Special Report: The Problem with Pit Bulls

(WMC-TV) – They are often the most feared and fiercely defended breed of dog on the planet, and in Memphis, they're the biggest problem in animal control.

During a recent ride along with officer Brandon Winbush, it became clear that one breed consumes most of his time on the job.

"I'd say eighty percent of the calls we get pertain to pit bulls," Winbush said.

Winbush works in a city officials say is overrun with pit bulls - a breed that, if neglected, can be dangerous and deadly.

"For whatever reason, that breed specifically is being over bred here," Memphis City Council member Shea Flinn said in a recent interview.

Over bred, and running loose in some neighborhoods across the city. Tarriona Rhea, 9, who loves to play with her own dog, was attacked by pit bull last November. She received 42 stitches after a pit bull dug his way into her grandparents' back yard.

Rhea's aunt, Ersie Harris, said a loaded gun put an end to the attack that could have killed the little girl.

"A gun, and the grace of God just having mercy on her that day," Harris said.

According to Dr. Stephen Tower, who chairs the Memphis Animal Services Advisor Board, it's a problem that spreads from the streets to the Memphis Animal Shelter.

"Between 60 and 80 percent of the animals that come into our shelter are pit bulls or pit bull mixes," he said.

Most of them never make it out alive. More pits bulls are euthanized by the shelter than any other breed. In July of this year, of the 803 dogs euthanized, 252 were pit bulls. In August, of 1009 dogs that were euthanized, 380 were pit bulls.

Putting them up for adoption creates another problem.

"There are pit bulls, strong pits, that if the city were to adopt them out continuously, there would be incidents I think the city could be held liable for," Tower said.

Tower suggests the breed has become a status symbol for the wrong reasons.

"The pit bull is the standard," Tower said. "The strongest, the biggest, the baddest."

But in Memphis, banning the breed is not an option.

"A lot of it goes down to, you know, responsible ownership," Flinn said.

The Memphis City Council recently passed a new ordinance that requires all pet owners without a breeder's license to spay and neuter their animals. City councilman Shea Flinn's original resolution targeted pit bulls until out of state animal activists threatened to sue the city.

"A lot of hurdles you've got to clear," he said.

Hurdles other communities have cleared. DeSoto County requires owners to microchip vicious dogs and carry $300,000 in liability insurance. Poplar Bluff, Missouri requires all pit bulls be micro-chipped and registered. Trumann, Arkansas banned pit bulls from city limits.

"I don't agree with that approach because again I've seen labradoodles that were mean as can be and pit bulls who were sweet as can be," Flinn said.

The mandatory spay neuter ordinance was criticized for putting a financial burden on the city's poorest pet owners. But when the Memphis shelter passed out vouchers for a free procedure," 25 percent of the people that had appointments that day canceled," Tower said.

City leaders say the solution starts with responsible pet ownership, but they will continue to explore legal options to relieve shelter overcrowding, decrease the euthanasia rate and keep citizens safe from a community wide problem with pit bulls.

The Memphis City council is considering another law that will put a lien on property owners who allow dog fighting on their property. They hope this added step will discourage one of the elements that make Pit Bulls so popular.