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Pit bull ordinance has responsible owners barking foul

A new ordinance aimed to curb an out-of-control pit bull population in Beaufort County shelters has owners angry and animal advocates defending the intent of the action.

Beaufort County Animal Services director Tallulah Trice has faced criticism since announcing an ordinance in October requiring pit bull owners in unincorporated parts of the county to spay and neuter their dogs.

And ambiguity in the ruling has created confusion and frustration among owners. Pritchardville resident Hugh Mitchell has owned his pit bull Amos for the past eight years. He has bred his dog twice and has always given away puppies to friends and family. He says the ruling groups him with all the other “bad guys” selling the dogs to dogfight promoters who discard the breed in shelters when they’re no longer of use.

“It’s one of the most loving breeds there is, but I certainly understand why the pit bull gets a bad rap,” Mitchell said. “Can they be vicious? Of course. This is a powerful breed. But it’s all about the owner. Breed them to fight and they have a survival instinct like no other.”

Mitchell said he plans to appeal the notice to get Amos neutered, but isn’t looking to pick a fight with the county.

“I just don’t understand why they can’t make this a case by case consideration,” he said.

But it’s that ambiguity that has others concerned. Soon-to-be Lowcountry transplant Niles Trammell is planning a move to Sun City, but has already learned that his pet bully, Lennon, will have to be spayed if he wants to live there. American bullies look similar to pit bulls, but generally have a gentle demeanor and are categorized as an “excellent family dog” by the United Kennel Club.

“I already had enough bad looks when I went to look at the house,” Trammell said. “The breeds look alike, I get it. But if you saw Lennon hanging around the yard, you’d know she’s truly harmless.”

Animal services officials have the discretion to determine whether a dog is a pit bull. And the leading kennel clubs can’t even agree on a definition — the UKC recognizes bullies as a unique breed, but the American Kennel Club has not made that distinction.

“I just don’t understand the need to pick on this breed,” Trammell said.

Trice and others have been trying to make the point that this is about trying to curb a real problem in the county.

“Ninety percent of the dogs in shelters are pit bulls or pit bull mixes. They’re abandoned or neglected by owners who overbreed or have no use for them when they can’t fight anymore,” said Hilton Head Humane Association director Franny Gerthoffer. “This is not about wanting to pick a fight. If we had this same overcrowding issue with poodles, we’d have the ordinance for poodles.”

Gerthoffer said the humane association is working with the county to distribute 400 vouchers for spaying and neutering. She said that this is about trying to save the pit bull.

“We have such an overpopulation because of selfish people only concerned about making money off the breed,” she said.

Gerthoffer said the ordinance does not apply to individual municipalities. She said Hilton Head officials have shown support toward enacting a similar ordinance, while other areas like Port Royal have not been as receptive.

“If we could all work together on this instead of fighting or pointing fingers, we could truly make a difference,” Gerthoffer said.

Indeed, cities that have tried similar actions have seen success. San Francisco saw fewer pit bulls and mixes in shelters, fewer bite reports and fewer pit bulls put down since adopting its breed policy in 2005. The city has impounded 14 percent fewer pit bulls and seen euthanasia rates go down by nearly a third.

Gerthoffer said her typical turnover for shelter dogs is three months, but some pit bulls stay up to two years.

“You get a bait dog that has been mutilated for sport, it just breaks your heart,” she said. “They are often too traumatized and at times scarred and deformed to find a home.”

She said the ordinance is about helping the breed overall, not about targeting specific owners.

“We’ve had overpopulation issues before, with Rottweilers, chows, even black Labs in the past,” said Gerthoffer, who has been in animal services for 30 years. “It’s about educating people and eliminating an epidemic of irresponsible owners.”

For folks like Mitchell and Trammell, the bigger picture is hard to see.

“I have a loving pet who I want to share for generations,” Mitchell said. “If they have discretion to determine breeds, they should have discretion to give the responsible owners a reprieve.”