Ledy VanKavage, ASPCA Senior Director, Legal Training and LegislationJune 15, 2008
Big thanks to everyone on the ASPCA Online Community who participated in the moderated discussion with Ledy VanKavage, ASPCA Senior Director, Legal Training and Legislation, and our legislative liaison for the Midwest United States and Puerto Rico. VanKavage answered some great questions about breed-specific legislation (BSL), animal law, and how anyone and everyone can lobby for animals.P>
I'm not familiar with BSL [breed-specific legislation], and I'm just wondering exactly what it is. Can you give me a quick overview? Thanks so much!
Some communities take a knee-jerk approach and outlaw residents from owning certain breeds or mixes of dogs. The banned breeds and mixes vary by community, but these laws consistently result in more dogs being killed in shelters. Dogs should be judged by their behavior, not breed. Dogs are individuals. We saw that with the Michael Vick dogs. BAD RAP was on Rachael Ray's show last Friday with one of the dogs from the Vick bust (named Johnny Justice!), and he was a doll!
Because of the Michael Vick case, I think people are rightly seeing these dogs as victims. The fact that 48 dogs were saved and went to rescues and sanctuariesand only one was human-aggressiveis truly amazing. It made me proud that the ASPCA was allowed to evaluate the dogs and give them a chance.
BSL will stop if dog guardians/owners unite and refuse to allow it any longer. Politicians respond to pressure from their constituents. Tragically, some humane groups add fuel to the fire by refusing to adopt out certain breeds, regardless of their temperament. This is a tragedy, tooand again, the dogs are the victims.
By the way, the ASPCA website has a great page on this topic called “Are Breed Specific Laws Effective?”
How do you feel about BSL? Do you think it is fair and humane? I do not, but I would like an opinion from an expert.
No, it is not fair or humane. I think instead of calling these laws breed-specific, we need to label them what they really are: breed-discriminatory laws. Every week I get calls from people who have wonderful, friendly pet dogs who are now outlawed in their communities simply because of their breed. The owners usually can't afford to move and have to give the dogs up, which results in their deaths.
Breed-discriminatory laws are simply un-American. Responsible dog guardians should be allowed to have any breed of dog they choose. Reckless owners should not be allowed to have any dogs.
People need to organize and get active against BSL. All dog owners can be at risk, and people who own mutts are impacted, too. Under many of the ordinances, any animal control officer or police officer can “deem” your dog a pit or Rottweiler mix and seize him. In Kansas City, KS, a mutt was seized by animal control for being a “pit bull” and held for nine months during the court case. They finally did DNA testing and released the dog back to the owner. But most cities are not doing DNA testingthey just see a dog with a big head and broad shoulders and take him.
I understand that some more progressive cities and counties have laws that regulate “dangerous dogs” as individuals instead of discriminating against certain breeds. Can you tell me some places that have these laws, and how they are working out? Also, what makes a dog “dangerous”?
There are some really nice, creative laws out there, Carrie. In St. Paul, MN, they rightly decided to target reckless owners. If you have your dog taken away from you twice in St. Paul, you can't own another dog there for five years.
Illinois has a very good, generic dangerous dog law based on a dog’s temperament. You can view it at www.ilga.gov. It also prohibits communities from engaging in canine profiling.
And Illinois has another creative law: Convicted felons can't own unsterilized dogs, but can own whatever breed of dog they want. This is a good law because, let's face it, dog fighters don't want sterilized dogs. None of the Michael Vick dogs who are thriving so well in their new homes were sterilized.
Calgary, Canada, is quite a success. They have experienced a 54-percent drop in aggressive dog incidents and a 21-percent decrease in bites by enforcing their licensing and leash laws. They also have a generic dangerous dog ordinance.
Some communities are enacting anti-tethering ordinances, because dogs who are tethered 24/7 can become aggressive because of frustrationespecially if they are not sterilized.
In reality, we need to start focusing on reckless owner laws and stop blaming the dogs.
The National Canine Research Council has oodles of information online that can give you even more information if you’re interested.
If I provide money for my pet in my will, does it have to be enforced? I've heard that courts do not have to honor provisions for pets in wills. If that's true, how can I protect my pet when I'm gone? Thank you!
It depends on your state’s laws. In many states, you can now set up a trust to care for your pet when you are gone and the probate court can order it to be enforced. If you don't set up a pet trust, it can be problematic. Hopefully, your executor will honor your wishesbut you can't be sure. Setting up a pet trust through your attorney will give you peace of mind.
How can I get involved lobbying for animal protection laws? More specifically, are there things I could do from my home, like send letters? I work at home and often have down-time that I'd love to spend in a more productive way.
Believe it or not, Christina, politicians love handwritten letters from the folks they represent, and phone calls really do make a difference, too. Personalized emails can also be effectiveyou always need to add your own comments to form emails, or legislators dismiss them. Be the voice of the animals. Speak up and organize. Join the ASPCA Advocacy Brigade so you can get updates on what is going on in your state. Read the newspaper and attend city council or county board meetings. Get to know who is in charge of making the decisions for animals in your area.
I had never done any lobbying when I got out of law school. Then I read a story in our local paper about a woman whose dog was picked up by animal control. She went to get her dog, but it was too latethey had sold the dog to Washington University for research. She was devastated.
Some friends and I started holding meetings trying to figure out what to do. We researched the issue and then went to a few county board meetings to see who the leaders were. We then called a county board member who seemed good and met with him. He didn't know that our county animal shelter was selling pets for research and was taken aback. He said he'd help us. The problem was the county was making good money selling the dogs and cats for research. We printed up fliers with all the county board members’ phone numbers on them and gave them out at bake sales and grocery stores (this was pre-Web!). We found out where some crucial county board members lived and went and spoke very nicely with their neighbors who had pets and left leaflets around their neighborhoods. We found out where they got their hair cut and spoke with their beauticians and barbers.
After six weeks of hard campaigning, they decided to stop the selling of animals for research. They then asked us to organize an adoption program for the shelter, which we did. Eventually, they gave us an acre of land to build a shelter.
As Tip O'Neill said, all politics is local. You need to get involved. To have an impact, go to city council meetings, county council meetings and your state legislature. Go to political fundraisersyou will be surprised how nice they are to you thereor volunteer in a political campaign, or run for office yourself!
I am an attorney, but work in an entirely different field of the law. What can legal professionals do? I have often contemplated a career in protecting animals (and their loved ones) against cruelty and unfair legislation. I am passionate about this work. I am the proud mom of two beautiful Rottweilers and fear the day that some public policy will prevent me from having them. During the Holocaust, they said nobody spoke up when the Nazis came to get people, and when the last people were taken, there was nobody left to speak up for them. I want to speak up and help others before it happens to me.
The animals need you, Shawna!
Before I got my dream gig here at the ASPCA, I worked as a government attorney for 15 years. You can do so much in your personal time and on weekends, like going to city council meetings, helping draft ordinances or even running for your city or county council. It is best to have a relationship with your local politicians before any breed-discriminatory laws come up, so volunteering for a political campaign or attending a fundraiser can really help. They need people who care for animals making the decisions, or at least guiding them.
Another idea is to volunteer at your local animal shelter or rescue group. Many humane societies need and appreciate legal expertise.
There is much dog fighting activity here in Ohio, I am sorry to say. What are the pros and cons of passing our pending breed-specific legislation? I do not fully understand how this will affect all dogs in Ohio, and would appreciate further discussion.
Susan, Ohio already has a horrible law on the books that deems all pit bull vicious. The ASPCA is supporting a pending bill that would repeal this law. For more information about legislation pending in your state, you can go to ASPCA.org/lobby and select your state from the pull-down menu.
Breed-specific laws do not decrease dog fightingbut interestingly, Lawrence, KS, has found that its anti-tethering law has worked well to decrease dog fighting because dog fighters usually tether their dogs. Lawrence allows dogs to be tethered without supervision for only one hour.
I wouldn't even know how to begin contacting legislators about animal laws. Who's the best person to contactthe mayor's office, my governor, my senator? Any advice is much appreciated.
It depends how you want to help the animals, Max. Do you want to have an impact on the local, state or national level? The old bumper sticker “Think Globally, Act Locally” is really correct. Sometimes it is best to start out small at the city or county level.
If you want to decrease the number of stray dogs and cats by getting money appropriated for spay/neuter or a high-volume clinic, you can start by meeting your local politicians. Attend city council meetings or county board meetings. Go to some political fundraisers or volunteer for a campaign and talk animal issues with folks.
You might stop by your local shelter and see what its needs are. Do you need an ordinance to allow folks to practice Trap, Neuter, Return for cats to reduce the number of cats coming into the shelter? Or maybe your city has a breed-discriminatory law that you need to get repealed. These are the best places to start.
There are two great books for community organizers that I loveRules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky and Get Political for Animals by Julie Lewin.
Hi Ledy, I got Julie Lewin's book recently and have been looking at the League of Humane Voters website. Are there any other resources you'd recommend on how to set up a nonprofit corporation that is allowed to lobby?
The Alliance for Justice is the pro on setting up nonprofits to lobby. It has oodles of wonderful and cheap publications. Go to its website for more information. It is a wonderful group.
Don't states realize that BSL will actually make pit bull fighting worse, because it will go deeply underground?
Lori, you’re right. Ohio, the only state where all pit bulls are considered “vicious” simply because of their breed, has seen an increase in dog fighting. Their breed-specific law has not helped. In fact, some people probably think it is cool to have a banned breed of dog, so BSL is actually adding to the breed’s cache.
Not all pit bulls are fighting dogs, and not all fighting dogs are pit bulls. Dogs are individuals. Good reckless owner/generic dangerous dog laws are the answer, as is enforcing anti-cruelty and leash laws.
As Jerry Seinfeld would say, what's the deal with pit bulls? Are they really different from other dogs, or do they just have terrible PR?
American pit bull terriers are simply dogs, not werewolves! As the book The Pit Bull Placebo correctly pointed out, we currently have a witch hunt going on. The media often equates pit bull attacks to shark attacks. It is a shame that they demonize dogs just to sell papers. My cats beat my rescued pits up, and my pit Che is an ex-fighter!
Thanks to media bias, every dog who bit must be a pit! Whenever we see media bias in newspapers and on television stations, we need to call them out on it. Write letters to their editors or blog online to remind people that Petey from Little Rascals was an American pit bull terrier. Helen Keller had an American pit bull terrier, and Stubby, World War I hero, was indeed a pit bull. They are just dogs: four legs, two eyes, one heart.
Contrary to popular belief, pit bulls do not have “locking jaws.” Dr. I. Lehr Brisbin of the University of Georgia showed that there were no mechanical or morphological differences between the jaws of American pit bull terriers and those of any other comparable breeds of dogs.
As for the myth that American pit bull terriers have more bite force, Dr. Brady Barr of the National Geographic Channel did a study on animal bites. He tested a German shepherd, an American pit bull terrier and a Rottweiler. The American pit bull terrier was capable of the least amount of pressure of the three dogs tested.
How do you get a leash law enforced? My daughter walks a pair of dogs who are slightly dog-aggressive. They are always on leash, and we do have a leash law. However, others often don’t have their dogs on leashes, and when their dogs come toward my daughter, the other owner typically says something like, “Don’t worry, she’s nice, she won’t bite.” My daughter relies, “But one of these dogs might”but somehow, it never phases them.
We’re afraid that if other dogs come over and my daughter’s dogs bite them, the dog who did the biting would get in trouble instead of the one off the leash.
You need to go to your city council and ask that they enforce the leash laws. In New York City in the 1960s, there were 40,000 dog bites a year. It’s now down to less than 4,000 because the leash laws are being enforced. Good luck, Susan!
Do you think we ought to have laws that mandate spaying/neutering?
Mandates sound good, but are problematic for a variety of reasons. Many poor people can't afford to spay or neuter their pets, so if you don't have a system in place to help them, a mandate can have a detrimental impact on the human-animal bond.
I think differential animal licensing and pet population control funding programs really work best. The city or state charges a higher licensing fee to folks who don't want to spay or neuter their pets. The extra money goes into a fund for people who are on food stamps or social security disability benefitsand for feral cat caretakersso they can get their animals fixed for around $15 from participating veterinary clinics.
New Hampshire’s spay/neuter program is funded by an extra two dollars on all dog licenses. The program started years ago, and the euthanasia rate in the state’s animal shelters has dropped by more than 70 percent. Very impressiveI wish every state had such a program.
Here in Illinois, where I live, the Pet Population Control Fund started this year. It is funded by an extra $10 on intact dogs, $25 public safety fines for dogs who run at large, $50 public safety fines for dogs deemed “dangerous” by temperament, $100 public safety fines for dogs deemed “vicious” by a court, and money generated from our pet-friendly license plate and income tax check-offs. We're hoping this revenue stream will eventually be enough to make a huge difference.
I am a county animal warden, so many people email me or call me for help placing their pit bulls in other homes. If people only realized the dogs’ fate, and how hard it is to find the right people who know this type of breed. So many pits are doomed from day one. I wish we had more good homes for these dogs.
We need more rescue groups helping American pit bull terriers. BAD RAP has some great information, as does Animal Farm Foundation and Pit Bull Rescue Central. But the bottom line is that we need compassionate people helping place these wonderful pets and rebelling against the media bias.
A message from Ledy:
Thanks to everyone taking action for animals! It was great speaking with everyone today. Keep up the good work, and remember: Politics is not a spectator sport. The animals are counting on you.
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