By Paul Ruffins

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Paul Ruffins is a citizen scientist and professor of curiosity.

The Prince George’s County ban on owning pit bulls has been controversial since it was enacted more than a decade ago. In 1996, after several horrific attacks by dogs that were classed as pit bulls, the county council voted to ban three breeds: Staffordshire bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers and American pit bull terriers. These breeds, along with the American bully and the similar but larger American bulldog, are generally classed as pit bulls. The American bully and American bulldog were not specifically named in the county’s ban, though mixed-breed dogs that may have pit bulls’ typical physical characteristics were included.

The ban generated fierce resistance on the parts of pit bull owners who felt their pets had been unfairly maligned. Many local and national animal welfare organizations also opposed this kind of ban, which is known as breed-specific legislation (BSL). In 2019, a group of pit bull owners introduced a recall measure to the county council; the council rejected the measure in a 7-4 vote. 

There are widespread myths and misconceptions about pit bulls — that they have locking jaws, that they bite markedly harder than other breeds, that they’re inherently vicious. While the myths listed here don’t hold up under study or scrutiny, they persist and affect perceptions about these dogs. Some of these myths may be influenced by their breeding history. In the early 1800s in the United Kingdom, cross-breeding produced muscular, agile and tenacious dogs that were used for bull and bear baiting – and eventually for dog fighting in the U.K. and U.S. In 2007, Congress passed a law banning interstate activities related to dog fighting; that same year, Michael Vick, then an NFL quarterback, pleaded guilty to a single federal felony related to his involvement in a dog fighting ring operating out of a property he owned in Virginia. 

Much as myths about pit bulls persist, so do statistics that bear out some of the dangers these dogs may pose.

A 2015 article by surgeons who treat head and neck injuries and published in the American Journal of Otolaryngology examined 334 incidents of dog bites that were treated in a Michigan hospital over an 18-month period, starting in January 2012. One-third of the bites were caused by pit bulls, and these bites required five times more surgical interventions such as stitches and skin grafts. The study also stated that pit bulls are more prone to aggression: “Unlike all other breeds, pit bull terriers were relatively more likely to attack an unknown individual, (+31%) and without provocation (+48%).”

A  2019 study presented in the International Journal of Pediatric Otolaryngology also concluded that pit bulls had a disproportionately high risk of causing serious injuries. The study did not address whether the documented biter knew its victim or if it was provoked. The study also allowed that some of the dogs who were documented biters were difficult to classify as a specific breed and may or may not have been pit bulls.

In September 2022 the county temporarily suspended enforcement of the county’s ban, pending the outcome of a class action lawsuit filed in federal court by Richard B. Rosenthal, an attorney who co-founded The Center for Animal Litigation. Rosenthal’s suit has strong support from a pit bull enthusiasts.

Pit bull enthusiasts may have a steep climb, though. While myths about pit bulls persist, these dogs were bred to bait and fight, and they inherently carry genetically-linked characteristics that may, under some circumstances, pose real and dangerous risks.

Correction – November 2022

The Laurel Independent, College Park Here & Now, and The Hyattsville Life & Times ran a piece in its October edition on the history of the pitbull ban in Prince George’s County. The correct date the ban went into effect was in 1997, after the county passed the legislation in late 1996. The article also stated that the Maryland Court of Appeals upheld the county’s ban after a 2012 challenge, citing pitbulls as “inherently dangerous.” That wording was used in a 2012 case, Tracey v. Solesky, that made no reference to the county’s ban. Also, the article stated that Caitrin Conroy currently owns a pitbull. Conroy told Streetcar Suburbs that she does not.