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OH: Bexley ends prohibition against pit bulls, with restrictions


By Alissa Widman Neese The Columbus Dispatch • Monday November 21, 2016 5:56 AM

The city of Bexley will no longer prohibit its residents from owning pit bulls.

But residents who take advantage of the newly amended law will be kept on a tight leash, officials say.

The new legislation approved Wednesday imposes several restrictions on pit bull owners, requiring them to obtain insurance, spay or neuter their pet, register it with the city and prove it passed a behavior test. They will also be forced to fence their yard, but not with invisible fencing.

The formal policy is still being written, but once it’s finished, it could take effect as early as mid-December.

“This will allow responsible dog owners to have a legal path of ownership while creating common-sense hurdles to make sure we’re dealing with people who don’t intend to weaponize an animal,” Bexley Mayor Ben Kessler said.

“It’s not really about the dog, it’s about the owner.”

City council members approved the change by a 6-1 vote. Council President Tim Madison voted against it.

The decision follows a trend of breed-specific dog bans being overturned across Ohio.

In May 2012, the state lifted its 25-year-old statewide ban on pit bulls, which automatically listed the dog type as a prohibited “vicious” animal. The state decision didn’t overturn local laws, however, which allowed Bexley and other communities to continue banning the dogs. Gradually, many communities have followed the state’s lead and reversed their bans, too.

As of this week, Reynoldsburg is the only central Ohio municipality that completely bans pit bulls. Just 28 of Ohio’s more than 900 municipalities still prohibit them, according to a list compiled by the national nonprofit organization dogsbite.org.

Reynoldsburg doesn’t have plans to revisit the topic, Mayor Brad McCloud said. City council members discussed possibly lifting the ban as recently as 2014 but ultimately decided to keep it.

A handful of central Ohio communities, including Canal Winchester, Dublin, New Albany and Upper Arlington, still have pit bull-specific legislation in place, requiring owners to adhere to certain restrictions to own one. Once its new law takes effect, Bexley will fall under that category.

Typically, the decision to change a law is accompanied by a “nature or nurture” debate — specifically, whether pit bulls are naturally too aggressive, or if they’re taught such behavior by irresponsible owners. A handful of animal experts attended Wednesday’s council meeting to discuss the topic. The conversation lasted nearly three hours.

A “pit bull,” they say, isn’t actually a dog breed. Rather, it’s a blanket term used to describe similar stocky, muscular breeds characterized by a flat head, broad chest and a wide, powerful jaw. Examples include the American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier and mixes of those breeds.

The breeds gained a reputation for being the dog of choice in illegal dog-fighting rings, which led to their ban in many communities nationwide.

Elissa O’Sullivan, a central Ohio dog behaviorist, said she believes the bans are based in prejudice, not fact.

“A dangerous golden retriever is as dangerous as a dangerous pit bull,” she said. “It’s not a breed issue, it’s an individual dog issue.”

Those in favor of pit bull bans and restrictions cite disproportionate statistics: In 2015, for example, pit bulls were responsible for 28 of 34 fatal dog attacks in the United States, or about 82 percent, despite making up only about 6 percent of the total dog population.

“Public safety is about prevention, not punishment,” said Carol Miller, a survivor of a pit bull attack who lives in northeast Ohio and is a member of the dogsbite.org board of directors. She believes legislation against pit bulls protects people from dogs that were historically bred to kill.

Ultimately, Bexley’s new law was prompted mostly by the logistics of enforcement. The existing law, which prohibited dogs with “predominant characteristics of a pit bull,” had become difficult to enforce as pit bull breeds gained popularity in central Ohio, Kessler said.

It’s sometimes difficult to determine if a mixed-breed dog is a pit bull, meaning some city residents might have adopted one without realizing it, he said. The law also likely deterred responsible pit bull owners from moving into Bexley.

No Bexley resident spoke against the new law Wednesday night.

“There was a lot of confusion within the community about what dogs were legal and what dogs weren’t,” Kessler said. “This is a solution that we think strikes a comfortable balance between an outright ban and lifting it completely.”

Today, pit bulls and pit bull mixes make up about 28 percent of the Franklin County Dog Shelter’s total intake and total adopted dogs, Director Don Winstel said. When Ohio banned them statewide, pit bull breeds could not be adopted and were either sent to independent rescue groups or euthanized.

“Now, they’re becoming very popular,” Winstel said. “We’re seeing much less hesitation from folks coming in to adopt dogs.”