Pit Bull Maneuver: Lt. Gov. Newsom Apparently Pivots on Breed-Specific Stance

Photo by Celiaphoto.

A couple of weeks ago, some rescue friends pointed out to me a Facebook page called Pit Bulls Against Gavin Newsom. The page takes a stand on an effort that Newsom made in 2005 to enact a pit-bull ban throughout the state, and concern has sparked among pet advocates that Newsom’s ahead in the polls and will try to revive a pit-bull ban effort if elected governor.

A couple of points before continuing: I’m neither defending nor denouncing Newsom as a candidate, I don’t support breed- or type-specific legislation in any form. When I choose a candidate, it’ll be who’s going to be the best for our state and who’ll get in my stuff in the least way. Hopefully, everyone will vote that way.

In summary, two dogs identified as pit bulls—a male and a female—attacked and killed Nicholas Faibish, a 12-year-old family member. Neither dog had been fixed.

The female, Ella, was shot and killed by a police officer, and Rex, the male, was taken by Animal Control where he was likely euthanized. Young Nicholas’s mother, Maureen Faibish, was met with a barrage of fury that a parent would leave her son at home in a situation that she knew to be dangerous (according to an SFGate article, Maureen knew that Ella was in heat and had confined Nicholas to the basement); in turn, Maureen lambasted people, including then-mayor Gavin Newsom, who would question the loving personalities of pit bulls, hers in particular.

Maureen was later tried for felony child endangerment but was acquitted. But the jury was out on Newsom regarding the guilt of pit bulls in general. In the light of the attack, Newsom asked Jackie Speier, who was a state senator at the time, to work on modification of state law, which prohibited banning dogs solely on basis of breed or type.

It’s unclear whether Newsom’s initial ban would have included all pit-bull types or aggressive dogs in particular. Peter Ragone, Newsom’s press secretary, was quoted as saying that state law prevents an actual ban on a breed, but something was surely on the mayor’s mind.

“People like pit bulls, but there’s a reason we don’t have polar bears or mountain lions in the city,” he was quoted as saying in a CBS News article.

Actually, we have had mountain lions in cities upon occasion and it may not be too long before the polar bears arrive. And we’ve had coyotes for ages, too. But this is comparing affenpinschers and orangutans. And owners of dogs that could be considered pit bulls and pit-bull mixes and animal advocates, among them the administrators and members of Pit Bulls Against Gavin Newsom, pressured the legislature to not ban pit bulls or have breed-specific measures at all.

The resulting bill, SB 861, was amended several times and signed in its final form by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in October 2005.

Don’t Blame It on the Dog This Time

“If pit bulls are trained appropriately and are nice dogs, we love them,” Long Beach resident Wendy Dow said. “But there are some people that unfortunately train them in a way to be a little bit more aggressive, and so we shouldn’t take it out on the dogs. They shouldn’t be out in a way that will hurt someone, but we don’t think you should euthanize them all!”

Fortunately, the bill calls for allowing cities and counties to provide breed-specific mandatory spay/neuter for potentially dangerous dogs but does not allow any breed or type to be labeled vicious. Backyard breeding is prohibited, and the responsibility and blame for unregistered dogs and damage caused by attacks will be placed squarely where it belongs—on the owners, as Dow intimated.

Spaying and neutering is a good idea across the board. Unwanted pets are what fill shelters, and the procedures help to manage aggressive temperament—no females in heat, no swains at the ready, threatening to tear to pieces whatever gets in the way, including you. An extensive, thorough study on dog bites conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) stated that 80 percent of dogs presented to veterinary behaviorists for aggression issues were intact males and 70 percent to 76 percent of dog-bite incidents were from intact males. An impressively comprehensive article by ABC News’ Dean Schabner (“Is Breed to Blame in Fatal Dog Attack?” June 7, 2005) quoted ASPCA attorney Ledy VanKavage as giving 95 percent of attacks coming from dogs—and she specified dogs and not pit bulls—that hadn’t been spayed or neutered, with 70 percent of the attacks coming from intact males.

“Legislators should look at the statistics and enact legislation to protect people from vicious dogs of any breed, whether it be Pomeranian or Rottweiler,” VanKavage stated in the article.

Any Dog—or Cat—Can Bite

In 2007, Long Beach Animal Care Services (ACS) reported 364 bites from dogs, with 138 altered, 178 unaltered and 48 unknown. The most bites came from German shepherds (34), Labrador retrievers (15) and pit bulls (127). Yes, the pitties totaled the most bites. But check out the cat bites: there were 57 of them, 16 altered, 30 unaltered and 11 unknown. Cats, too, were broken down by ACS by perceived breed or type: a smattering of domestic longhair and medium hair, Himalayan and Siamese all helped themselves to ankle and hand flesh. Bites from domestic shorthairs totaled 50. I’m a cat person, and I’ve had many of them, almost all of them sweet. I also have a supply of mercurochrome because I’ve been scratched by one pet medium-hair and one rescued beautiful white longhair who hadn’t been neutered and came at me like a banshee. Domestic-shorthair cats aren’t more likely to attack than any other type—they’re simply a lot more common. So it is with pit bulls. Along with Chihuahuas, pit bulls and bully mixes fill the shelters because of overbreeding and popularity among people who keep them for protection and breed them for profit. These owners are also less likely to comply with licensing laws.

Chihuahuas bite as well—there were 27 of them counted, but there could have been more that weren’t reported. Smaller dogs in general don’t cause the damage that larger, stronger dogs like pit bulls do, although there have been cases of smaller dogs maiming or killing human beings. An Oklahoma woman was recently killed by a pack of six dogs—small terrier-dachshund mixes and a border collie—that belonged to her neighbor. But it’s not likely that dachshund mixes will be banned as breeds.

“Owners of pit bull-type dogs deal with a strong breed stigma; however, controlled studies have not identified this breed group as disproportionately dangerous,” the AVMA’s report reads. “The pit bull type is particularly ambiguous as a ‘breed,’ encompassing a range of pedigree breeds, informal types and appearances that cannot be reliably identified. Visual determination of dog breed is known to not always be reliable, and witnesses may be predisposed to assume that a vicious dog is of this type.”

Image from Pit Bulls Against Gavin Newsom.

Public perception of pit bulls and some language in SB 861 that seems to indicate that certain breeds produce aggressive dogs are what’s troubling Dawn Capp, an employment lawyer and one of the administrators of Pit Bulls Against Gavin Newsom. She’s troubled that if elected, Newsom may enact a ban on pit bulls such as Denver has, which would prohibit the ownership of any pit bull within the city and allow the confiscation of dogs that are perceived to be pit bulls.

“Everybody has a deal-breaker issue, and for me, it’s breed-specific stuff,” she said. “If Newsom’s elected governor, we’re one headline away from making tougher restrictions on pit bulls and mixes. After Nicholas Faibish died, he commissioned a task force. He cited a lot of best practices, and these were all-out breed bans. He talked about selective enforcements of existing laws only against pit bulls—they wouldn’t be allowed to run off leash and so on. It was selective enforcing, like racial profiling. I think it is likely that, given how strongly he held that position that, should he see an opportunity or an excuse, we can find ourselves dealing with such an issue.”

Capp said that the vocal opposition by advocates led to the amendment of the bill to spaying and neutering of dogs seen as dangerous.

“He could have done spay-and-neuter at any time by not targeting the pit bulls,” Capp said. “What that boils down to is a lot of good dogs who’ve done nothing are losing their lives, and this causes a lot of heartbreak for their owners. What makes pit bulls statistically more aggressive is that some of the owners are not the most responsible people. It’s an image thing to have a pit bull [in some communities], and that’s the reason those particular dogs are a problem: the owners are problematic.”

Capp said that she’d have thrown the book at Maureen Faibish and anyone who owned a dangerous pet and didn’t take the responsibility seriously enough to prevent it from harming anyone.

Watchdog Group at the Ready

Thirteen years after the tragic attack and the passing of SB 861, pet advocates are still concerned.

“What concerns me are similar laws that have led to people’s dogs being confiscated if they even looked like a pit bull, at least so I read,” pet volunteer Melanie Lakey said. “I want Newsom to give his current stance on this.”

He recently has. Gavin Newsom’s attitude may have evolved toward differentiating between pit bulls and dangerous dogs and wanting to extend the spay/neuter mandate to all cats and dogs to prevent unwanted pets. An inquiry to his office specifically asking these questions prompted this response from Rhys Williams, his spokesman:

Lt. Governor Newsom believes that dog-breed-specific laws are ineffective at enhancing public safety and jeopardize the welfare of dogs identified as belonging to specific breeds. Concern for the welfare of animals is in Lt. Governor Newsom’s DNA. His father served as president of the Mountain Lion Foundation, which spearheaded the campaign that ended sport hunting of mountain lions. Lt. Governor Newsom has also supported the phase-out of toxic lead hunting ammunition, the ban harassing bears and bobcats with dogs, the end of cruel bull hooks used with elephants in entertainment, the prohibition of trade in shark fins, elephant tusks, and rhinoceros horns, and ending the extreme confinement of egg-laying hens, veal calves and breeding pigs.

A request for further clarification went unanswered. The prepackaged response may be a feeling from his office that small media outlets and pet columnists merit no more than a kibble toss, but the first sentence at least indicates that Newsom has indeed become educated on the difference between dangerous animals and breeds and types that have gotten a bad rap, and he doesn’t feel the need to speak further on it. I can say with absolute certainty that Capp and the rest of the advocacy community had more than a paw in this. That’s what they exist for. I do know that I missed an excellent opportunity to ask him in person when he was in Long Beach last weekend and I was not. But Capp and a lot of other people are as focused on Newsom’s first statement as a puppy on your sandwich. Whoever’s elected, they will be on the alert.

“We’ll have to keep a very close eye and ramp up our advocacy efforts so we don’t end up like Denver, where we have to fight for our dogs’ very existence,” Capp said.

 “Blame It on the Dog.”

~ Popular saying bandied around for decades; also the title of a hilarious but enlightening book by Jim Dawson, whose subject has little to do with canines

Editor’s note: a previous version of this story stated that the final form of SB 861 was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2005. It was, in fact, signed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

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Kate Karp is the Pets Columnist for the Long Beach Post covering the world of animal activism, pet adoptions and lots of cute cats. She’s called Long Beach home since 1994 and has written for the Post for about 10 years. Kate’s day job is as a copyeditor, which she discovered a love for during her 30-year tenure as a teacher. She describes the job as “like taking the rough edges off a beautiful sculpture.”