Sonoma's civic leaders are regulating pit bulls, perhaps even banning them, in the wake of last week's of a Pacifica woman by her family dog, an unneutered male.
But are such regulations likely in Pacifica? Local officials say there's not enough information yet. It may not be a good idea, it may not be the right time, and it may be almost impossible, they say.
At the City Council meeting in Sonoma Monday night, Mayor Pro Tem Joanne Sanders said she’s considering proposing pit bull legislation in the North Bay city.
Sanders told attendees she is determined to prevent the kind of attack in Sonoma city limits that occurred in Pacifica and directed city staff to research regulations pertaining to vicious animals.
"I would be remiss if I didn't try to use my position as a city councilwoman to make that change happen here," she said.
In an interview with the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Sanders said she supports banning pit bulls within city limits.
“I think pit bulls are a great start,” she told the paper.
Similar legislation has been discussed in many parts of the country over the past decade following a series of high-profile attacks. The proposed laws ranged from an outright ban of pit bulls and pit bull mixes and mandating licenses for owners and dog breeders to requirements that the animals be spayed or neutered.
After an attack on a 9-year-old boy in Vancouver, WA, the city looked at a total ban of the breed, while a similar bill in Michigan stalled in January.
In 2005, Denver reinstated a pit bull ban. One of the strongest anti-pit bull bills, the Denver law bars any dog of the pit bull family (American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers and Staffordshire Bull Terriers) and any dog that looks like a pit bull.
Owners shipped their pits bulls out of town, or hid them to avoid a roundup which euthanized hundreds of family pets.
After a series of attacks by pit bulls in Northern California, a 2005 state law gave California communities the right to mandate breed-specific spaying and neutering.
Sonoma County also requires owners of "vicious" dogs to hold $500,000 of liability insurance for their pet.
Closer to home, the City and County of San Francisco took a more moderate approach to controlling pit bulls. In 2006, it passed a law that makes it illegal to own an unaltered pit bull (not spayed or neutered) or pit bull mix. Along with that requirement, pit bull or pit bull mix owners must obtain a permit from animal control to breed their animal.
The San Francisco laws were based on research done by a "canine response working group" commissioned by Mayor Gavin Newsom after the 2005 fatal mauling of 12-year-old Nicholas Faibish by his family pit bulls.
Proponents of the laws said the restrictions were meant not only to prevent attacks, but reduce the number of pit bull and pit bull mix strays, which made up about three-quarters of the county’s shelter dogs.
Eighteen months after the laws passed, Carl Friedman, San Francisco Animal Care and Control Department director, said the city had impounded 21 percent fewer pit bulls and the number of pit bulls euthanized had dropped by 24 percent.
Pacifica Mayor Mary Ann Nihart said she has been investigating pit bull regulation, whether it be a spaying and neutering requirement or a ban, and what she’s found leads her to believe it would be nearly impossible to do either.
That’s because it is difficult to enforce such laws, partly because the city lacks resources right now and partly because of how the city receives animal control services, she said.
Pacifica contracts out animal control services with Peninsula Humane Society and SPCA along with 19 other cities in San Mateo County. According to a newly signed three-year contract with the organizations that covers all cities, no pit bull regulation is included in the PHS’s responsibilities. If a city wants that as an extra service, it will either have to set up a separate contract and pay the organization more money or deliver the service itself.
Nihart said Pacifica already pays the PHS more than $250,000 for animal control services, and it just doesn’t have the money for pit bull regulation.
She added that insurance liability, and the extra staffing and equipment the city would need to acquire to enforce pit bull regulations on its own, are unaffordable right now.
Nihart also questioned what kinds of dogs Pacifica should regulate.
“The issue is the breed,” Nihart said. “You’d almost have to ban all terriers to catch the ones you want.”
In other words, how would the city enforce the law?
“Will you track people down in their homes?” Nihart said. “How are you going to do that? It’s a thorny, much more convoluted issue than people think. It is almost impossible.”
PHS spokesman Scott Delucchi says it would be a bad idea for cities in San Mateo County to develop different laws on pit bulls while they are collectively contracting out animal control services with his organization.
“It would be difficult for our officers to enforce,” he said. “For instance, dogs who are stray, they may go from Pacifica to Daly City, and as an animal control provider, which rules do you use?
"We’re [the PHS] not interested in cities ordering from a menu: 'I want A, B and C but not D, E and F.' It makes it very difficult.”
Delucchi, who writes a weekly on pet issues for Patch, said Thursday he believes pit bull regulation is not only unlikely but wrong for the county.
It is possible all San Mateo County cities that contract with the PHS could decide they want to add pit bull regulation to their agreement the next time it is negotiated.
Delucchi said he believes this is highly unlikely.
“The challenge in doing something similar [to San Francisco] in San Mateo County is that [the regulation] would have to pass in 20 cities, where in San Francisco one body votes on it, only one group looks at it,” he said.
“Here you have 21, including the county. Again, to have 20 cities in the county focus on one piece of legislation—I don’t know that it would happen, given the bigger issues they’re dealing with right now. I just don’t see how they would all focus on that, and by the time they will focus on that, people will have forgotten and moved on to something else.”
Another problem with such legislation: it would target those dog owners who are the hardest to convince that spaying and neutering their pets is important, Delucchi said.
“Just because something becomes law, it doesn’t mean people will comply. Legislation, like this, targets the least responsible people, since the most responsible get their pets fixed without it,” he wrote in his most recent column on Patch. “And, the least responsible people are highly unlikely to respond when enforcement is spotty and the surgery costs them $200 to $350 at their vet office.”
Instead of legislation, the PHS is trying to make it as easy, even lucrative, to have pit bulls spayed or neutered.
“Five years ago, with support from a donor, we purchased a mobile spay/neuter clinic and began visiting targeted communities offering free fixes,” he said. “No strings attached, no appointments needed. And, since that time, pits and pit mixes have dropped from 23 percent to 18 percent of our incoming dog population.”
Delucchi said the mobile clinic averages over 1,000 surgeries each year. This is in addition to the 5,500 low-cost spay/neuter surgeries performed by the group's on-site clinic.
The PHS will also pay pit owners $10 to have their dog fixed.
Mayor Nihart said she has no plans to introduce any kind of pit bull legislation to the Pacifica City Council right now.
Councilman Jim Vreeland, on the other hand, has already asked staff to look into the implications of a neutering requirement for the breed.
"I'm going to say something at the next council meeting (on Sept. 1) and ask staff to bring some research back at another council meeting," he said. "We need to look at the enforcement part of it, how to implement it, and what the implications would be."
Councilman Len Stone said he would like more information before advocating for regulation.
“Your heart breaks when such a tragic event occurs,” Stone said. “It makes you wonder if there was anything that could have been done to prevent it from happening. I certainly would like to see the statistics on how often attacks happen and how effective laws have been in reducing incidents before jumping into anything.”
When asked whether she thinks pit bull regulation in Pacifica is a good idea, Councilwoman Sue Digre said now is not the right time.
“It would depend on whether the community would want to talk about it or if they wouldn't want to” she said. “Anything like that usually comes from the community. Would I be surprised [if it did]? No, I wouldn’t. Would I be surprised, if it didn’t? Right now is a traumatic, dramatic time, and the compassion for what the family is going through seems to be the most important thing and I appreciate that. I think it’s premature to even go there.”
Councilmen Pete DeJarnatt has not yet responded to queries about pit bull regulation in Pacifica.
Sonoma Patch Editor Alexis Fitts contributed reporting to this article.