- Behavior, Genetics, and “Breed”
- Public Policy
Over $300k was invested in a groundbreaking lawsuit fighting legislation that discriminates against dog owners in Sioux City, Iowa, where, from July 2008 until November 2019, it was legal for the government to take your pet away simply because of what your dog looks like.
We challenged the city in court, citing that the ban violates people’s 5th and 14th amendments. The lawsuit pushed the city to end its “pit bull” dog ban. Families that had been separated were reunited.
The ban applied to dogs who are 51 percent or more “pit bull,” defined in the ordinance as an American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier or any dog that looks like or has the characteristics of being one of those breeds.
The ordinance was enforced by a private company that offered little to no training. And education aside, the animal control officers used their discretion to determine what was or wasn’t a “pit bull” dog.
Their judgments were made entirely based on visual identification, which is shown to be highly inaccurate, and on their own personal biases about the dog owners.
In 2016, three women filed suit in federal district court against the City, the city manager, and the Sioux City Animal Adoption & Rescue Center operator, alleging that the ordinance violates their rights to due process and equal protection, and that no rational basis exists for the ordinance’s enactment or existence. It was the first time anyone had ever challenged breed-specific legislation on a constitutional basis in court.
Animal Farm Foundation funded this lawsuit.
Read the original complaint.
The case survived an early call for dismissal. However, after all of the plaintiffs had either left Sioux City or rehomed their pets to protect them, the court dismissed the case citing that the ordinance no longer applied to the plaintiffs. The case was dismissed only on this technicality and not on merit. The case continued to survive on appeal.
With an appeal pending that the city knew it could not win and the hard work of local advocates on the ground, Sioux City officials felt the pressure to end their breed-specific legislation.
In late November of 2019, legislators voted to repeal the ban, with one of them citing the impending lawsuit as a reason for his vote to repeal.
Kenna is the Adoption Coordinator at Sioux City Animal Adoption & Rescue Center, which is contracted with the city of Sioux City to perform animal control services. She’s worked at the animal shelter for 7-8 years, and before that was a mom, and studied environmental science and biology. When asked what she bases her breed identification on, she says, “Just experience.”
Travis has worked at Sioux City Animal Control for 8.5 years. Before that he was a painter, a professional mover, and a miner, among other things. In his deposition, he offers his understanding of the ban: you can’t keep a pit bull in the city of Sioux City unless it was registered prior to the ban going into effect in ’09. Like the others, he asserts that breed determinations are made based on the opinion of the officer — “I know it when I see it.”
Kylie is a cashier at a local feed store. She was with Sioux City Animal Control for 5-6 years, and before that she worked at a local meatpacking plant. “If you got called to an illegal pit bull, you would determine it was a pit bull by its looks. If it looked pit bull, we ended up having to take it just for our safety.”
Chris Strawn worked for Sioux City Animal Control from 2013-2017. He currently works for the State of Iowa at the Department of Defense at the 185th Air National Guard. Before taking the job with animal control, he received a police science degree and a Bachelor’s in business from a local community college. In his deposition, he states he is “self taught” in pit bull identification. Like some of the other officers, he would walk through the kennel and look at the dogs and compare them to what their kennel card said, using these identifications as the basis for future identifications. “I am not no animal expert. I went to become law enforcement, not a vet.”
Megan has been an Animal Control Officer in Sioux City for over 10 years. When presented with the science that 60 percent of the time even trained people (dog show judges, control officers, etc.) are wrong when determining a mixed-breed dog’s predominant breed through visual identification, Megan insists that visual identification is a good way to make breed determinations.
David works for Pepsi Co., but was with Sioux City Animal Control from 2011-2017. Before coming to Animal Control, David was a military electronics technician, an armored car driver, and a small engine repairman. David was the officer who picked up both Kali Myer’s dogs, Tink and Radar, and explains that Tink was deemed “too much pit” or predominately pit by Cindy when she was picked up the second time. When asked if he holds the opinion that certain breeds are more aggressive than others, David asserts that he thinks it’s how the dog is raised, not the breed. “I have met bad other breeds. I have met good pit bulls. It all depends on the dog in particular.”
Quincy was with Sioux City Animal Control from 2012-2017. Like many of his co-workers he worked a variety of odd jobs before that — he was a butcher, a security guard, and worked in food service. He has associate degrees in applied science and criminal justice, and is a Reserve County Deputy. Quincy offers an in-depth view of how things worked at animal control, confirming much of what is shared by his fellow officers and also many shocking details not shared by anyone else. These include the practice of placing all impounded pit bulls in the vicious dogs area, simply because they’re seen as pit bulls; incidences when he was told by his boss or a police officer not to enforce the code; and the time that a local doctor’s vicious shepherd mix was released from the pound because of “having friends in high places, also known as city council.”
Brenda is a waitress and the co-founder of Noah’s Hope Animal Rescue, who takes in “unadoptable” dogs and finds foster homes for them. She has a long-standing working relationship with Sioux City Animal Adoption & Rescue Center, and so has taken several pit bulls under the ban. Brenda does not have any education related to animals, just a love for their well-being. In her deposition, she explains that when she receives a dog from Sioux City, she does not challenge the breed determinations they’ve made even if she disagrees, because she doesn’t want those they think are pit bulls to be adopted back into the city.
Alan Beck, ScD, currently works as Director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond, at Purdue University. Alan Beck received his Doctor of Science from Johns Hopkins University in 1972. Alan Beck has an impressive list of published research and a long career in the study of the human-animal bond but in his deposition, he admits that since 2010, he has not stayed current on dog bite research nor canine behavior genetics. In fact, the expert report he submitted for the Sioux City case is the exact report he submitted for a case 13 years ago, in 2005 in Denver. When asked why the report was not updated to reflect any contemporary science or any research on canine genetics behavior, Beck responded, “I wasn’t asked to [by Sioux City attorneys].”
Beck did offer up that he reads websites and talks to colleagues on the topic of banning pit bull dogs. It should be noted that in an interview specifically for the 2016 non-fiction book titled PIT BULL: The Battle over an American Icon, Alan Beck told the author that banning dogs is a good substitute to banning whatever population of people a community doesn’t like. “It would be nice to ban poor people, but we can’t do that, so we have to use these surrogate measures.” Alan Beck regularly serves as a paid expert in court and was paid by Sioux City to serve as the primary expert for this case.
Dr. Douglas Skinner, DVM, is a relief veterinarian in central Indiana. Before that, Dr. Skinner owned a private practice and has worked as a veterinarian for a total of 44 years. Despite being called as an expert by Sioux City, Dr. Skinner has no formal training in canine behavior, canine genetics or dog training. He has not completed any research on any topic nor does he have publishing credits. Dr. Skinner does feel that he is particularly skilled at looking a dog and knowing its breed mix and believes that appearance does predict behavior. He asserts that the people who own pit bull dogs may be dangerous as are the dogs themselves. Dr. Skinner was not familiar with the term “literature review” but says that he gets his information on which he bases his opinions from the internet and two social media groups he belongs to. Dr. Skinner has attended the AVMA conference and feels that workshops at the conference are sufficient to be informed, but for his deposition, he relied primarily on his first-hand experience as a veterinarian. Dr. Skinner was compensated by Sioux City to serve as an expert in this case.
Chris Wall is the Vice President and company secretary of Hannah, Inc., the private contractor that oversees Sioux City Animal Control and the shelter. He is married to Cindy Rarrat, the Poundmaster. According to Chris, his job is basically customer service — working the front desk of the shelter and dealing with citizens and their animals. He moved to Sioux City from England 12 years ago, and claims no training related to his job or experience with dogs outside his and Cindy’s show dogs. Still, he is asked to weigh in on breed determinations “from time to time.” In his deposition, he expresses the belief that the Animal Control Officers are very good at making breed determinations themselves. If there is any doubt, he says, they’ll bring it up for a second opinion — but Cindy is the ultimate decision maker. Like many of the others, he asserts that visual appearance will trump a DNA test. He also reveals that though he is aware of the right of dog owner’s to appeal determinations, he does not inform them of that right. And shares that there’s no empirical way to check whether the pit bull ban actually decreases the number of bites because they don’t differentiate between animals in their bite tracking; dogs, raccoons, squirrels and others are all lumped together.
Cindy Rarrat is the President of Hannah, Inc., d/b/a Sioux City Animal Adoption & Rescue Center, the private contractor that has overseen Sioux City Animal Control for 22 years. She reports to the Captain of the Sioux City Police Department and the Sioux City City Council, who oversees the contract. She claims 33 years of experience working in the animal control field, is an American Kennel Club member and has experience both showing dogs and doing obedience training. In her deposition, Cindy explains that she has 6-7 animal control officers employed at a time. They are required to have at least one NACA certification, though they are not sent for certification until they’ve been on the job for 6 months, and are instead immediately prepared for their duties by shadowing another officer for 2 weeks (many of her officers testify that they only shadowed for one week before being sent out in the field alone). Cindy confirms that her officers are not given any specific instruction or mandate with regard to how to identify a dog and that all breed determinations are based solely on visual identification.
Despite acknowledging that her officers have no training, she insists that they all know the breed standards for the breeds included in the ban and that they have enough animal experience to know exactly what characteristics make a “pit bull” dog a pit bull, though she cannot name those characteristics herself. “Forty years of experience tells me I know.” Cindy maintains that certain breeds are more aggressive than others, and that physical characteristics are indicative of behavior. When presented with science that states even experienced people misidentify breeds based on visual identification 60% of the time, Cindy insists that her visual identification and knowledge trumps all while also insisting that breed determinations are made by consensus at animal control.
Robert Padmore has been the City Manager in Sioux City for 4 years. As City Manager, he is the Hearing Officer should someone appeal the designation of their dog as a pit bull. He claims that in his 4 years as Hearing Officer, there has only been one hearing and that the hearings are conducted informally. In his deposition, Robert claims that he has no animal identification training and has read no breed standards. As he is, himself, uninformed, he takes the animal control officers at their word. “I see it as an opportunity to learn from somebody that does know the breed standard and the characteristics.” Of course, the animal control officers themselves have testified that they have no training either. “Whether I like it or not, I am bound to what the ordinance says. And if in the expert testimony of animal control they say it’s got the characteristics of a pit bull, this ordinance tells me that I have to find that it is a pit bull.” Robert also confirms that the ordinance prioritizes appearance over behavior.
Dr. Hekman is a post-doctoral associate at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. She is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and has a Ph.D. in Animal Sciences (Genetics, Genomics, and Bioinformatics) with a focus in canine behavioral genetics. In her deposition, Dr. Hekman explains her research and participation in several studies which allow her to assert three very important things pertaining to this case:
1. There is no “pit bull” breed.
2. You cannot accurately identify a dog’s breed visually.
3. Environment is more of a factor in aggression than breed.
Dr. Hekman was not compensated.
Amy Marder is a semi-retired Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Clinical Animal Behaviorist who teaches a course in shelter animal behavior for the University of Florida consults for animal shelters across the country, and maintains a part-time behavior consulting practice for owned animals in Boston. Amy is the co-author of several papers on dog behavior, and developed the Match Up II program for assessing the dangerousness and controllability of dog behaviors. In her research of what are commonly called “pit mixes,” she has found that while many have American Staffordshire Terrier (Am Staff) in their genetic background, it’s trace at best, and not present in their parents or grandparents. Rather, the DNA of these mixed-breed dogs can include a host of surprising breeds from Old English Sheepdog to terrier.
Based on her professional research and experience, Dr. Marder advocates against breed-specific legislation because it is ineffective. Instead, she recommends dangerous dog legislation that addressed individual dangerous dogs, as well as leash laws and practices such as Good Citizen Tests in dog classes which can determine if dogs in the community as safe and well-socialized. In her deposition, Dr. Marder opines that the media is responsible for the public’s fear of “pit bull” dogs and that there are no unprovoked episodes of aggression.
Dr. Marder was not compensated.
Dr. Kristopher J Irizarry, PhD is an associate professor of Genetics and Genomics at Western University of Health Science’s College of Veterinary Medicine. He has a BS in Biochemistry and Biophysics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and received his PhD from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Dr. Irizarry worked with Dr. Victoria Voith on the Comparison of Visual and DNA Breed Identification of Dogs and Inter-Observer Reliability Study in which they found that visual identification does not correlate with the DNA breed description of the dogs, and that even if multiple people agree on the visual identification, it’s still not necessarily what the DNA supports. “I’m not saying that there isn’t a dog that’s unfit for being among humans, but as a breed, I don’t think there’s any breed that’s unfit. And I also feel like that the idea that a dog that looks the same as another dog is the same genetically is absolutely not correct.”
Dr. Irizarry was not compensated.
Dr. Victoria Voith is a veterinarian with advanced degrees in animal behavior, a life-long owner of dogs and is experienced as a veterinary clinician, an applied animal behaviorist and shelter veterinarian. She has conducted extensive research regarding dog breed identification since the early 2000s.
In her deposition, Dr. Voith explains how she embarked on several studies encompassing breed identification made by DNA, and that made visually by shelters/animal control agencies and people in dog-related professions or activities. Her studies found little agreement between the DNA identification of a dog’s breed and those made visually. “Interestingly, the literature indicates that well-educated professionals are as susceptible to judgmental biases as are the lay public.”
Dr. Randall Lockwood, PhD has undergraduate degrees in psychology and biology fro Wesleyan University and a doctorate in comparative and physiological psychology from Washington University, with dissertation work on canid behavior and aggression. He became a Senior Vice President of The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in August 2005, after serving for 21 years in various capacities at the Humane Society of the United States, including Vice President for Field Services and Vice President for Research and Educational Outreach. Dr. Lockwood is also an Affiliate Assistant Professor of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida, Gainesville. He teaches classes within the Masters Program in Veterinary Forensic Sciences, including a class on Forensic Applied Animal Behavior which focuses on the application of current scientific knowledge of animal behavior to the law.
In his deposition, Dr. Lockwood addresses the testimony of Dr. Alan Beck, an expert for the defense. “As a colleague of Dr. Beck, I find this statement to be distressing and embarrassing, indicating that he has apparently neither sought nor been influenced by an enormous amount of research related to the issues that have emerged in the last 12 years.”
Dr. Lockwood was not compensated.
Kali Meyers is one of the plaintiffs in the suit against Sioux City. She had two dogs — Tink and Radar — who were ordered from the city under the ban. In 2013 when Tink was just a puppy she wandered from her yard and was picked up by Animal Control but was believed to be a Boxer mix and returned home. A year later, she was picked up again and determined to be a pit bull. Tink was impounded, and Kali was prohibited from seeing Tink, and was told by Cindy Rarrat (the Poundmaster) that Tink was to be euthanized, just for being a pit bull. She was given no other information. A year later, Kali discovered that Tink had been sent to Noah’s Hope; she was never reunited with her dog. Radar was believed to be an Australian cattle dog mix, and was overlooked the first time she was observed by Animal Control, but was picked up a month later and ordered out of the city.
Help us collect data about the personal impact of breed restrictions, including BSL, by taking our survey.
Download and read our Breed-specific legislation toolkit, full of research and other information to help you advocate on behalf of families affected by these policies.