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The Daily Need

A Texas lawyer seeks to ban the pit bull

A Texas lawyer is seeking new legislation to ban pit bulls — not just from a single town or county, as is common across America, but from the entire state of Texas.

The would-be bill was written by Cynthia Kent, an attorney for a Texas family whose 10-year-old son Justin was mauled and killed by two pit bulls in June 2009. Kent won a $7 million judgment against the dogs’ owners this past September.

“Basically, why we’re doing this was to get justice for Justin and to make the message come out that these dogs are very vicious dogs,” Justin’s mother, Serenia Clinton, told a Texas CBS affiliate TV station.

“Some people have pit bulls and they think their pit is a safe pet. Unfortunately, they’re a safe pet until they act on their abnormally dangerous proprieties,” said Kent.

Kent’s legislation, which she calls “Justin’s Law,” does not yet have a sponsor in the state legislature, but Texan pit bull owners are rallying against it; the proposed bill would make it a felony for them to continue to own their pets.

For three decades, the pit bull has been the subject of such proposals. This, many pit bull aficionados argue, is because the dog has often attracted the wrong type of owners — owners to whom the idea of an aggressive dog is appealing, many of whom do not train their pets well.

Before the pit bull, the same reputation was assigned to other breeds: bloodhounds, then German shepherds and then, following WWII, Doberman pinschers, the Nazi SS’s dog of choice.

Journalist Jim Gorant, who wrote about the pit bull in his book “The Lost Dogs,” described how the dog began to have a negative reputation in the 1970s and early 1980s after reporters began writing about underground dogfighting, often with the hope of putting an end to the inhumane form of entertainment.

“The breed, which had existed in some form for hundreds of years, didn’t suddenly lose control. The dogs simply fell into the hands of many more people who had no interest in control,” wrote Gorant.

“By 2000, pit bull fear and hype had reached such proportions that the breed was banned in more than two hundred cities and countries around the United States. Lost in all the legislation was the fact that for decades the pit bull had been considered one of the most loyal, loving and people-friendly dogs on the planet.”

In a recent Need to Know segment on the fate of Michael Vick’s fighting dogs, producer William Brangham spoke with Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, one of America’s leading animal behaviorists, about the pit bull breed. After studying decades of statistics on dog attacks, Zawistowski also placed the blame on owners.

“You just don’t necessarily think of a drug guy or somebody who’s living on the edge of the law thinking that he wants a Cavalier Chi [or] a King Charles Spaniel that he can carry in his arm, right? That doesn’t go with the image,” Zawistowski told Need to Know. “When they’re creating their image, there’s a car they want, there’s the jewelry they’re going to wear and there’s the dog they’re going to want. And, in many ways, pit bulls have fulfilled that role.”

“At the same time, what we’ve also seen is there’s always been a part of the pit bull grouping that has been maintained as a wonderful, friendly companion dog in the family. You know, the breeding that created this dog that was loyal and not aggressive towards people really created a dog that would bond very strongly. So it became really much a preferred and popular dog for people to have as a family pet as well,” Zawistowski said.

Advocacy organizations, as well as Dallas-area dog lovers spoken to by local and national news organizations, agree with Zawistowski: With aggressive pit bulls, the problem is not nature, but nurture.

For more about the pit bull breed, check out Need to Know’s report on Michael Vick’s former dogfighting pit bulls, some of whom were rehabilitated as family pets and therapy dogs.