice through legislation. "Several bills, including one I will sponsor during the upcoming July 9 special session, seek to reverse the Court's unfortunate and short-sighted decision and ensure that a dog cannot be presumed dangerous or potentially dangerous based solely on the breed or heritage of the dog," Pipkin said.

In the meantime, pit bull adoptions from shelters are on hold, and the inevitable loss of innocent lives has yet to be counted as this tragic court ruling begins to have ripple effects throughout the state and especially in its municipal shelters where pit bull adoptions are on hold.

Maryland residents, please let Senator Pipkin know that you are in his corner. If you live in Maryland, make your voice heard.

Francis Battista, Co-founder, Best Friends Animal Society Francis Battista
Co-founder
Best Friends Animal Society