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A 23-year-old ban on pit bulls, passed after the vicious mauling of a 7-year-old girl, is up for a vote in Miami-Dade County.
Pit bull advocates blame the ban on overheated emotions and say they are working to free dogs from unfair imprisonment. But the girl who was mauled, now a 31-year-old hospital administrator, says the ban's critics are playing on the emotions of animal lovers at the expense of public safety.
If a ballot measure repealing the ban is approved Aug. 14, Miami-Dade County would join the rest of Florida, which prohibits breed-specific laws. Miami-Dade's ban was grandfathered in.
The county commission put the measure on the ballot after the state Legislature rejected a bill that would have overturned Miami-Dade's exemption. The ban also made news last winter when the Miami Marlins acquired pitcher Mark Buehrle, who owns a pit bull.
Buehrle and his family eventually bought a home in neighboring Broward County so they could keep their dog, Slater. Jamie Buehrle, the pitcher's wife, has joined pit bull advocates pushing to overturn the Miami-Dade ordinance.
"It obviously angers me because that's like basing just on looks and not the actual personality of a dog," said Jamie Buehrle, with Slater on a leash beside her. "It's just discrimination, there's no other way around it, there's no other way to describe it."
But Melissa Moreira, whose mauling prompted the ban, wants the ordinance to remain on the books.
"I think that if I were bit by a poodle, I wouldn't have had to have eight major reconstructive plastic surgeries,'' said Moreira, whose face and scalp still show faded but distinct scars. The dog attacked her, her mother and grandmother as they were carrying groceries into their house. It pulled back Moreira's scalp, exposed the bone on her forehead and left her upper lip hanging. As one neighbor fought the dog, another fatally shot it with a handgun.
The people pushing to own pit bulls are "just putting themselves at risk. They're not taking into account what might happen, and it's not safe behavior," Moreira said.
Getting reliable statistics on dog bites is difficult _ no government agency tracks them nationally. Director of Miami-Dade animal services, Alex Munoz, said roughly 3,000 dog bites are reported to the county each year, but the agency doesn't break down the data by breed.
"If you asked me if there was a predominance of pit bull bites versus other dogs, we don't see a predominance of pit bull bites," Munoz said. "Some say it's that the ban works. Some say it's just because they're no different from any other dog."
A recent report by the American Veterinary Medical Association said pit bulls are not necessarily more prone to biting than other breeds such as German shepherds, Rottweilers, Jack Russell terriers and even collies and St. Bernards, but some are made dangerous by owners who abuse them or use them for fighting. A pit bull's size and strength can make its attacks more lethal, but that also applies to other large dogs, the report said.
The AVMA concluded that because of the lack of solid data, "it is difficult to support the targeting of this breed as a basis for dog bite prevention."
The Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also oppose breed-specific bans.
Still, many communities nationwide ban certain breeds, though some have removed breed-specific language from their ordinances for dangerous dogs. The Cincinnati City Council, for example, voted in May to repeal its ban on pit bulls after the Ohio Legislature removed a reference to pit bulls from the state's definition of vicious dogs.
In Miami-Dade County, owning American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers or any dog substantially conforming to any of these breeds' characteristics has been illegal since 1989. If these breeds wind up in the county shelter, they are eligible for adoption outside the county; otherwise they can be euthanized.
Six animal enforcement officers follow a checklist to determine whether a dog conforms to the county's definition of a pit bull. Investigators look for dogs with round and well-set eyes, short and stiff coats, a tail that tapers to a point and a somewhat broad chest, among three dozen other physical characteristics _ all details that also could describe other breeds.
"The checklist is very subjective," said Kathy Labrada, enforcement manager for Miami-Dade Animal Services. "What may be a short, stiff coat to me may not be to you, and that's part of the difficulty in enforcement because it is so subjective."
In late June, Welkins Joseph led two docile dogs outside his Miami home for an animal services investigator. A neighbor had told authorities he was keeping aggressive pit bulls. Joseph told the investigator his dark brown female dog, Coco, was "pure pit bull" and got a warning to remove her.
The other dog, a brown and white male named Dubie, got a thorough going-over until the investigator concluded his coat, tail and body length didn't match the checklist.
Joseph said Dubie belonged to a friend, but he wanted to keep Coco. He said he planned to vote to repeal the ban.
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman led the effort to get the repeal question on the ballot.
The pit bull ban "was motivated and passed by emotions," Heyman told a small gathering at a public forum in late June.
Complaints from the public about dogs that look like pit bulls prompt animal services to investigate potential violations, Labrada said. For dogs found in violation, their owners are ordered to find the animal a new home outside the county. If an owner doesn't, a $515 citation is issued. Owners can appeal, but if a citation is upheld a court order can be obtained to seize a dog.
Only about half the complaints reported result in action against a pit bull, but the county can't quantify how many owners relinquish their dogs because of the ban, Labrada said. During the 2010-11 fiscal year, the county held 371 pit bulls, but the vast majority were picked up as strays. More than 200 pit bulls were euthanized, but more than 120 were returned to owners or adopted by individuals or rescue organizations outside Miami-Dade.
Only about five court orders to confiscate dogs violating the ban have been issued in the last three years, Labrada said.