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Florida bill would give 'dangerous dogs' chance at rehab, adoption

TALLAHASSEE — State Rep. Luis Garcia wants to give dogs trained to fight a shot at redemption.

The Miami Beach Democrat is one of a handful of lawmakers trying to change the state's definition of "dangerous dogs" to make it easier for people to adopt canines that have been involved in dog fighting.

As the law reads now, any dog that has been used or trained for dog fighting is considered a dangerous one. If found or surrendered to animal control authorities, those dogs are often put down or sent to private dog shelters.

Garcia's measure, House Bill 4075, would allow animal shelters to decide on a case-by-case basis if dogs bred to attack — often pit bulls — or those used as bait to train fighters — think poodles — could be rehabilitated and, eventually, adopted.

"If a dog proves to be trainable, it would be put up for adoption and it would save his life," said Garcia, who called himself an animal lover.

The proposal doesn't refer to any dog breed by name. The move stems from the case of Michael Vick, the star National Football League quarterback who served nearly two years in prison after pleading guilty to federal dog-fighting charges.

Of the 51 Vick pit bulls seized at the Bad Newz Kennels in Virginia, only one had to be put down for being too violent. The rest were sent to dog shelters, and in some cases rehabilitated enough be taken in by families.

Miami-Dade County bans pit bulls and related breeds, though they are allowed as service animals for people with disabilities. The state has since prohibited rules outlawing specific breeds.

In Florida, a dog can considered dangerous for several reasons, including if it attacks a human being or more than once injures or kills a domestic animal outside of its owner's property. Florida is one of 13 states that classify dogs as dangerous if they have past involvement in dog fighting.

Owners of dangerous dogs may have to pay an annual fee to register them and are required to follow other rules, like to muzzle and restrain their pets outdoors.

But when dangerous dogs arrive at animal shelters — as is the case when authorities bust dog-fighting rings — the animals are sometimes euthanized, said Garcia, himself an owner of two shelter dogs, Amy, a yellow lab, and Ari, a retriever mix. Shelters fear being held liable for putting a potentially dangerous dog up for adoption, he added.

At a hearing in the House community and military affairs subcommittee Tuesday, Garcia said his bill would make adoptive owners liable for any possible problems with a dog formerly involved in fighting.

Sean Gallagher, an investigations supervisor at Miami-Dade Animal Services, said in his 16 years on the job, the department has not come across a dog-fighting ring where it has confiscated any dogs — not because the rings don't exist, he added, but because they operate furtively and are difficult to bust. (Much more vulnerable, he said, are cock-fighting operations.)

Gallagher took issue with the suggestion that the county shelter would be more likely to put down a dangerous dog. And he said the proposed legislation, which he has not reviewed, could raise questions of fairness.

"My question would be, if a dog has been used and trained for dog fighting … then how come my German shepherd that attacked a Pekingese and killed it doesn't have the same chance of getting rehabilitated?" he said.

Garcia's bill, backed by the Florida Animal Control Association, cleared the committee unanimously. Its companion, Senate Bill 722, also passed a committee earlier this session without opposition.

Patricia Mazzei can be reached at pmazzei@miamiherald.com.

Florida bill would give 'dangerous dogs' chance at rehab, adoption 03/29/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 29, 2011 7:20pm]
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