Chicago ordinance passes: It's the deed, not the breed

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In October, a Chicago ordinance passed recognizing that any breed of dog has the potential to bite, not just the usual suspects of pit bull-type terriers and Rottweilers.

On Oct. 31, 2001, welcome news came for residents of the Windy City who were frustrated by recent dog attacks. An ordinance passed, after being in the works for several months, which penalizes irresponsible owners of "dangerous dogs." The ordinance does not distinguish specific breeds or weights of dogs.

Effective Nov. 30, 2001, the city of Chicago may fine irresponsible pet owners up to $300 if a dog is allowed to run unsecured, and $10,000, with the possibility of jail time, if it attacks someone. Owners of a dog involved in an attack and subsequently deemed dangerous by Chicago Animal Care and Control would have up to 10 days after the declaration to purchase no less than $100,000 in liability insurance. Also, the dog would be required to be neutered and have an identifying microchip implanted at the expense of the owner.

Alderman Shirley A. Coleman of the 16th Ward had had enough of violent dog attacks, sometimes fatal, on children in her south-side neighborhood. She was frustrated, desperate, and getting pressure to do something about it from residents and constituents.

In the spring of 2001, Alderman Coleman held a press conference saying that if she could legislate against pit bull terrier-type dogs and Rottweilers, the dogs most often involved in the attacks in her neighborhood, she would. She wanted to mandate that owners of these breeds must carry extensive liability insurance on them, but she knew that the insurance companies and the city would not be receptive to the idea.

Tribune Media Service syndicated pet columnist and radio personality Steve Dale was one of several people who saw Alderman Coleman's statements as red flags, and he invited her to appear on his talk show "Pet Central" on Chicago's WGN Radio 720. She agreed and listened.

"There was real frustration in her voice," Dale said. "She only had information about what her community had done in the past, and what her constituents had been telling her. She didn't know that what she proposed hadn't worked in other communities." She didn't know that groups such as the AVMA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Humane Society of the United States had taken a hard look at other solutions with more potential to be effective.

After the show, Alderman Coleman requested a gathering of local experts, and at the end of October, leaders from a local office of the Humane Society of the United States, Chicago Animal Care and Control, the Chicago VMA, and The International Kennel Club of Chicago, a dog trainer, and Alderman Coleman sat down to draft a new Chicago animal control act. The experts in the room knew what they would and would not support.

Dr. Susan Ferraro is the president of the Chicago VMA. Back when the spring press conference was held, she took the AVMA's "A community approach to dog bite prevention" report and brought it to city hall. When the Chicago VMA testified before the city council to strengthen the animal control act, they used AVMA's model again, stressing that, on the basis of their knowledge and the model, they would not support breed- or weight-specific legislation. The Chicago VMA was unyielding in their position: this was about the deed, not the breed.

"We didn't feel that they could go ahead and single out one particular breed or one particular weight category of dogs," Dr. Ferraro said. "Rottweilers and pit bull terrier-type dogs may be popular right now; in 10 years, it may be Briards, or some other breed of dog. What we wanted to do was make this ordinance more generic and get people to understand that all dogs have the potential to bite, and that all biting dogs are not fighting dogs ... this is really where our expertise [as veterinarians] comes in."

Another aspect the participants wanted to support was public education, and to make it very clear that responsibility should be placed on the owners of dangerous dogs.

"The city is looking for dangerous dog owners, not dangerous dogs," Dale said. "If you were to read through the ordinance yourself, you would see that in several places, it does say that. Even though it's just semantics, that's huge."

But, what insurance company is going to insure a dog that has attacked and possibly killed someone?

"This is the only part of the animal control act that I personally don't care for," Dale said. "I told the alderman that no insurance company is going to do this ... Animal Control sees that as a tool they can use; if [the dangerous dog owner] can't show proof of insurance [Animal Control] can impound the dog."

John Zipay, a Chicago agent for State Farm Insurance, said, "If [the ordinance] is written that way, that they have to go and get insurance, you're going to have to create a new segment of the industry to provide coverage." His company will refuse liability insurance to an owner of a dog investigated and deemed dangerous by the city.

"I think that is the point," said Patricia Montgomery, executive administrator for the Chicago VMA. "This ordinance is not supposed to target responsible pet owners."

Sandra Alfred, deputy director of Chicago Animal Care and Control, agrees. "You're trying to get the message across to be responsible," she said. "If you are a responsible pet owner, then you may never have to resort to acquiring the extra insurance because your dog may never be involved in a bite or an attack on a citizen or another dog."

Will this legislation cure all dangerous dog problems and prevent all dog attacks?

"No," Dale said. "Gun laws don't stop people from having guns when they shouldn't. Drug laws don't stop the drug trade. That's why education is so important. Animal Care and Control has already begun a campaign concerning dog fighting."

Alfred said, "I'm not sure this will lessen dangerous dog problems in Chicago. I think it will put more responsibility on pet owners."

At press time, the Chicago City Council was in the middle of annual budgetary meetings and Alderman Coleman was unavailable for an interview.