Pit Bull Panic Begins
Armistead Gardens Outlaws Pit Bull Mixes
Published: September 5, 2012
The Aug. 23 letter to residents of Armistead Gardens was unequivocal: Get rid of your pit bulls and pit bull mixes immediately or “the board may take legal action, including termination.”
Pit bull-rights activists had been predicting letters like this since an April 26 court ruling found pit bulls “inherently dangerous” and, thus, not subject to a legal negligence standard that applies to the owners of other breeds. Until the ruling, any time a dog bit someone, the victim, in order to collect damages, would have to show the owner knew the dog had bitten someone else previously. It was called the “one-bite rule.” After the Maryland Court of Appeals decided Dorothy M. Tracey v. Anthony K. Solesky, the one-bite rule no longer applied to pit bulls. Landlords across the state rushed to ban the dogs.
On Monday night, Aug. 27, a meeting of the Armistead Gardens co-op board is packed, both inside the building and out. Cars are lined up the street as if for a music festival, complete with kids in orange vests directing them to park on the grass. “It’s the biggest meeting we ever had,” says the blond kid equipped with an orange cone-shaped stick.
Armistead Gardens, a neighborhood of 1,500 houses at the crux of Pulaski Highway, Erdman Avenue, and I-895, was built as workforce housing in the 1930s. It was owned by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City until it became a co-op in 1956. The people there own the homes in common with a 99-year lease.
Outside the meeting, which is open only to leaseholders, a crowd of people with pit bull shirts are massed. Christopher Moss runs to get a copy of the letter for a reporter. He says it’s outrageous that the board would make this demand out of a clear blue sky.
Jenine, a longtime resident with two pit mixes who declines to give her last name, says she moved here because it was a place that was not uptight about dogs. “I moved in because there was no BS law, so I could keep my children with me,” she says. “They have been blood donors” to save injured dogs. She says pits are being turned in, sometimes left tied to a post outside the Petco where she works.
The dog people say it’s a special meeting to remove the president of the co-op board because of the dog ban. There are also stories about nepotism. It is not so, says a maintenance supervisor.
“At the last meeting, we lost a quorum,” says George Hoyt, the maintenance supervisor. “So they’re having a meeting to handle those five (remaining) issues only.” Hoyt says the dog issue is not on the agenda and is, anyway, non-negotiable. But, he explains, in practice no one with a dog is going to be made to give it up. “We are just covering our backside,” he says. “If a person gets bit, the first [thing] they do is sue Armistead Gardens. Who has the deep pockets?” He says it’s happened in the past and, just last week, a postal worker was bitten by a pit mix owned by a resident on White Avenue.
Hoyt estimates there are 500 to 700 dogs in the co-op.
“But we’re not going door to door” taking people’s dogs, Hoyt says. “And that’s not the thought. I have two people in maintenance who have pit bulls; I have not told them they will be fired. But if someone gets bit [and sues], we can say, ‘We told them to get rid of them, didn’t we?’”
The co-op’s lawyer, A. Lee Lundy Jr., says the letter speaks for itself. But Anne Benaroya, founder of the Maryland Animal Law Center and a lawyer representing Moss and other Armistead Gardens dog owners, says Hoyt’s understanding of the co-op’s intentions is hers as well.
“What they have done is the stupidest thing a landlord can do. And there [are] very smart things a landlords can do,” she says. “The letter looks like it was written by an angry Hells Angel from jail. It’s incendiary.”
Benaroya says she’s going to ask for an injunction against the co-op. The corporate structure of Armistead Gardens raises interesting legal issues, she says, very unlike a rental situation: “Remember, this is a corporation. The residents are shareholders in the corporation.”
She says the way the letter was sent probably violates the corporation’s bylaws, and it is also overly broad and unenforceable. “They are now in the position of proving that each and every dog subject to being given up is in, fact, a pit bull,” Benaroya says. “‘Pit bull’ is a vernacular term.
“It’s like proving how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.”
Because the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled on Aug. 21 that pit bull mixes were not necessarily dangerous, the Armistead Gardens letter is even more confusing.
It’s also a legal blunder because it puts the Armistead Gardens corporation on the other side of the legal fence from its resident-shareholders, Benaroya says. A better letter would advise residents to get rid of any purebred pit bulls they have, which would practically mean that no dogs need be given up, because there is no such breed as a pit bull, she says.
“Our overarching agenda is to quell public hysteria and to keep everyone’s dog at home, and encourage responsible husbandry,” Benaroya says.
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.