UPPER MARLBORO - When Chris Harris met his pit bull he fell in love instantly. She saved him from depression and got him "out of a funk" after he was laid off. When she was lonely and had anxiety, he didn’t hesitate to find her a friend.
To Harris, his pit bulls are family and he would never put them in harm’s way. So he travels 85 miles roundtrip everyday to his job in Prince George’s County, where his "family members" are illegal.
Harris is an employee of Prince George’s County Public Schools. He loves his job, but hates the commute from Baltimore. The commute, he said, is necessary because he cannot live in the county where pit bulls have been banned since 1996.
“I mean, clearly that wouldn't be a very good idea. I wouldn’t want to run the risk of walking my dog and having them take my dog away from me, or either of them away from me,” Harris said.
Harris spends nearly $400 per month in gas alone to commute to work. He said the gas isn’t the only cost either. The wear and tear on his car, the rent in Baltimore and the time constraints of commuting are all burdens to accommodate the ban in Prince George’s County.
“I mean, it's not fair. We should all have the opportunity to go out into the world and contribute in the way that we're all supposed to, and enjoy some of the smaller creature comforts,” he said.
If Harris lived in Prince George’s County he could face multiple punishments for keeping his dogs. The fine for having a pit bull, according to the original law passed in 1996, is up to $1,000. A pit bull owner could also face six months in prison. If, by chance, his dog ever bit someone it would be immediately “destroyed” and Ellis would be imprisoned for six months.
Harris said he fears the thought of walking his dog in the county and then losing his dog and his job, due to the possible imprisonment, all in one day.
“All of that just because I have two dogs that wouldn't hurt anybody,” Ellis said.
Despite the hardships of owning his pit bulls, Harris said every expense and extra hour in the car is worth it to keep his family members around.
“If tomorrow, Baltimore County and Baltimore City enforced a similar pit bull ban and I was still a Prince George's County employee, and that meant I had to move to Pennsylvania in order to keep my dogs and had to travel, 4 hours, to get to work, - sure I’d start looking for another job - but in the meantime, I’d do it gladly, my dogs are worth it. I mean I love them, they're my family,” Harris said.
Although Harris’ dedication to his pets may seem extreme to some, the Maryland Dog Federation (MDF) assists dozens of families every year with handling, understanding and finding a way around the breed ban in Prince George’s County.
Adrianne Lefkowitz, the executive director of the MDF, said she fields calls from families looking to move into the county with their furry family members. She said far too often she has to inform families their pets cannot come into the county.
“A nice young lady just called me from North Carolina. She is in a military family, was inquiring if there is still a breed ban in Prince George’s County. Her husband will be performing recruitment duties in Fort Washington and wanted to know if PG was safe,” Lefkowitz said. “I told her it wasn't, unfortunately. They will probably need to live in Charles County, which gives her husband far more of a commute than they want.”
She said the county has refused to budge on the issue. The county passed the law for the safety of the citizens, and said pit bulls, through breeding and treatment, are too dangerous for the county. The county has said the ban is necessary and does not need to change, but Lefkowitz disagrees
“If the county doesn't think the ban is a big problem, it certainly is for people trying to move here,” she said.
The ban is a continued issued for residents of the county who choose to love their pit bulls despite the breed specific legislation against them.
Although the ban has been law since 1996, the Prince George’s County Animal Management Division, run through the county’s department of the environment, still intakes on average 686 pit bulls a year, according to data provided by the department. These dogs are either taken off the streets or taken from an owner’s residence.
Lefkowitz said the amount of dogs taken in every year proves the ban is ineffective. She said the ban is either completely ignored or unknown to the citizens of the county, which leads to seizure of families’ pets by the county.
Once a pit bull is seized, it is taken to the Animal Management Division shelter in Upper Marlboro. The dogs are caged in the back of the shelter. They can also not be adopted or returned. However, the shelter works with rescues and shelters outside the county to relocate the dogs to places where they can be adopted.
“We know of people before the fact, that had a notice posted on their door. We know of people after the fact that it has already happened to, and we know of people who have called us as they are climbing out their window with their dog with animal control at their front door,” she said. “So it happens too often. We know people who have had to give their dogs to rescues to save their dog. So these are people that don't want to give their dogs away.”
Ben Ellis, a former resident of Prince George’s County, came home last Easter weekend to a notice from animal management stating his dog had to go.
“We get home one night and we have a note that's on the front door saying, ‘hey PG has a ban, you need to get rid of your dog,’” he said. “And we're like, wait, wait, wait, what's this? And actually we weren't even aware of it. We didn't even have a clue.”
Ellis and his wife took in their pit bull six months before they received their notice.
“Obviously he needed a home, so we were like sure and he is the absolute sweetest little dog in the world,” Ellis said.
Ellis said his dogs, a border collie and pit bull, are neighborhood dogs. They played with children and other dogs. Ellis said neighbors always had a compliment for his pit bull Bruce.
“We take them out on walks and all the neighborhood kids play with our dog and several cars stop by and say ‘oh my god, that's a sweet dog’ and ‘that's a beautiful dog’ all the time,” Ellis said.
Although Ellis said his dog is not a menace or vicious, he said one of his neighbors reported Bruce to animal management, which led to the notice on his door.
Lefkowitz said the way the breed specific ban in the county works is often through a call and report system.
“This is mostly a complaint-driven law, so somebody just sees the dog in the yard - it doesn't have to be doing anything - the dog can be taken,” she said. “In a shelter you have dogs that are neglected, dogs that are loose, dogs that need another home. This law, a lot of these dogs didn't need another home. Their home was fine, but they are being taken.”
Ellis didn’t want to chance losing Bruce. He and his wife decided to move.
“We said, know what, if there's any risk of us losing our dog, we would rather move and sure enough, we actually put our house up for sale,” Ellis said. “Two to three weeks later, our house went up for sale and actually we're buying, we bought a house in Waldorf.”
Ellis said his dogs are his children and didn’t have to think twice about moving. Not even the cost deterred him.
“(My wife) didn't even have to ask me, ‘what do you think of moving' I already had the answer. I’m all for it. Would you allow anybody to take away your kid, or even your aunt who lives with you every single day,” he said. “It's one of those things where you're not breaking up our family. So no matter the cost, were going to do it.”
Ellis said he is still confused why his dog cannot reside in the county. He said he understands the need to keep residents safe, but not the discrimination against one breed.
“Any breeds can be bad, absolutely any breed can be bad,” Ellis said. “I mean it totally needs to be judged. There obviously shouldn't be a ban at all on any dogs or any breed, but dogs should be judged by their behavior, not by their looks, not by their breed.”
Lefkowitz agreed. She said it is time for the county to move beyond “discrimination of one breed” and instead judge dogs based on their actions.
“Get rid of the ban altogether, absolutely. There’s no need. The country already demonstrated there’s no need,” she said. “Because if you're taking animals, if you're taking dogs from one family in PG County and giving them to another family outside the county, well then clearly there's nothing wrong with the dog. Right?”