This week’s full council meeting at Malden City Hall was or seemed like a high-powered courtroom drama. There were animal experts, reporters, cameras and a rowdy, sign-waving audience that applauded Ward 5 Councillor Barbara Murphy and shook their heads when Ward Six Councillor Neil Kinnon spoke.
The much-anticipated muzzle ordinance hearing began with City Clerk Karen Andersen reading out Councillor Kinnon’s motion to amend the current ordinance. The new amendment attempted to address the major issue in the case: What makes a dog dangerous and certifiable for muzzling?
The first expert called was Animal Control Officer Kevin Alkins. “There were 57 dog bites recorded from 2009 to the present,” Alkins said, indicating the statistics on the projector screen. “There are several that do not get recorded.” Eighteen of the 57 dog bites were from pit bulls or dogs identified as Staffordshire terrier- pit bull mixes. The statistics validated some of the claims made by both sides; Alkins admitted that in some cases it was hard to tell if the dog was a pit. Of these 18, 4 were on private property or in their owners’ homes, in keeping with what Councillor Kinnon said about most pit bulls attacking off property. As of today there are no dangerous or vicious dogs residing in the city under our watch.” Alkins read out a list of other breeds of dogs which have been responsible for bites.
When asked by Kinnon about the 39 dog bites which weren’t from pit bulls, Alkins said that out of the 39, only 4 or 5 dogs were euthanized. This was because bites from dogs that aren’t pit bulls tended to be minor.
Ward 4 Councillor Jim Nestor brought up another issue. “There are a certain number of breeds, including pit bulls, that if you own them you can’t get homeowner’s insurance?”
Atkins answered: “There’s a question on the application you fill out when you rent or buy a house, and in addition to trampolines and diving boards, there are certain breeds of dogs that insurance companies have a problem with.”
“Do you believe that if there had been a muzzling law since 2009, there would have been a difference in the number of dog bites?” asked Councillor Murphy.
“Those dogs had either escaped their homes or their owners and were off leash. A muzzle wouldn’t have stopped them,” Alkins replied.
Kara Holmquist, Director of Advocacy at MSPCA, was next on the podium. “One of the things that everybody talks about is pit bull-type dog, but no one really knows what a pit bull is. We’ve been doing DNA testing, and they’re all mixed breed dogs,” said Holmquist. Holmquist said that there was not enough evidence to warrant breed-specific legislation. “There simply aren’t any studies that show that it will reduce dog bites. Increasing licensing, that’s good for everyone, for Kevin Alkins, for cities and towns because there’s increased revenue from license fees, there’s all this other stuff we can do.” Later on, Councillor Kinnon stated with equal conviction that there were, in fact statistics that showed how dangerous pit bulls were.
Dr. Amy Marder, V.M.D CAAB from ARL Boston was another expert at the hearing. She stated: “What struck me was the number of unleashed dogs,” she said. “A leash will prevent dog bites, if the dogs are unleashed then how likely is it that the people will muzzle the dogs?
“Have there been any public opinion studies about pit bulls?” asked Councillor Kinnon. “I just know that the media reports pit bull bites more often than sheepdog bites, making the public afraid of the pit bull image.
“So, the public is afraid of the pit bull image?”
“The public doesn’t know what a pit bull is. People misinterpret what they’re hearing from the media,” said Dr. Marder.
“If we pass this law, then the same thing that happened in Worcester will happen here. We’ll feel like we’ve done something, instead of addressing the issue,” said Holmquist. Apparently, laws regarding pet or stray dogs in Worcester were not implemented effectively. Lt. Alan Borgal went so far as to call their animal shelter a “joke.”
“I don’t think it will be more difficult to enforce a muzzle law than a leash law. Like in the case of speeding laws, if we have one dog officer who walks down the street and fines a dog without a muzzle,” said Kinnon.
When asked about the the axiom that “there are no bad dogs, just bad owners,” Dr. Marder stated, “No, there are bad dogs. There are bad dogs with good owners and good dogs with bad owners that make them bad dogs.”
Ward 7 Councilor Neal Anderson brought up the intimidation factor associated with these dogs. “I don’t think we have a leash law problem. But I see dogs in Malden on leashes, without muzzles. I also think that what most people view as pit bulls may not DNA-wise be proven pit bulls in a court of law. The people who own the pit bulls ─ too many of them are walking on the street hoping to intimidate people.” Anderson’s speech was met with immediate shouts of “Wrong!”, “Gimme a break!” and “that’s racial profiling!” until Ward 8 Councillor Judith Bucci called for order.
Dr. Marder also disagreed. “So say there’s a tough person, a tough guy with a pit bull. If you take the pit bull away from that person, that person will still be as scary. And then you say to that person that you can’t have pit bulls your pit bull has to wear a muzzle. So they get another big dog, one which is not covered under the muzzle law.”
“The people here are those who have registered and trained their dogs. They are not the ones who want to intimidate people as they’re walking,” said Anderson. “About most people not being able to correctly identify a pit, if it looks like a pit bull and acts like a pit bull, they’re going to call it a pit bull. And most people who are trying to intimidate are looking for that kind of a dog. So if there are things that we need to change to make this law effective, then that’s what we’re going to do.”
Ward 3 Councillor John Matheson spelled it out for the crowd. “It would be negligent to do nothing. The original ordinance was vastly misunderstood. But there have been amendments to it. According to Kevin Alkins, we have zero dangerous dogs; after the ordinance is passed, if you register your dog, we’re still going to have zero dangerous dogs in Malden. Pit bulls are not being categorized as dangerous dogs if you register them.”
The original motion had all pit bulls being defined as vicious or dangerous. The amended regulation stated that the pit bulls which have already been registered or will be registered by May 1 will not be defined as vicious or dangerous. If a resident has a pit bull, then the dog has to wear a special tag indicating that the dog is registered and does not need to wear a muzzle. If they get another pit bull after May 1 2021, then it will have to wear a muzzle.
Councilor Murphy, who had called for the regulation to be tabled last week did not agree with the amendment. “We need to get tough on enforcing licensing and leash laws. We should provide the facility for people who can’t afford it to get their dogs spayed and neutered. Provide education in the school system, teach kids approach a dog, not to jump on it, or go running past it. There are a series of things we need to do as a community. We need to help the animal control officer and the board of health. We need to make sure they have the funds so we can create an environment in which we can live safely.”
“Over 60% of the time, statistics show that compared to any other breed, pit bulls do the most damage. And that’s because they were bred for it,” Kinnon stated, causing another outburst in the hall. The council voted on the amendment, it was enrolled, and passed, 7-4. Councillor Murphy immediately called for an amendment to the amendment and moved to exempt from the regulation an animal which has been certified as non-aggressive by a “certified dog behaviorist.”
“Here is the point that I would quickly like to make,” said Kinnon immediately. “I am certain that you will be able to find a dog doctor to take your business to so they can classify your dog as compliant.”