When it comes to pit-bull-terrier-like dogs, the public leads
No-kill pioneer and movement founder Rich Avanzino famously observed in 1980, when he realized that San Francisco could be a no-kill city, that the average citizen wants to help us save the lives of shelter animals. At the time, Rich was running the San Francisco SPCA and was in the middle of a highly publicized legal battle to save the life of a little dog whose deceased owner’s will had called for the dog to be killed, rather than rehomed. An outpouring of support from across the city and, indeed, from around the world persuaded Rich that the public is the answer to our nation’s shelter problems, and he set out on a path that resulted in San Francisco becoming the nation’s first no-kill community.
Now as then, public sentiment leads public policy.
I’ve been involved in animal welfare for most of my adult life and certainly long enough to remember when policies about animals, especially certain types of animals, were dramatically different than they are today. In fact, even in our own movement, we’ve seen sea changes in the way we talk about cats and dogs, in the way we work to save cats and dogs and, most important, in the way we think about cats and dogs.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of this shifting perception than how we view dogs who look like pit bull terriers. Back when I was starting out, it was common for animal shelters to kill these dogs routinely because they were deemed unadoptable or somehow different from other dogs (that’s a separate topic for another day). It was also quite common for cities, towns and counties to pass breed-discriminatory legislation (BDL) specifically targeting them and their owners.
However, demonizing a type of dog based on his or her appearance just doesn’t hold water with the general public any longer.
Thankfully, we’re now a lot wiser about dogs and dog behavior, and our movement has come to understand that every dog, including pit bull terriers, is an individual. And because of your tireless advocacy over the years, we’ve seen more communities reject these archaic and inhumane breed-discriminatory laws and embrace the proven, safety-first approach of breed-neutral laws that focus on the behavior of each individual dog and owner. In fact, as of today 21 states prohibit BDL, and that number continues to grow.
Yet even in the face of scientific consensus that has shown that BDL doesn’t improve public safety, some places still stubbornly hold on to these horrible laws. But because of the determined advocacy of people like you and the work we do at Best Friends, that number is decreasing by the day.
Just this week, we saw two examples of local advocates standing up for the pit-bull-terrier-like dogs in their community. What’s so heartening about these efforts in Springfield, Missouri, and Yakima, Washington, is that the elected officials in both of these cities were adamantly opposed to changing the law, but the public organized and drew a line in the sand — and change is now on the horizon.
In Springfield, voters overwhelmingly rejected the recently enacted pit bull ban that the city council passed in late 2017. In fact, the more than 2-1 margin of the vote has prompted city leaders to discuss removing the remaining restrictions against pit bulls and moving toward a breed-neutral approach to regulating pet dogs. This is a textbook example of the public leading policy, and politicians being late to the game when it comes to gauging what matters most to their constituents. I can promise you that every one of the city councilors who voted for the ban is now anxiously having second thoughts about their discriminatory vote, and rightfully so.
And then there is Yakima, a city with one of the longest-standing pit bull bans in the country. The ban was enacted in the late 1980s, and city leaders have repeatedly resisted efforts by voters (their constituents) to repeal the ineffective law. In fact, Yakima has spent countless tax dollars defending the ban in court even as its own residents overwhelmingly support a non-discriminatory breed-neutral law. Just within the past week, the Yakima Humane Society, a private nonprofit organization that contracts with the city for animal control and care services, put Yakima on notice that it would not renew its contract if the city maintains the pit bull ban.
Yakima Humane Society’s board president Kelly Murray said it best: “We respect the city and the relationship we have built, but we can no longer be the muscle behind the enforcement of an unsubstantiated, unjust ban.” This type of line in the sand was employed by the Montreal SPCA a few years back when it threatened to pull out of its contractual relationship with the city of Montreal over a similar pit bull ban. The city’s leadership eventually repealed the law and we’re hopeful that Yakima will follow suit.
Kudos to Yakima Humane Society for its principled stand and for taking a firm line against BDL. The decision not to renew the contract is certainly not without risk, but it’s incumbent on us, the animal professionals and experts, to be the voice for our communities’ pets and responsible pet owners. If we don’t stand up for what’s right, then who will?
Not surprisingly, the city council is rethinking the ban and will vote in the coming weeks to repeal and replace it. We’re hopeful that the vote will go the right way, and we’ll do everything we can to mobilize advocates in the city to turn out and show their support. If you want to be a part of the movement to fight on behalf of cats and dogs, sign up for our advocacy action alerts.
For now, let’s all take our hats off to the voters in Springfield and to the leadership at Yakima Humane Society. They’re putting their money where their mouth is and planting a stake in the ground for our pets. We see you, we hear you and we’re here to help.
After all, this is America, where every responsible pet owner should have the right to have whatever breed of dog he or she wants. It’s that simple. It’s time that politicians hear and absorb that message.
Breed-discriminatory laws, wherever they exist, are an obstacle to achieving our shared goal of bringing the country to no-kill by 2025. In fact, any local ordinance or shelter policy that puts whole categories of animals at risk of losing their lives — whether that category is community cats, pit-bull-terrier-like dogs or other large-breed dogs — needs to go. I am confident that, as Rich Avanzino counseled, the animal-loving public will make that happen.
Together, we will Save Them All.
Best Friends Animal Society