This opinion is on behalf of the editorial board: Publisher Margaret Buchanan, Editor Carolyn Washburn, and writers Cindi Andrews, Krista Ramsey and Julie Zimmerman.
The injuries 6-year-old Zainabou Drame received in a pit-bull attack last month are heartrending and unacceptable.
Disturbingly, there’s little in either Ohio or Cincinnati law to punish dog owners in such situations, let alone prevent something similar from happening again.
Police shot and killed the two pit bulls, and the owner is facing possible prison time – but not because of the attack. Zontae Irby has been indicted on drug charges that could put him in prison for up to 8 1/2 years.
The only law Irby broke in his dogs’ attack was one requiring dogs to be leashed or confined, according to Cincinnati Prosecutor Charlie Rubenstein. It’s a minor misdemeanor under Ohio and city law, carrying a $150 fine since the dogs hadn’t been previously designated “dangerous,” he said.
The pit-bull attack in Westwood, which follows a similarly serious one in December, has some questioning whether the city of Cincinnati should reinstate its pit-bull ban, which City Council removed in 2012. It also comes as Fort Thomas considers whether to end its ban.
A number of other communities in Greater Cincinnati joined a national trend in lifting bans, but, according to the Animal Farm Foundation, a handful still have them, including Fairfield, Amberley Village, Elmwood Place and Lincoln Heights in Ohio, and Alexandria, Ludlow, Dayton, Elsmere and Southgate in Kentucky.
After an attack as vicious as that on Zainabou – an unprovoked attack that cost her her tongue and could scar her for life physically and emotionally – it’s tempting to pursue drastic measures. If a ban would help, we’d be for it.
However, authorities including the federal Centers for Disease Control have concluded that breed-specific legislation isn’t effective in preventing dog attacks on people and other animals. That’s backed up by Cincinnati’s experience, in which the ban wasn’t enforced and didn’t prevent pit bulls and pit-bull mixes from filling local shelters.
First, there’s the difficulty of even defining a pit bull. A Fort Thomas man had to get a DNA test to prove that his pet wasn’t a pit. In addition, dogs’ behavior and size – not breed – determine their risk for causing harm, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Rubenstein doesn’t give an opinion on breed-based bans, saying that deciding policy is council’s job. However, he is concerned that current city and state laws give dogs the first bite “free” before they can be labeled dangerous, triggering additional restraint requirements that carry stronger penalties.
“It’s difficult to explain to the victims’ family that the most you can do on the first bite is give a fine,” he said.
The prosecutor is gathering options for Councilman Christopher Smitherman, chairman of the Law and Safety Committee, to address this serious public safety issue.
One is to reinstate the ban. The city solicitor’s office has also been asked to draw up potential legislation for pit-bull registration.
Another option for council, Rubenstein said, is to put the onus on owners to control their pets’ behavior. This could include penalties up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine for a dog attack that causes harm, and up to 6 months and $1,000 for an attack that causes serious harm or kills another animal.
We say no more free bites.
An attack that kills a person can already be prosecuted as involuntary manslaughter, and that would remain the case.
Also, judges can already order the euthanasia of dogs that attack, even after the first one.
Yes, we know pit bulls can be deadly; a CDC study found that a third of attacks by dogs involved pit bull-type animals. However, we are persuaded that stronger penalties would give law enforcement the tools they need to punish irresponsible owners without punishing those whose best friend is a pit.
Maybe the jail time and fines should be even stiffer than those laid out by Rubenstein to ensure a strong incentive for owners to properly care for and contain their animals. But as we have that community conversation, let’s focus on behavior, not breed.