More than 60% of voters approved bans in Miami-Dade, Florida, and Aurora, Colorado
SPRINGFIELD, Missouri––Needing 2,228 petition signatures from registered voters to put a newly passed ban on pit bulls on the April 2018 Springfield, Missouri, city ballot, pit bull advocates on Halloween 2017 submitted petitions bearing 7,883 signatures to city clerk Anita Cotter.
If Cotter certifies that at least a third of the petition signatures are valid, the Springfield pit bull ban will go before the electorate, unless the city council chooses to repeal the ordinance first. The ordinance was adopted on October 2, 2017 by a 5-4 vote of the city council.
Cotter has 20 days within which to complete the certification. Any signature which cannot be authenticated as belonging to a person registered to vote within Springfield city limits must be disqualified. Disqualification of half or two-thirds of the signatures on initiative petitions is not unusual, for reasons ranging from illegible handwriting to bogus names and addresses having been inscribed.
Repeal would need 12,000 votes to pass
Even if every one of the 7,883 signatures presented to Cotter is authenticated, the proposed repeal of the pit bull ban would need to attract nearly 12,000 votes in order to pass, based on recent Springfield election turnouts. The petition signatures were collected during 30 days of aggressive canvasing, but the 12,000 votes must be gathered in just one day, while the polls are open.
Current Springfield mayor Ken McClure, who introduced and strongly favors the pit bull ban, was elected in April 2017 after winning 14,958 votes, 68% of those cast. Opponent Kristi Fulnecky, who tried to roll back existing pit bull restrictions before the ban was introduced, received 6,951 votes: 32%.
Joining mayor McClure in support of the pit bull ban were councilors Phyllis Ferguson, Jan Fisk, Craig Fishel and Tom Prater.
Miami-Dade pit bull ban won 63% approval
Similar ballot measures seeking to repeal city pit bull bans went before the electorate in Miami-Dade County, Florida in August 2012 and in Aurora, Colorado in November 2014. Both the Miami and the Aurora ballot measures, however, were placed on the ballot by votes of their respective municipal governments, rather than through the initiative petition process.
If the Miami-Dade pit bull ban, in effect since 1989, had required petition signatures to be on the ballot, about 22,300 signatures would have had to have been certified to equal the requisite 10% of the voters who cast ballots in the most recent previous election.
The Miami-Dade repeal attempt drew 81,712 votes, only 37% of the ballots cast in August 2012, despite a high-profile campaign by pit bull advocates including then-Miami Marlins star pitcher Mark Buhrle, backed by the Best Friends Animal Society.
There was no organized campaign in favor of retaining the Miami pit bull ban, but 140,838 voters, 63% of the electorate, chose to keep it in effect.
Aurora ban won 68% approval
The attempt to repeal the Aurora pit bull ban, also in effect since 1989, would have required about 7,500 petition signatures if placed on the ballot through the initiative process. It drew 24,519 votes, 32% of those cast, against 51,878 votes (68%) upholding the ban.
Based on the Miami-Dade and Aurora experiences, attempts to repeal pit bull bans appear likely to receive the support of between three and four times as many voters as the minimum number of petition signatures needed to place them on the ballot: not nearly enough to pass a repeal attempt endorsed by barely enough people to go before the voters.
But there is as yet no data to suggest how a pit bull ban repeal attempt would fare if placed on the ballot by substantially more than the minimum number of required petition signatures.
Mayoral election suggests Springfield ban will stand
Based on the outcome of the April 2017 Springfield mayoral election, however, in which pit bulls were an issue, the Springfield initiative is likely to receive no more support than did those in Miami-Dade and Aurora.
The Miami-Dade and Aurora pit bull bans predate Florida and Colorado legislation which forbids cities and counties from passing breed-specific ordinances. Both, however, were “grandfathered” by the statewide legislation.
The Springfield ordinance comes in a state where bills to prohibit breed-specific legislation have repeatedly stalled in committee. About 85 cities in Missouri have breed-specific legislation of some sort.
Assuming that at least 2,228 petition signatures are validated, the Springfield city council is expected to decide by December 6, 2017 whether to repeal the ban, suspend it pending the April 2018 election, or allow it to take effect on January 1, 2018, also pending the April 2018 election results.
“The ban would be phased in gradually,” explained Alissa Zhu of the Springfield News-Leader. “Under the new ordinance, unregistered pit bulls who end up at the municipal animal shelter between January 1, 2018 and January 1, 2019 could be adopted out to families who live outside of city limits. The city will accept new pit bull registrations until January 1, 2018. After the deadline, owners can continue to renew existing registrations annually and keep their pets. No new registrations will be accepted after the deadline, and any unregistered pit bulls found in city limits ‘may be seized and disposed of,’ according to the ordinance.
“A pit bull owner is required to renew their pet’s registration every year for a fee of $50,” Zhu continued. Pit bull owners “will be issued a pit bull tag, which must be attached to the dog’s collar or harness. Pit bulls must be spayed or neutered and micro-chipped. When pit bulls are out in public, they must be leashed and muzzled.”
Pit bulls lead in local attacks
According to Springfield-Greene County Health Department data, the four dog breeds most often involved in reported bite incidents from 2015 to 2017 were pit bulls (38), German shepherds (23), other terriers (20), and Labrador retrievers (18).
“The health department reported that the majority of the most severe dog attacks (levels four and five on the Dunbar Scale) came from pit bulls,” wrote Zhu.
The Springfield-Greene County Health Department defines a pit bull as any dog with “pit bull characteristics” as recognized by the United Kennel Club, including mixed breeds.
Humane Society of Southwest Missouri director of administrative operations Sally Nail alleged to Mike Landis of KY3 News on October 24, 2017 that the impending pit bull ban was contributing to shelter overcrowding.
“Influx caused by going no-kill”
“We see a lot more pit bulls,” Nail said. “We are getting a lot more phone calls about bringing them in, both stray and surrender.”
But Nail acknowledged that the pit bull influx is also coming from communities other than Springfield in the Humane Society of Southwest Missouri service radius.
“The influx for us is caused by us going no kill,” Nail said. “This is our second year of being no-kill. With that, we have a lot more animals we are trying to re-home than in past years.”
Observed Landis, “Visitors to the shelter will find cages of cats stacked up in the lobby,” an effect having nothing to do with the Springfield pit bull ordinance. “It’s because they’ve run out of room everywhere else,” Landis finished.
Springfield has had frequent pit bull incidents in 2017. On October 14, 2017, for instance, a homeowner shot a pit bull who had repeatedly jumped a fence to attack his dog. Just one day earlier a pit bull mauled a female postal worker as she tried to deliver mail.
“Neighbors heard the screams and ran to find the woman with wounds to her arm, both legs, and bites over her body,” reported Landis of KY3 News.
The pit bull owner fled the scene, with the pit bull, but was apprehended by police later in the day.
Two children attacked in wading pool
Most notoriously, on July 18, 2017 two pit bulls jumped or broke through a fence to attack Evy and Lane Atwell, ages four and three, respectively, as they played in a wading pool under supervision of their mother, Christin Atwell, in their own back yard. All three were injured, suffering at least 15 bites among them before the children’s father, Travis Atwell, heard their screams and came running with a gun.
The pit bulls’ owner––who did not witness the attack––alleged to Paula Morehouse and Lance Green of KY3 News two days later that the pit bulls “were just giving them love.”
“In the months since, Travis and Christin said they’ve received numerous nasty messages and Facebook comments from pit bull owners and advocates,” reported Jackie Rehwald of the Springfield News-Leader on October 8, 2017.
”I had a message last night saying, ‘Because of your ban, think of all the bodies that are going to be in the freezers at the shelters,'” Christin Atwell told Rehwald.
Added Travis Atwell, “I’ve had countless messages accusing us of being bad parents and many saying we falsified the attack. I was petrified sitting on the front row (at council meetings), feeling 200 people breathing down our necks.”