- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2000

Residents got the chance to voice opinions about a possible ban on pit bulls in the District of Columbia.

Dozens of dog owners, animal-control officers, breeders and victims of pit bull attacks testified yesterday at a public hearing before the D.C. Council.

While ban supporters point to pit bulls' innate aggression and the frequent use of pit bulls in dog fighting, opponents counter that enforcing a ban on the dogs would be difficult, and that a ban wouldn't address the real issue of owners' responsibility.

"Our community has an abundance of pit bulls," said Robin Ijames, of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Ward 8. "The majority of them are used for the wrong reasons.

"These dogs are used for sport in our community just like a cockfight."

The animals, also used to protect drug dealers' money and contraband in her neighborhood, are often chained on the street, which causes fear for residents, she said.

"We haven't revised our animal-cruelty laws since 1890. This [legislation] is about people that abuse animals," said council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, who introduced the legislation last November. The bill would ban the breeding, sale or ownership of four breeds: American Staffordshire terriers, pit bull terriers, the American bulldog and the Staffordshire bull terrier. Mixed-breed dogs that physically resemble any of those breeds also would be banned, though pit bulls already in the District could stay.

Most opponents of the ban lobbied for increased awareness about the breeds, claiming that while some owners train them to fight or be aggressive, that does not mean the dogs are inherently mean.

"As intelligent individuals, we need to say there is a problem in the District," said Tyrone Brown. "But it's not the dog. It's the owner."

Attacks by pit bulls have resulted in injuries and deaths. D.C. Firefighter Costello N. "Colonel" Robinson, 64, died at Washington Hospital Center in July while awaiting knee surgery for a torn ligament sustained warding off a pit bull while responding to a smoke call in Northwest. The firefighter did not suffer any dog bites but fell during the attack.

"My husband was a member of the Fire Department for 36 years," said the firefighter's widow, Shirley Robinson. "His injuries were a result of the dog attacking him."

Mrs. Robinson relived her last conversations with her husband when she asked the council to ban pit bulls yesterday.

"My husband was attacked at least twice. He said he hit the dog in the head … the dog fell back. The second time, the dog lunged for his throat.

"Something should be done so we're able to walk the street without fear."

While every state has animal-control laws that allow dangerous animals to be impounded and destroyed, most require evidence of aggressive behavior. Both Denver and Cincinnati have pit-bull bans. In Prince George's County, Md., a similar pit-bull ban took effect in February 1997.

"It seemed as though those two dogs would never stop attacking me," said Vicky Claybourne, who was attacked three months ago. "I still have open wounds I lost my ear.

"They need to be taken off the streets."

Terry Anthon breeds the dogs in Calvert County, Md., and brought three American Staffordshire terriers to Judiciary Square to show the gentle nature of the animals. He spent most of the day giving information and arguing his point to passersby.

"I can have one of these guys pick up an egg, and it won't break it," Mr. Anthon said. "[The legislation] just undermines everything that we believe in the breed." Mr. Graham also proposed legislation that would create new felony crimes of dog fighting and major animal cruelty.

"If you make it a felony, I almost guarantee that dog fighting will no longer be in the District of Columbia," Mr. Brown said.

While there was little consensus on the dog ban, Mr. Graham said yesterday's testimony made a "strong case for the felony criminal bill."

"I think the bill has accomplished an important purpose … it's good to have a discussion," Mr. Graham said. "If there is one common ground that I've found today, it is that we need to toughen our [current laws]."

Committee Chairman Sandy Allen, Ward 8 Democrat, said the committee will take more time to look into the matter; it may take until fall for the bills to reach a vote.

"I don't see it moving right away," Ms. Allen said. "Now is the time to make the calls [to council members]. Now is the time to write the letters."

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