Liz Marsden has worked for almost 30 years as a dog trainer, including working with 11 of NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s pit bulls after he was sent to prison in 2007 for his role in a dogfighting operation.
But the Chaplin resident has disavowed the animal rescue community and taken an activist role in opposition to efforts at the state Capitol to prevent dog breed discrimination.
“These are animals that were purposely bred to fight to the death,” Marsden said of pit bulls, a classification encompassing breeds such as the American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier and bull terrier. “They’re strong, they’re muscular. They have the physical traits to get the job done. And the job is to kill.”
Marsden is beginning a grassroots campaign to fight House Bill 5361, a proposal to prohibit home and rental insurance providers from setting increased premiums – or denying coverage altogether – if certain types of dogs live on the premises.
Testimony from the Property Insurers of America says dog bites cost insurance companies more than $483 million in 2013, with the average dog bite claim coming in at $27,862.
The bill, introduced by state Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-Fairfield, precludes the use of breed as an underwriting factor unless additional criteria are also taken into account – though it does not specify criteria. The measure is making its way to the House floor after the Committee on Insurance and Real Estate passed it by a vote of 15-4 earlier this month. Committee members state Rep. Emmett Riley, D-Norwich, and state Rep. Christine Rosati, D-Killingly, voted in favor. A separate vote requiring a study to examine the costs to insurance companies for dog-related claims failed by a vote of 13-4.
Written testimony submitted on behalf of the Property Casualty Insurers of America referred to a 2000 study under the auspices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that analyzed dog attack fatalities from 1979 to 1998. The CDC study found at least 25 breeds were involved in 238 human fatalities during the 20-year study period. Pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers were involved in more than half the deaths, with pit bull-type dogs responsible for 66 and Rottweilers for 39.
Once an active member of the types of organizations supporting the bill, Marsden now says she was misguided. The culture in the shelters she’s worked at puts the mission to protect animals from cruelty before concern for public safety.
“I came from this background working with dogs and believing the propaganda that pit bulls were no worse than any dog statistically,” she said. “It just isn’t true.”
She disputes arguments that blame owners for attacks by pit bull-type dogs.
Page 2 of 3 - “We’re talking about genetics here. And genetics cannot be denied. That would be like saying the beagle keeps sniffing the ground all the time because its owner taught it to.”
Proponents of the bill, such as Annie Hornish, Connecticut state director of the Humane Society of the United States, refer to the same CDC study to demonstrate that dog bites are the result of numerous factors. The study said a dog’s propensity to bite comes from interrelated elements of heredity, sex, early experience, socialization and training, medical and behavioral health, reproductive status, quality of ownership and supervision and victim behavior.
The study also said there is no way to identify the number of dogs of particular breeds and, therefore, no way to assess which breeds are most likely to harm others.
Eric George, president of the Insurance Association of Connecticut, told members of the committee during the public hearing that dog bites across the country accounted for more than a third of all homeowners insurance liability payouts in 2013, based on industry statistics.
“I don't like to stigmatize breeds either, but in terms of setting insurance rates, in terms of performing the necessary underwriting, there are some companies that have determined that in order for them to mitigate their risk, that this is an area that they look at,” George said. “Some dogs have, unfortunately, a history of being more dangerous. Some cars have a history of being more dangerous. It's not a value judgment as to whether or not anybody should own those dogs or those cars. It's just an assessment of how the premiums are going to be set going forward.”
Both insurance advocacy groups said if made into law, the bill would result in cost shifts requiring all dog owners and non-dog owners to subsidize the premiums of those who have “dangerous” dog breeds.
Hornish testified that approximately 46 percent of American households have at least one dog.
“Rather than arbitrarily defining breeds of dogs to target for insurance policy refusal or cancellation, insurance companies should identify individual dogs that have a history that may predict their likelihood of being dangerous in the future,” Hornish said. “Connecticut law already contains breed-neutral provisions to regulate dogs who exhibit dangerous behavior, which is essential in responding to reported incidents and preventing future ones from occurring.”
Those laws include making an owner liable for damages caused by his or her dog. Lawmakers also added a provision in 2013 forbidding municipalities from enacting breed-specific ordinances.
Jennifer Evenski, of Colchester, is a dog owner who submitted testimony outlining more than a decade of experience as a veterinary technician and animal rescue volunteer.
Page 3 of 3 - “I have worked in veterinary practices and animal shelters for years with many of the typically discriminated against breeds, and even in such extreme conditions, I have never been bitten, attacked, threatened or otherwise injured by any of these breeds,” she wrote.
Testimony also came from Renee Healion, of Windham, who wrote that the failure to enact the bill will contribute to a growing shelter population of pit bulls.
“State residents are willing to adopt dogs but, whether homeowner or tenant, they are stymied by insurers’ proscriptions against numerous specific breeds or vague category,” she wrote. “As a consequence, dogs languish indefinitely.”
The sentiment among the bill’s supporters echoed a position statement by the American Kennel Club saying insurance coverage should be based on “the dog’s deeds, not the dog’s breed.”
Marsden thinks that’s outrageous.
“Waiting until a dog has already done its damage is not really protecting anyone,” she said. “You can’t predict what any individual dog will do. But you can predict what groups of dogs will do. The propaganda that is out there is incorrect and I can’t believe it’s being used to pass laws that would force insurance companies to take risks and that would force the rest of us to pay for those risks."