Pit bulls versus everybody. Should they be banned?

The 4-year-old boy was pulled from his mother’s arms last month by four pit bulls, dragged under a fence and fatally mauled. About a week later, a young woman was said to commit “suicide by dog” after entering a yard holding a pit bull with puppies.

Then this month, another terrifying incident: A 60-pound pit bull tore from its leash, knocking over a 67-year-old man walking his small Havanese mix in Washington Township, leaving both man and dog with bite injuries.

The savage attacks have reignited a roiling debate over efforts in some communities to regulate or even ban the breed. Meanwhile, a bill in Lansing that would strike down local pit bull laws across the state awaits a vote by the legislature. Scientists, animal lovers and experts can be found on both sides of the debate, in Michigan and across the nation.

After the death of 4-year-old Xavier Strickland of Detroit, Detroit’s City Council announced it is reviewing its vicious dog ordinance. Detroit is not considering a ban on pit bulls ‒ a breed that is wildly popular in the city. But at least two dozen other Michigan municipalities have “breed-specific legislation” or rules that ban or restrict pit bull ownership, according to a list maintained by a group that advocates for victims of serious and fatal dog attacks, Dogsbite.org.

Michigan already has a state law against vicious dogs, but some victims of pit bull attacks and their supporters want Michigan to ban pit bulls specifically.

In a debate that can sometimes echo the back-and-forth over gun control, those who love or rescue pit bulls, argue that it’s not the breed that is dangerous, it’s the people who raise them. Among pit bull defenders, what’s needed are stronger laws aimed at malicious owners.

Count state Sen. Dave Robertson, R-Grand Blanc, among those who believe that pit bulls are unfairly shouldering the blame for bad owners.

Robertson said he sponsored Senate Bill 239, which would prevent local goverments from banning specific dog breeds to shift the focus to dog owners. The bill was pushed by pit bull rescuers and animal rights groups months before the recent maulings. It passed the Senate in October and awaits a vote in the House.

“I want to put the onus where it properly belongs,” Robertson said, “on the human being who is responsible for the animal and how it is socialized or not socialized.” He said that instead of banning specific breeds, cities are better off passing laws that ensure owners take the right steps to house, register and control their pets.

Victims’ groups consider bans on pit bulls a common sense solution and bills like Robertson’s a threat to public safety.

“It is a matter of who we value more – dogs or people,” said Mia Johnson, a founding member of National Pit Bull Victim Awareness.

Fence, neuter, ban

Michigan’s vicious dog law says that if a dog fits the legal definition of “vicious” it can be killed or confined to the premises of the owner, who could also face costs for damages.

Across Michigan, about two dozen local breed-specific ordinances go further. They use a variety of restrictions to specifically take the bite out of pit bulls.

These laws often restrict or ban the American Pit Bull Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier and American Staffordshire Terrier, as defined by the American Kennel Club or United Kennel Club – or any mixed breed commonly identified as a pit bull.

The towns of Buena Vista and Morenci, for example, consider all pit bulls to fit the definition of “vicious.” In Saginaw, pit bulls are among five dogs deemed “dangerous.” Ypsilanti requires pit bull owners to spay or neuter their dog. And in Dearborn Heights, owners must get the dog injected with an identification microchip and provide two color photos to the city clerk.

At least 14 local laws in Michigan ban the pit bull – or any mix thereof – altogether.
In communities where pit bulls are banned, it is typically up to the owner to remove the animal or show their pet isn’t truly a pit bull, a requirement that some owners say is difficult (and expensive) to prove.

In southwest Michigan, Hartford, population 2,688, avoids pit bull problems by banning pit bulls, said Yemi Akinwale, the city manager.

In Grosse Pointe Woods, which also has a ban, Mayor Robert Novitke said the decision to regulate dog breeds should be left under local control. While Novitke opposes Robertson’s ban on bans, the city council in Grosse Pointe Woods is set to review its pit bull ban after a resident with a pit bull inquired about the law.

“I think you have the general welfare of the community to take into account and we know our communities better than the state of Michigan,” Novitke said of his support for local control of the issue.

Dispute over effectiveness of bans

Experts are split on the wisdom and effectiveness of breed-specific legislation.

National Pit Bull Victim Awareness is a coalition of more than 50 groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, that backs regulations specific to pit bulls.

“We are not talking about the right to own or not own these dogs,” Johnson said. “We are concerned with measures that increase public safety, much as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) has done about drunk driving.”

A 2011 legal analysis by a group at the Michigan State University College of Law, noted that breed specific laws are controversial because many people consider pets more like family than property. The analysis said, however, that such laws are usually upheld in court if they provide “clear breed definitions, clear descriptions of regulated conduct” and offer pet owners “an opportunity for a hearing.”

Those who oppose breed-specific laws have some powerful organizations on their side.

The American Bar Association is against such laws, as are the National Animal Control Officers Association, National Veterinary Medicine Association and the Michigan Humane Society.

The White House also opposes these laws, saying they are largely ineffective and pointing out the Centers for Disease Control “noted that the types of people who look to exploit dogs aren't deterred by breed regulations - when their communities establish a ban, these people just seek out new, unregulated breeds.”

In past generations, German shepherds, doberman pinschers and rottweilers have all had a turn at having the worst reputations, though arguably, no other dog has been blamed for as many deaths as pit bulls.

The American Veterinary Medical Association has tracked bites by breed and reported that in cases of very severe injuries or deaths, pit bull-type dogs are more frequently involved, the data showed.

The veterinary association, however, also concludes that breed-specific laws do not work, and are in any event difficult to enforce.

Bad dog or bad owner

The pit bull may well be the only dog with organizations formed both to ban it and save it.

Pit bull detractors, including victims’ rights groups, say that aggression is to pit bulls what hunting is to hounds – instinctual and inbred.

By some estimates, pit bull maulings occur at a rate of about 20 deaths per year nationwide: the group Dogsbite.org estimates that pit bulls were responsible for 203 deaths in the nation from 2005 to 2014. In 2014 alone, Dogsbite collected data on 42 fatalities, and the group says pit bulls contributed to 64 percent (27) of those deaths.

But some experts say such statistics don’t always tell the whole story.

Maria Iliopoulou, a veterinarian and researcher at Michigan State University, said five to seven factors related to environment and nurturing can determine whether a dog will be dangerous, not just breed.

“Dogs are individuals,” she said. The pit bull’s reputation for violence results from people who want a strong dog for nefarious intentions or owners who do not properly socialize their pets. “It’s a human problem, not an animal problem,” Iliopoulou said.

Melissa Miller, director for Detroit Animal Control, says people shouldn’t necessarily trust statistics on bites and maulings. The numbers could be skewed because bigger dogs are stronger and their bites may require medical attention more often whereas a nip by a Yorkie may not be reported, she said. Miller said she believes pit bulls get a bad rap.

She estimates there are about 143,000 dogs in Detroit and the number of pit bulls is high. On any given day, she said, Animal Control houses about 200 dogs and about half look like pit bulls or mixes. Of those, several that are not thriving are euthanized daily to make space for more.

The trouble with pit bull bans, she said, is that pit bulls look like at least a dozen other breeds and can be hard to identify - even for trained animal control officers. Those claims are echoed by the Michigan Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The most dangerous dog in the world is any large, male, unneutered dog that spends most of its life chained up, Miller said.

According to PETA, pit bulls are abused more than any other dog in America. The group supports spaying and neutering all pit bulls and wants breeding to be banned for as long as pit bulls are overrepresented in shelters. Tens of thousands of pit bulls are euthanized each year because they outnumber all other breeds, according to PETA.

Dogged history

Actually, experts say, there’s no such dog as a pit bull. The term refers to dogs from three breeds – the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier – or any dog that is a mix of one of them.

The dog commonly known as a pit bull has over the past generation become one of the most popular guard dogs in big cities, the pooch of choice for dog fighters and wanna-be tough guys who use it to promote a certain image.

Never mind that pit bulls were once used in ads to sell Buster Brown shoes and the RCA Victrola, or that The Little Rascals, Helen Keller and President Theodore Roosevelt had them as pets. The dog in the 1983 movie, “Flashdance?” Pit bull. Three-legged dog on “Parks and Rec” – pit bull.

The pit bull is descended from English bulldogs was used in the middle ages in Rome to bait and fight bulls. When bull baiting was outlawed in the 1800s in Europe as too horrific for public entertainment, the dog was crossed with a terrier to create a more agile dog. The offshoot was used to fight other dogs in pits – hence the name. Less aggressive dogs were often killed. While the dogs with gameness, or a fight-to-the-death temperament, were bred to make more fighters.

And it continues.

On Jan. 9, police arrested 11 people and removed five pit bulls from a house in Pontiac where dog fighting was suspected. Some of those arrested had traveled as far as three hours to the home.

Defending pit bulls

Walking into the small building that houses the Michigan Pit Bull Education Project in White Lake Charter Township recently was like wading into a puddle of puppies. The five blue-eyed, grey puppies that Terry Hodskins, the founder of the group, was caring for wiggled in unison, grabbing at shoe strings.

The pups were homeless, the result of an unexpected pregnancy. The former owners did not get their two dogs fixed because nobody expected them to ever be able to mate, Hodskins said.

The pups’ mom is a pit bull. Somehow, the dad is a Chihuahua.

“I’ve had people say we should call them chit bulls. Or chihua pits,” Hodskins joked.

Hodskins owns five pit bulls and has rescued at least 500 over the past decade. When pit bulls are left at the Oakland County shelter, they ‒ and other large, strong dogs such as rottweilers ‒ are considered not adoptable. So the shelter calls Hodskins to find pit bulls a home.

Hodskins has spent years trying to show people that pit bulls are unfairly stigmatized. It took her a long time to voice this comparison out loud, but she stands by it. To her mind, pit bulls are discriminated against just as African-American men are ‒ by people and officials who do not care to get to know the truth about them.

“If pit bulls are banned, will neglect end?” she asks. “Hell no. (Neglectful owners) are just going to go to another breed.”

Mistaken identity

Fresh out of the hospital from a bout with cancer, Marilena Gahman had to go to court in Waterford last summer wearing a hospital mask and gloves to answer a citation. The city was trying to force her to get rid of her two dogs ‒ a 62-pound female named Naya and a 73-pound male named Second Chance. A neighbor had told cops the dogs were pit bulls. Waterford’s ordinance says dogs that are predominantly pit bull are banned.

She argued the dogs weren’t pit bulls and was told to go to a veterinarian suggested by the city to prove it. The vet agreed that the female dog wasn’t a pit bull, but said the male looked like one and had to go. It took six months, a DNA test and about $500 for Gahman to prove that Second Chance, who she found wandering the streets, was a legal Waterford resident. Though he had an American Staffordshire terrier as a grandparent, he was not “predominantly pit bull.”

Help me, Ma

Days before Christmas, the judge in crime-scarred Detroit cried from the bench as she listened to Xavier Strickland’s mother describe the boy’s final moments.

The child screamed, “Help me, Ma,” as Lucille Strickland, hysterical, screamed for help, she testified. After the boy died, some 90 bite marks were identified on his body.

The dogs’ owner, Geneke Lyons, 41, was charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter and possessing dangerous animals causing death.

Lyons is expected to go on trial in May.

And few people doubt that his pit bulls will be on trial right along with him.

Like what you’re reading in Bridge? Please consider a donation to support our work!

It takes time, money, and hard work to inform Michigan readers and leaders with substantive, in-depth, future-oriented news and analysis. If you value our journalism, please consider a one-time donation or a monthly contribution. It takes just a moment to donate here. Please join the thousands of Bridge readers who are helping grow and sustain our nonprofit, in-depth public service journalism in Michigan.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


John Q. Public
Thu, 01/28/2016 - 6:53pm
I'd like to see an ten-year experiment with 10,000 dog owners. 5,000 MUST own pit bulls and be vetted as loving, caring responsible pet owners. 5,000 can be whomever, and can own any breed EXCEPT the pit bull types. At the end of the ten years, I'd like to see which group of dogs is responsible for more killings and disfiguring injuries of people and other animals.nI'll never know, of course, but I know where I'd lay my bet.
Tue, 08/02/2016 - 12:39pm
As a new victim of a pit bull attack, I'd definitely like to see your experiment. In my case the owner insists both he and the dog are good, the dog is great with people, especially kids, just doesn't like other dogs. I guess my little dog playing fetch with me in my yard was the bad guy and deserved to get attacked. I don't care what breed or how good a person the owner is, if your dog has a problem it is your problem. Most people put down their dogs that are aggressive. This is the second dog this pit has attacked. I would tend to believe she isn't finished. The idea that a dog could be aggressive against just animals is a fantasy. Many people have been injured trying to bust up a dog fight, especially when a big dog is attacking a little dog. There is not a dividing line. Pit owners claim their dogs are just like one of the family, but so are other people's dogs. If not bans, then public muzzles and adequately sized people and leashes to hold them. The one that got my dog broke its leash. That little boy in Detroit had his guts ripped out of him. It is more than too bad or sad. It makes me livid that anyone would think the dog is misunderstood. These dogs seem most misunderstood by their owners.
Jo Lene Dawn Sonesen
Fri, 01/29/2016 - 4:45pm
My APBT, my Staffy and my 2 American Bulldogs are all spayed/neutered and mirco chipped not because it is the law here as it is not but because I am a responsible dog owner. Dogbite.org aka Dogbite.lies are known to change the breed of the dog that is reported to have bitten or killed someone. They have also stolen pictures of "pit bulls" playing and photo shopped them to show the dog attacking someone. A perfect example of this is the "pit bull" that saved his disabled owner and photo shopped it and wrote that the :pit bull" attacked the kid 100% FALSE.
Sandy Chlubna
Fri, 01/29/2016 - 6:24pm
Thank you Dave Robertson
Fri, 01/29/2016 - 6:41pm
I would rather eat dry paint than read another anti-pit troll piece. Just sayin...
Meghan Rollins
Sat, 01/30/2016 - 4:36pm
And what about all the pit bull service dogs and police K9's that save lives daily?!!! the bad guys in jail because of being busted by these rescued pit bull mixes that police are now training to become k9's instead of spending tens of thousands on gsd or german shepherds. And what about dogs like mine that save those of us with disabilities from dying on a daily basis from seizures, falling, low blood sugar, ptsd, lead the blind and deaf. these amazing loyal service dogs that can call 911, show paramedics where you are, distract you from / move you away from something that may cause you harm, warn you about an episode before it happens. there are plenty of service dog pit bulls that save lives daily, DAILY. You just dont hear about it because the media cant and wont report each time it happens. its not the breed; its a mix of the genetics, the environment, and the circumstances. If you have a controversial breed like this you have to be a responsible owner. I am a disabled women with seizures and ptsd. I am a service dog pit bull owner. I am the majority!
Gloria Woods
Sun, 01/31/2016 - 9:45pm
When I was about 13 years old, the "killer dog" was the German Shepherd. I wondered at the time how this idea existed in the same space as the TV Show, Rin Tin Tin, but it did! About 10 years or so later, people began fearing the Doberman Pinscher and it became the "killer dog" that people didn't want in their neighborhood. Later, it was the Rottweiler. Remember the movie, "Damien"? Where a dog was Satan's tool and killed innocent victims? The Rottweiler. Now, it's the poor Pit Bull or whatever breed looks like whatever people think a Pit Bull is. The problem isn't the breed, it's the human. The human that through lack of training and socializing or just leving a dog alone creates a dog that is fearful and doesn't know how to act around humans it doesn't know. Or, even worse, its the human who believed in the "killer dog" image and wants that to build up his own image as someone to be feared, so he abuses his dog to get that "killer". Let's focus on the humans and protect the dogs.
Mon, 02/01/2016 - 10:02pm
look everyone knows about pits an rottweilers dobermans shepherds. Working dogs that do jobs .ok well no jobs make em house pets ignore what they are bred for . WTF do you expect
Dave Levine
Tue, 02/09/2016 - 3:50pm
Those who want to protect pit bulls don't seem to understand that we as a society have a right to self-protection. When a society (all blue states) like ours takes away our guns by unconstitutional gun-grabbing bills and not letting people carry (legally), it leaves most of us S.O.L.--out of luck. Two pit bulls (obviously related, with the same markings) broke out of their owner's home a few blocks from us a week ago. They terrorized the neighborhood, disallowing me and others from getting to our cars. In CA, only a few people are allowed to carry, so we have no protection. I was forced to call the police who after some difficulty, cornered the dogs and took them away. Sure, these are probably "nice dogs" but you never know and that's the problem. Locking the owners up after their dogs have mauled and killed people isn't going to bring those people back.
Miriam Meisler
Sun, 02/21/2016 - 2:44pm
Thank you, Craig, for your admirable research and your patience. I hope you will publish your data in widely-read venues so that the facts can be heard. Genetics is very powerful, and the genetic breeding for ferocity was clearly successful in this case. More details on the breeding strageties and when and where they were carried out would be a helpful addition to your work.
Wed, 02/24/2016 - 8:28pm
When my oldest niece wanted to give my son a full blooded APBT I wasn't afraid.However I needed to learn everything about the breed.Now some six years latter and many walks later our "pit" is apart of the family and great protector.Our pit don't have to bark or bite you. Say you have a "pit" around people just don't show up at your house on holidays or most days for that fact.
Thu, 06/09/2016 - 11:57pm
You did not just compare black men to pit bulls as being misunderstood. You did
Fri, 08/12/2016 - 12:05pm
Animals see pictures that is how they learn...Example: a vet in a black hat had to throw alcohol in a horses eyes for some procedure after that the horse feared anyone with a black hat and would try to get away fiercely any other color was not a problem ,,, this is what dogs see "Pictures" so if the human male in the home is abussive or aggressive to his wife or girlfriend and or kids this is what they learn from the ALPHA!!!! and if someone was mistreating or beating you....tell me to my face that you wouldn;t fight back at some point.....Someone once said " how men treat animals is how they will treat their fellow man" ( St. Francis)...... You can't live in fear it,, it becomes a dark storm cloud that destroys indiscriminately which I have seen in some people I know and the affect on people and ANIMALS around them is not pretty...a Tablespoon or 2 of caution is far better......you do have some like Craig that promote fear because it gives them a Measure Of CONTROL over the lives of others............
Thu, 10/13/2016 - 8:44pm
When will people learn that banning the dog is senseless! Instead they should ban the irresponsible people who raise dogs to be capable of this kind of horror! Punish the deed! Not the breed!
Nature lover
Thu, 05/18/2017 - 1:58am

We got to get tough. Definitely exterminate ALL STRAY DOGS. Heavy fines and/or jail time for irresponsible owners.