Loudoun (VA) Judge Rules in Lawsuit
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 28, 2009
A Loudoun County judge has ruled that the county can continue its long-standing policy banning residents from adopting pit pulls from the county animal shelter.
Ruling in a lawsuit that sought to overturn the ban, Circuit Court Judge Burke F. McCahill said that the county's policy does not violate state law and that publicly funded shelters are not required to make every breed of dog available for adoption.
For years, Loudoun euthanized all abandoned pit bulls. The county revised its policy in 2007, allowing the animals to be transferred to rescue groups or shelters in other jurisdictions if they passed a temperament test.
A Norfolk-based animal rescue group and Sterling resident Ronald Litz sued the county and its animal shelter in 2007, after Litz was turned down when he tried to adopt a pit bull from the shelter. During a two-day trial this month, the plaintiffs' attorney alleged that Loudoun was violating a state law that bars officials from finding a dog to be dangerous or vicious based solely on its breed.
In his 13-page ruling last Thursday, McCahill said that the state prohibition applies to courts trying to determine whether a dog is dangerous. But it does not prevent a public pound from having an adoption policy that treats some breeds differently from others, the judge said.
"We're obviously pleased with the decision and feel he put a lot of thought and careful consideration into it," said Laura Rizer, a spokeswoman for the Loudoun Department of Animal Care and Control.
Shelter officials have said that all of their unclaimed dogs go through behavior monitoring and a temperament test to determine whether they are adoptable and that breed characteristics are part of that determination.
"Any decision that we make regarding the disposition of an animal is based on a number of factors," Rizer said.
Lynne C. Rhode, an attorney for Litz and Animal Rescue of Tidewater, said she was disappointed in the ruling.
"The practical result of this ruling is that any public shelter can kill any dog if that particular shelter's management doesn't like the dog's breed," she said. "In other words, the court has ruled that a pound can kill every single adoptable golden retriever or pit bull or poodle if it wants to, without restriction or recourse."
The plaintiffs presented evidence that the Loudoun shelter had euthanized more than 80 percent of abandoned pit bulls since it began allowing the animals to be transferred, compared to a euthanization rate of 48 percent for other dogs.
"If one were to rely on the statistics . . . alone, one may come to a conclusion that there is 'breed bias,' " McCahill wrote.
But, he added, "if I were to rely on the statistics alone, I would have to ignore the evidence that there are differences in breed characteristics. More importantly, the statistics do not account for the individual characteristics that are attempted to be observed . . . as part of the overall assessment of the individual dog."
During the trial, the plaintiffs contended that the Loudoun shelter showed a clear pattern of bias against pit bulls. Sherry Woodard, animal behavior expert for Best Friends Animal Society, said that pit bulls that did well on behavior assessments were put down but that other breeds that did not do as well on the assessments were trained and put up for adoption.
"This discrimination against pit bulls is becoming a topic of discussion across the country," Woodard said in a statement Tuesday. "There are golden retrievers who attack other dogs, labs who bite people, pit bulls that love children, dogs and cats. Every dog, every time, deserves to be evaluated as an individual."
Loudoun's decision to allow some pit bulls to be transferred to rescue groups or other shelters came after a 2006 nonbinding opinion by then-Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R), who said that pit bulls taken to public pounds could not be euthanized based solely on their breed. In his ruling, McCahill disagreed with that portion of McDonnell's opinion.
Anthony F. Troy, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, said he feared that the judge's ruling would have a ripple effect in other localities.
"Under this opinion, the clear prohibition on euthanizing based on breed is applicable solely to those incidents of judicial cases," he said. "If other courts follow the logic, then you would have a public policy of the commonwealth being very narrowly defined."
Troy said the plaintiffs were considering their options, including appealing the judge's ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court or asking the General Assembly to clarify the state law.
THIS is what can happen when BSL is allowed. We must take every opportunity to fight it whenever and whereever it rears its ugly head.