Albany city officials defend need for pit bull ordinance

Vote on controversial legislation is due in one week

ALBANY — With a week to go before city officials are scheduled to take a vote on a proposed ordinance that would place stricter controls on pit bulldog ownership, the debate continued Tuesday over the need for a breed-specific ordinance.

Veterinarian Dr. Carie Wisell and retired educator Steve Kender were the latest citizens to speak out against the Albany City Commission’s proposed pit bull ordinance, which they said puts undue hardships on responsible dog owners.

“They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I brought pictures of my dog Georgia visiting (area health care facilities and nursing homes),” Kender said. “I’d hate to think your new law would make visits like this illegal.”

Ward V Commissioner Bob Langstaff said that if the city’s pit bull ordinance did inadvertently restrict “healing” visits by such licensed dogs, that was a part of the ordinance that would need “tweaking.” But in “playing devil’s advocate,” Langstaff turned Kender’s words on him.

“When you first came up to the podium, you said a picture’s worth a thousand words,” Langstaff said. “I can’t help but think of some more pictures that are not being passed around at this table, pictures of children who were mauled by pit bulldogs. I’m at a loss … What can you say to a parent of a child that has been bitten? I want to be able to say to them that I’m doing everything I can.

“You’re talking about holding owners responsible (for attacks) after the fact. I want to prevent them from happening.”

Wisell offered what she said were “top-of-the-head alternatives” to proposals in the pit bull ordinance, which require registration of the animals, maintenance of a minimum $100,000 in liability insurance and pens built to strict specifications.

“When dogs are outside (an owner’s) property line, you could require a basket muzzle,” she said. “You could also cut down on the population of all unwanted dogs by requiring spaying and neutering and registration as a breeder by all owners who refuse to do so. You would also cut down on the number of attacks by enforcing existing leash laws and punishing irresponsible pet owners, not the responsible ones.”

Refuting some pit bull supporters’ claims that the breed does not bite more frequently than other dogs, Langstaff noted information from an Albany Police Department report that showed there were 48 pit bull bites reported in the city last year.

“The next-closest number is bulldog bites at 15,” the Ward V commissioner said. “I understand that people may not really know if a dog is a pit bull, but there has been data submitted (by the city’s Citizens Advisory Committee) and there is definitely a public perception that pit bull bites are far more likely to lead to death or maulings than any other breed.”

Wisell said city officials had a responsibility to do what’s in the best interest of the community.

“You can what-if this to death,” she said. “But what has to be done is control the loose dogs in the city. Irresponsible owners are the ones who should be punished.”

Ward I Commissioner Jon Howard responded.

“This board is not looking to punish responsible pet owners,” he said. “No law we come up with is going to be perfect, but we need to do something before someone else is bitten by one of these pit bulls.”

When Wisell mentioned that the city could face a lawsuit if it enacts the pit bill ordinance, Mayor Dorothy Hubbard said the commission found itself in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario.

“People are saying we may get sued if we pass a pit bull ordinance, but if more citizens are bitten because we refused to take action, we’re liable to get sued anyway,” she said. “Like Commissioner Langstaff said, I can’t help but think of the children (bitten by pit bulls) who must live with the scars for the rest of their lives and the parents who must pay for their treatment while pit bull owners continue on with their business.

“It’s a balancing act, but we must take some kind of action.”