Strasser: 'The impetus for this came from our animal control ordinances, which are very weak.'
In a surprise move, the Madison Common Council tabled a controversial ordinance March 18 that would have slapped owners of pit bull-style dogs with hefty fines for failing to spay or neuter the animals.
The ordinance, introduced in January by Ald. John Strasser, who represents Madison's south side, would also have required pit-bull breeders to register with the city.
Alds. Anita Weier and Matthew Phair co-sponsored the ordinance, which included fines ranging from $500 to $1,500.
Weier, who represents the north side, says she supported the ordinance because of an underground pit bull breeder in her neighborhood.
Phair, whose district includes southwest Madison, didn't return a call seeking comment.
Approximately 50 people attended the council meeting in support of or opposition to the ordinance. A review of city records reveals the majority of registered speakers opposed the breed-specific regulation.
Still supportive of his unpopular bid to reduce the city's pit bull population, Strasser blames the wavering support among his council colleagues for his last-minute motion to pull the ordinance.
Strasser told the packed chamber "an even better ordinance," will likely be introduced in May, with a council vote anticipated over the summer.
"We -- me and the other co-sponsors -- decided we want to develop a comprehensive plan that looks at all solutions people bring to the table," he explained two days after the meeting. "We are still convinced the data shows that a mandatory spay and neuter program is integral to any solution we'll be discussing."
According to figures provided by Madison Animal Services, 12% of dog bites in 2013 involved a pit bull-type dog, though the circumstances around the bite, such as whether the dog was provoked or had been previously abused, were not provided.
Further, 38% of dog-on-dog attacks involved a pit bull-type dog, with aggressive dog incidents involving a pit bull 34% of the time. Details of the circumstances around these incidents were not provided.
"I would hate to suggest a dog has a right to bite someone, but attacks can happen if a dog, regardless of its breed, is feeling stressed or backed into a corner," says Gayle Viney, communications coordinator for the Dane County Humane Society. "There are a lot of reasons why dog bites happen."
Although Strasser says the decision to table the ordinance was made prior to the council meeting, people in the audience were not notified and therefore sat through a nearly four hour debate over a proposed waterfront apartment tower on East Wilson Street.
Nonetheless, several opponents of the ordinance say they were pleased with the outcome.
"We learned a lot about planning and that building," laughs Viney. "In all honesty, though, we were real happy that that decision was made."
The Humane Society was one of several area animal shelters and canine advocates that opposed the ordinance. While there was near unanimous agreement that spaying and neutering are among the best ways to control pet populations, targeting pit bull-type dogs, they say, would create a slew of new problems for both the city and shelters.
Viney and other opponents argued that shelters in cities that have passed similar breed-specific ordinances saw substantial increases in pit bull intakes.
In Kansas City, Missouri, the second city to mandate the spay and neutering of pit bulls, the Kansas City Pet Project reported 741 more pit bulls were euthanized in 2007 -- the first full year the ordinance was in effect -- than in 2005, the year before the ordinance was approved.
But bolstering supporters' claims the ordinances have had the intended effect, Strasser says the Kansas City shelter also reported that by the ordinance's third year, pit bull euthanasia's had actually dropped below pre-ordinance levels.
During this same period, according to the figures, euthanizations of non-pit bull-type dogs also decreased in Kansas City from 3,178 to 1,135 over the same period.
Strasser, however, says pit bull euthanizations decreased similarly in each of the cities reviewed during the ordinance's drafting.
"Our animal control officers got a lot of data from their counterparts in other cities, like Los Angeles and San Francisco, and their opinion was these ordinances have been highly effective," Strasser says.
However, in a letter to the Madison Common Council, Brent Toellner, president of the Kansas City Pet Project, strongly opposed the ordinance.
"While things have fortunately leveled off considerably… it is still not uncommon for us to get pit bulls into the shelter simply because they are not spayed or neutered–at significant expense to the city's taxpayers," Toellner wrote.
Additionally, Toellner, who didn't return calls to Isthmus, attributed the decline in pit bull euthanizations to Kansas City's decision to privatize the animal shelter.
Viney agrees there likely are reasons beyond the ordinances for declines in these cities, but isn't familiar enough with the situation to comment specifically.
While most local animal shelters and rescues oppose breed-specific legislation, Viney says the Humane Society would get behind a mandate that all dogs be spay or neutered. She suggested it could be a component of the dangerous dogs ordinance already on the books.
"All dogs have the potential to bite," she says.
But Strasser counters amending the dangerous dogs ordinance would send the wrong message.
"The impetus for this came from our animal control ordinances, which are very weak," he says. "Our officers have very few tools they can use."
Strasser couldn't say exactly what a more comprehensive ordinance might look like, but acknowledged the one he tabled had some flaws, particularly when it came to identifying pit bulls.
According to the American Kennel Club, "pit bull" is an umbrella term used to describe nearly 100 different types of terrier breeds that share similar characteristics.
"That was definitely one of the ordinance's gray areas," Viney says. "It's definitely one of the most misidentified breeds out there. It's hard to officially identify what the breed is."
Strasser, however, said owners often self-identify their dogs as pit bulls. In cases where an owner may lie to avoid a citation, the animal control officer would have made the determination.
"It's subjective, but many of our regulations are subjective," he says. "The ordinance didn't say we had to agree with what the owners say."
Strasser says an existing work group will again take up the issue, but this time feedback will be welcome as the new language is drafted.
"We want all the stakeholders at the table," he says. "We want to hear their ideas for solutions."
Viney agrees more a more inclusive process is needed.
"We absolutely plan to have a big role in moving forward," she says. "We need to discuss the actual issue we're trying to fix."