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Pit Bull policy angers advocates, may violate Florida law

Friday March 16th, 2012

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Dogs are being held in the area covered with a blue tarp at Putnam County animal control.

If you're a Pit Bull or a dog that resembles one at Putnam County Animal Control in Florida, chances are your days are numbered.

Pit Bull Terriers held at the facility are not made available for public adoption or transfers to rescue organizations. Pit Bulls, whether relinquished, impounded, or found as strays, are euthanized because of a policy that brands them as vicious dogs, regardless of individual behavior and temperament.

The Putnam County Sheriff's Office, in charge of the county's animal control facility for 11 years, has been swamped with messages from people asking for a change in their zero-tolerance Pit Bull policy.

But Putnam County Deputy Hancel Woods told the press that he believes the Sheriff's Office is being judged too harshly. "We've been beat up, unfairly," Woods says.

According to a clarification statement posted March 13th on the Putnam County Sheriff's Office Facebook page, in 2011 alone, 57 dog attacks were attributed to dogs of the Pit Bull breed, thus making Pit Bulls a danger to the public by the Office’s logic.

"We believe these dogs do tend to inherently be more aggressive than other breeds," Woods says, defending the department's claims that euthanizing Pit Bulls or Pit Bull-like dogs is a public safety issue.

But how exactly does the facility determine if a dog really is a Pit Bull Terrier? Without DNA testing or a definitive pedigree, the dog's appearance is the only potential indicator, and that's not saying much. A recent study conducted at Florida animal shelters concluded that visual breed identification is a grossly unreliable method and increases the chance of misidentification. So, opponents say, Putnam County Animal Control sentences dogs to death by judging the book by its cover.

Jacksonville area rescue organization Pit Sisters is taking the reins in the fight to give these dogs a chance.

The Pit Sisters are Jen Watson and Sybil Turner, sisters and bully breed advocates. Watson and Turner found out about the Putnam County Pit Bull policy when they tried to rescue some of the bully breeds from the animal control facility and were told it was not allowed.

In an email, Watson and Turner expressed their disappointment at the targeting of Pit Bulls. "We just want each dog to be treated as an individual. It saddens us that this is happening," they write.

The actions of the Putnam County Animal Control are in direct violation of Florida Statute 767.14, opponents say. Established in 1990, the statute permits individual communities to decide how to handle dangerous dog issues, but prohibits "regulation[s] specific to breed," or Breed Specific Legislation (BSL).

Those against the policy believe that by not allowing Pit Bull Terriers (or dogs misidentified as such) the same chance for adoption, the Putnam County Sheriff's Office is breaking one of the very laws they should be fighting to uphold.

Attorney James Cueva of the Miami Coalition Against Breed Specific Legislation has sent a "cease and desist" order to the Sheriff's Office, but the Office does not feel that they are doing anything wrong. "We don't believe that we are in violation of any statute," Deputy Woods insisted.

The Pit Sisters have set up a petition on behalf of the Pit Bulls at Putnam County Animal Control; a Facebook page dedicated to saving the Putnam County Pit Bulls is also receiving heavy traffic.

"Each dog is different, just like people are," the Pit Sisters explain. "Identifying a dog on their looks is wrong and we want to work together to make a change and give these dogs a chance for a better life."

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