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Proposed TN pit bull law requires liability insurance

9:04 PM, Mar 16, 2013   |    comments
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Reporter's note:  The original version of this story below provides links to House Bill 621, but those online documents at the Capitol website have not been updated to include the amendment with breed-specific language.  A pdf of the amendment that is cited in the article to  specifically say "pit bull dog" has now been attached to this article.  (Updated March 16, 9:02 PM) 

Next week a State House committee will discuss a proposed bill that takes aim at the pocketbooks of people who own pit bulls in Tennessee.

Representative Brenda Gilmore of Nashville has sponsored House Bill 621, which would require owners of vicious dogs to carry a minimum insurance policy of "$25,000 for liability against any injuries inflicted by the dog."

On March 20 at the meeting of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee, Gilmore will introduce an amendment to the bill to define vicious dog.  The amendment defines vicious as any animal with a previous history of causing injury or death to a person or other animal without being provoked.  It also says any animal that "belongs to a breed that is commonly known as a pit bull dog" shall be considered vicious.

The introduction of breed-specific language has created a clamor among those who love and work with pit bulls.   East Tennessee Pit Bull Rescue (ETPBR) founder Wendy Jackson is among those who oppose the proposed legislation.  Jackson spoke to 10News Friday morning about the issue while accompanied by an affectionate wide-headed pit bull named Tyson.

"Tyson is around five years old.  We are treating him for heart-worms.  He is a prime example of a dog that was not living in good conditions, was mistreated, but still is such a loving and stable animal," said Jackson.  "Most people notice how big his head is, but we love that bully smile and those soft eyes.  He is a good boy."

Jackson understands that no matter how much sweet video people see of animals such as the lovable Tyson, some people will always be terrified by pit bulls.  Jackson understands this imposing breed attracts some of the worst and most abusive dog owners who are drawn to the "thug mentality" and image.  Those conditions generate negative headlines as powerful dogs belonging to irresponsible owners have been involved in some of the most devastating dog attacks.

"Yes, this type of dog is a powerful dog and obviously if they were motivated to do harm they could," said Jackson.  "The issue should be controlling people who control the dogs."

The widespread mistreatment of pit bulls is exactly why Jackson founded ETPBR.  It is also why she never has enough space.

"I turn away around 10 phone calls and probably 150 emails per day.  Those are people who want to find a way to save a pit bull that has been mistreated or is going to be euthanized. The need is huge," said Jackson.

What Jackson said she does not understand is why lawmakers continue to specifically target the entire range of nebulous pit bull breeds instead of focusing on irresponsible individual owners.

"We're not treating the owner problem. We're treating the symptom which is a dog issue," said Jackson.  "This new law requires an insurance policy.  Where are they going to get the carrier for that insurance policy?"

Jackson said the proposal amounts to a form of financial pooch persecution that attempts to price people out of affording pit bull breeds.  The latest proposal would not only make it more expensive for people who already own pit bulls, but also impact animal shelters such as Young-Williams Animal Center in Knoxville.

"I don't think you can legislate these types of issues. What we really focus on is responsible ownership, pet owners who have trained animals, and owners who restrain their animals appropriately," said Jeff Ashin, CEO of Young-Williams. "Legislation often comes with unintended consequences."

Ashin said he fears the consequences of the proposed legislation could include an influx of abandoned pit bulls that are too expensive to adopt.

"If people are getting rid of their pit bulls then we get an increase in the amount of dogs we are taking in.  Then those animals ultimately become victims of the system and become euthanized," said Ashin.  "If suddenly liability insurance is required, now would we have to require them [adopters] to present us with proof of insurance before we can release the animal?  Who would be responsible for policing and enforcing these rules?  I think there are a lot of questions about this proposal.  For us, the answer is really responsible pet ownership, education, and having pets spayed or neutered to control the population of unwanted animals."

"Enforcing these rules would cost the average taxpayer," said Jackson.  "Even if you don't like pit bulls, you still need to be opposed to this bill because you are going to pay for it."

Jackson said legislation should focus on the behavior of an animal rather than the breed.

"It is about evaluating and judging the dog and not its appearance.  It is never fair to judge something on how it appears rather than how it behaves," said Jackson.  "There is already a state leash law that says you cannot have a dog of any type running at large.  Whether it is a German Shepherd, a Rottweiler, a pit bull, or a little Yorkie, you cannot let dogs roam free.  The enforcement of existing laws should already cover this issue."

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