Pit bulls are known for their tenacity, strong jaws and ability to inflict serious injury — if not death.
But the executive director of Topeka's Helping Hands Humane Society thinks pit bulls have been unfairly dogged by a reputation for viciousness.
Hensiek said the humane society shelter at 2625 N.W. Rochester Road euthanizes fewer pit bulls for aggressive behavior than it does any other breed of dog.
She said that is one reason the HHHS advocates a proposed action the Topeka City Council is expected to consider this summer to replace the city's breed-specific ordinance regulating the ownership of pit bulls with rules that would instead regulate "dangerous dogs."
Hensiek is part of a committee of citizens with an interest in animal-related issues who are advising the city administration as it considers asking the council to make various changes to city ordinances regarding animals.
Assistant city attorney Kyle Smith told the council this past week that the committee, which is working with Councilwoman Karen Hiller, is suggesting moves that include doing away with the city's breed-specific rules regulating ownership of pit bulls.
Those rules require owners to obtain licenses and implant microchips in dogs that have the appearance and characteristics of being predominantly of any three types of pit bull: the Staffordshire bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier and American pit bull terrier.
The city requires itself to confine suspected pit bulls until any charges against their owners are resolved in Topeka Municipal Court, which has proven expensive, Smith said. He said the city spends $10 per day to keep any suspected pit bull involved in a pending case at the Humane Society shelter.
Smith said the Topeka police animal control unit has been over budget an average of about $27,000 a year for the past decade, with the vast majority of those overruns being caused by the unit's needing to pay to confine dogs suspected of being pit bulls.
"These are not dogs that exhibited vicious behavior," he said. "They're just running loose or otherwise in violation of our breed-specific ordinances."
Owners who contest pit bull charges in Municipal Court often contend their dog isn't predominantly a pit bull, Smith said. He said prosecutors may find it difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a dog is a pit bull.
Hensiek said 20 to 40 dogs being held in connection with pit bull court cases are confined at any given time at the Humane Society. She said HHHS must often euthanize stray dogs of other breeds because there isn't available space for them, as so much space is taken up by suspected pit bulls.
Stray pit bulls picked up by city animal control officers aren't made available for adoption by HHHS. Hensiek said that if a pit bull's owner doesn't claim it in the three days following the day it is brought in, HHHS assesses whether the pit bull is adoptable. If it isn't, it is euthanized. If it is, HHHS turns it over to a pit bull rescue organization, provided that group has room for it. If the group doesn't, the pit bull is euthanized.
Smith this past week questioned the practice of singling out pit bulls for breed-specific enforcement, saying the 11 fatal dog attacks in Kansas since 1965 have been carried out by eight different breeds. He said dogs of any breed can become vicious, while pit bulls can be "excellent and safe pets."
Megan McAdoo, who handles admissions at Helping Hands, said her pit bull dog, Boss, is a friendly and gentle "couch potato."
"He adores my children, and he's just an awesome dog all around," said McAdoo, who adopted Boss from the HHHS shelter.
Hensiek said for 10 years she has had a pit bull, Noah, which she adopted after it lost an illegally staged dog fight and was left to die.
Hensiek and Smith said breed-specific legislation targeting a particular breed, such as pit bulls, has generally been discredited as ineffective.
"Studies show that cities with breed-specific laws are not any safer," Smith said. "Stronger laws against aggressive and dangerous dogs which hold the owners responsible are seen as more effective."
The city currently requires an identification microchip to be implanted in any animal that has caused its owner to be convicted of violating the city's "vicious animals" ordinance.
That ordinance defines "vicious" as having a "cross, ferocious or dangerous disposition or a habit, tendency or disposition to snap, attack or bite any person or other animal." Any animal that is responsible for a second conviction under the ordinance must be destroyed.
Smith asks that the council change current rules to replace the term "vicious dog" with "dangerous dog" and create the lower-level offense of possessing a dangerous dog. He said dogs would be judged as "dangerous" when they have shown inappropriate aggressive behavior.
Update July 5, 2010 9:28pm - The following article is from WIBW:
Topeka City Council Working On Pit Bull Ordinance
Topeka's city council is looking at changing the city's pit bull ordinance.
Some want council members to change language so pit bulls are not targeted.
Some are concerned because if a stray pit bull is not picked up by it is owner, within three days after its found by animal control, the dog
Before changing the ordinance, council members want to look at pet licensing fees and how to ensure they are collected. 13 News is told there are about 80,000 animals in Topeka, but about 7,800 are registered.
Councilwoman Karen Hiller and a group of others will discuss the ordinance Tuesday. City council members will discuss it in a work session next Tuesday night.
Update July 11, 2010 4:24pm - The following article is by James Carlson, The Topeka Capital-Journal:
A community working group is hoping to turn the recent pit bull discussion into a comprehensive revision of what one city council member called Topeka's "fractured" animal control system.
Potential changes to breed-specific dog ordinances and increases in pet license fees are among the proposals as are reduced-rate spay and neuter clinics, a free ride home to unlicensed pets and an overall rebranding of animal control as helpers of pets and their owners rather than hunters of stray animals.
These changes, says councilwoman Karen Hiller, could help the city reduce the cost of animal control. A spreadsheet prepared by the Topeka Police Department's accounting department recently showed the department spent more than $1 million on the animal control program in 2008 and has budgeted $977,000 for this year.
"Changing the fees is certainly a good thing to consider but not until you figure out the whole system," Hiller said. "Because otherwise it's meaningless and probably won't work."
But whether the proposals can have the desired impact is questionable, said TPD's animal control manager. One of the group's ideas is to begin what is called a trap, neuter and release program — or TNR — for feral cats has Linda Halford worried that it will leave residents upset.
"In theory I'm totally behind it," she said, "but what about the public?"
Hiller's working group — consisting of animal rights groups, a former animal control worker and the police department's attorney — began meeting about a month ago and has formed a draft proposal. The thrust of the group was to create a comprehensive system that would complement each other.
For starters, it wants to change the pit-bull-specific ordinance language to a new class of "dangerous" dogs. Doing so would in theory free up kennel space currently occupied by pit bulls that animal groups say are of no danger to anyone. That way owners wouldn't have to go through the heartache, and the city wouldn't be stuck with onerous shelter costs.
The group also wants to form a public-private partnership to increase the neutering and spaying of cats, thus reducing the animal population and the ensuing strain on the animal control department.
Hiller isn't sure where the money would come from yet, but the ideas are simple.The group wants to set up reduced-rate clinics for owners to have their pets spayed or neutered.
It also wants to begin a TNR program — that could reduce the cost of picking up, transporting and sheltering feral cats. Under the idea, animal control would pick up untagged stray cats, neuter them and release them after notching their ears. An animal control officer coming across a TNR cat would leave them be, reducing the city's cost to bring them in and shelter them.
But Halford isn't convinced. She supports the idea but said not everyone is going to like it. If she is called out about a stray cat without a tag causing trouble for a resident and she arrives to find it's a TNR cat, Halford couldn't pick it up.
"It's going to reduce the population, but it's not going to make the complaining person happy," she said.
Increasing the pet license fees and offering incentives for owners to pay the fee are two more ideas of the working group.
Under the proposal, licensed pets would be given a free ride home the first time they are picked up by animal control. Under current law, owners could pay upwards of a $90 fine and a $65 court cost to retrieve their runaway pet. The group's idea would cut that to nothing if the pet were licensed.
Claudia Kersey, a former animal control worker in Boise, Idaho and a member of the working group, said this would reduce the city's transportation and sheltering costs and help out owners.
"It should be overall much better for everyone involved," she said.
Halford said her officers already try to reconnect a pet collared with a tag with its owner. She also wondered how her department would know which pets were picked up for the first time.
Katie Barnett is a member of the working group as well. She is a law school student at The University of Kansas who specializes in dangerous dog ordinances, and she said one of her biggest goals with the comprehensive plan was to recast how the public views animal control. She said public advertisements about the proposals would help educate the public and further training of animal control officers could soften the public's perception.
"We want get away from the dog-catcher model and move toward animal control helping people and pets," she said.