Pit bull laws coming back to Boston?

By Pam Cyran


Breed specific legislation – Can it actually help the pit bulls?

Breed specific legislation (BSL) is making its way back into Massachusetts’ law, something pit bull advocates do not want.

However, Boston’s Animal Control officer said breed specific legislation actually helps the breed. “If you see someone mistreating a dog, by the time you actually do the legal proper procedures to get that dog away, the dog could either be hidden, or dead,” said Mark  Giannangelo, director of Animal Control.

Massachusetts became the 13th state to prohibit BSL when Gov. Deval Patrick signed the revised animal control bill on Aug. 2, 2012. The law went into effect on Nov. 1, 2012.

Giannangelo said pit bulls are turning up everywhere. With breed specific ordinances, such as mandatory licensing, spay and neuter, and vaccinations, Animal Control can help get the pit bulls out of bad situations a lot easier.“With the pit bull ordinance, if the dog was not licensed or vaccinated, we could impound it and take it to our shelter,” said Giannangelo.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino is petitioning for “home rule.” “Home Rule” is defined as: “The right to local self-government including the powers to regulate for the protection of the public health, safety, morals, and welfare; to license; to tax; and to incur debt.”

The proposed act, sponsored by City Councilor Rob Consalvo and state Sen.r Michael Rush, reads: An Act Relative to Dangerous Dogs: A 2012 Animal Control law prohibits cities and towns from regulating dangerous dogs based on breed, eliminating the City of Boston’s pit bull ordinance. This bill provides an opt-out provision so that cities and towns may pass breed-specific legislation when municipal attack data shows that a particular breed is dangerous.

“[Menino] believes cities and towns should be able to use the attack data to regulate dogs that the data shows is dangerous,” said Emilee Ellison, press assistant for the mayor’s office.

Based on Boston’s dog attack data, pit bulls have the highest dog bites compared to any other breed. Pit bulls accounted for 53 dog bites in 2012.


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Giannangelo said part of the problem is the  close proximity of Boston homes.

“You take a place like East Boston, you have backyards the size of postage stamps. “It creates a bad living space for big dogs,” said Giannangelo. “These are high-strung dogs. They need to run.”

That reason is precisely why Menino wants BSL back in Boston. “The mayor doesn’t believe that a city that has unique challenges when it comes to dogs, should have to abide by the same law that other towns that are more rural abide by,” said Ellison.

Sen. Rush agreed that BSL should not be regulated by the state, but by each individual town or city.

“If there’s attack data in Boston that’s different from attack data in some small town in Western Mass. then there should be local services and discretion on how to handle these animals,” said John Regan, chief of staff for the office of Sen. Rush.

Consalvo is worried for his own children.

“As the father of two young boys, he’d been concerned with the increase in dog attacks, specifically dogs like pit bulls,” said a spokesperson from Consalvo’s press office. “In particular in our district, East Boston, within the past year we’ve had a number of pit bull attacks, two of which sent people to the hospital, one of which was an attack on a young child.”

Massachusetts General Hospital reported 111 dog bites last year, but they do not specify by breed, said Kory Shao, spokesperson. After multiple attempts, Boston’s Children’s Hospital declined to comment.

Sola Okenla, a registered nurse, said she’s some of the worst dog bites ever. “That alone has deterred me from ever even wanting to entertain the idea of getting near a pit bull,” said the 27-year-old resident of Boston. However, Okenla admits she hasn’t heard of any cases specifically involving pit bulls. “They were usually family pets,” she said. “I would still feel very uncomfortable if I saw a pit bull walking down the street.”

Okenla is more of a small-dog typer of woman. “Maybe I’m misinformed, but I’m going off what I’ve been told and what I’ve heard in the media,” said Okenla. “But just everything that I’ve heard about pit bulls, it’s always negative. I just would rather not even take the risk of getting near one.”

How can one be sure that it was really a pit bull that attacked?

Certifed Pet Dog Trainer (CPDT) Melissa McCue-McGrath said that the way the mainstream media tends to portray pit bulls is that they’re vicious and mean. “If you see a story on the news, you’re going to walk away and say ‘oh well that must be true,’ and then you believe it and it gets re-reported and re-reported,” said McCue-McGrath. “And then you got this global perception.”

McCue-McGrath said self-reported attacks are not reliable, for a number of different reasons. “Imagine that you got bit by a dog. You’re adrenaline’s up, you’re scared, you’re probably in a lot of pain, and you think back ‘well wait, these dogs are vicious, I don’t know much about dogs, it was brown, it must’ve been a pit bull,’” said McCue-McGrath.

The 32-year-old dog trainer from Somerville has been a working with dogs since she was a kid, having been raised in a family that owned a dog sled team. McCue-McGrath has been officially training dogs for a decade. She became a certified dog trainer in 2008.

“Unless you’re in the field, you would probably look at a dog and so ‘oh that might be a pit bull, that might be a rottweiler,’” said McCue-McGrath.

The National Canine Research Council reported on Nov. 7, 2012 that a survey conducted at four Florida animal shelters confirmed the unreliability of visual breed identification.

The survey, carried out by the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine, raises questions on the use of breed identification for dog adoption, lost and found, and regulation, reported the National Canine Research Council.

Because of over-reporting in the media, people have it in their heads that only pit bulls attack, not labs or German shepherds, or other breeds, said McCue-McGrath.

Media psychologist Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, says that’s very possible. “News outlets are trying to get people to read their content, so tend to emphasize extremes because the human brain is wired to notice unusual or threatening things as a function of our survival instinct,” said Dr. Rutledge, from Corona Del Mar, Calif. in an email response.

The Media Psychology Research Center has two locations, one in Boston and one in Newport Beach, Calif. The center examines “how people consume, produce and distribute information across all media technologies and seek to understand the impact on both individuals and society,” according to the website.

“There is also lots of evidence that ‘eye-witness’ testimonies are not as accurate as we once believed for many of the reasons [McCue-McGrath] cited, plus they also change over time as our brains construct a narrative of what happened in ways that we feel explain things adequately,” said Dr. Rutledge. “Humans do not like randomness, so it’s cognitively more comfortable to attribute causality.”

McCue-McGrath also said there is generally more to the story than what the media tends to report about a “pit bull” attack.

“I want to know the story as to what lead up to the bite. I don’t want to hear another story about a pit bull attacked a kid,” she said. I want to first see the picture of the dog, and then laugh at it because it’s probably not even a pit.”

Are dog bite statistics reliable?

The Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions found that “dog bite statistics are not really statistics, and they do not give an accurate picture of dogs that bite.”

The task force, part of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), said the biting dog might not be accurately reported, or the dog could be mislabeled as a purebred, when in reality it’s a mixed breed.

Besides all that, does BSL stop the biting?

The Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs said in a statement released Aug. 23, 2012, “There is no evidence to support that breed specific ordinances work.”

Here’s a look at Boston pit bull attack data from 2003-2012. Boston’s pit bull ordinances started in 2004 and ended in 2012. Notice the varying number of dog bites. Over eight years, the number of bites did not decrease.




“The animal-control bill is designed to be breed-neutral and work on a case-by-case basis to prevent good owners and good dogs from being punished unfairly,” the statement read.

At the time the bill was in session, no legislators from the Boston delegation or any other city objected to the animal control bill, said Reginald Zimmerman, assistant press secretary for the The Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

“In fact, they voted for it,” said Zimmerman, a resident of Quincy.

The AMVA, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), American Kennel Club Federation and numerous humane societies across the country all oppose BSL as a way to reduce dog bites. The MSPCA Angell and the Animal Rescue League of Boston concur.

“Not every person who owns a pit bull is a bad person, absolutely not,” said Giannangelo. “I just think they do more damage than other dogs, that’s the problem.”

Giannangelo is a firm supporter of mandatory spay and neuter, based on the number of pit bulls he gets in Boston’s animal shelter.

“You look at the shelters and the amount of dogs we have, you know they’re coming from somewhere,” said Giannangelo. “If you’re not a professional breeder, why have a dog that can reproduce?”

Giannangelo would also like to see dog breeding become a regulated profession.“If you’re going to breed a pet, you need a breeder license,” said Giannangelo. “That’s something I think could really help all breeds.”

The bill to bring BSL back to Massachusetts is currently in the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government.

About Pamela Cyran 5 Articles
Pam Cyran is a multimedia journalist interested in web development and investigative reporting. Besides being a storyteller, she is an animal lover, and jazz and marching band enthusiast.