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Pit bulls are still banned in towns around Kansas City. These dog lovers are fighting for a repeal

A dog resembling a pit bull lies beneath a faded, pink jacket on a mattress. Only his head is poking out.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Pit bulls and dogs that resemble pit bulls are banned in Independence, Missouri. A group of animal lovers are petitioning to rescind the law.

Independence, Kearney and Leawood are the last remaining cities in the Kansas City metro that still ban residents from owning pit bulls. Dog-loving residents in Independence are trying to collect more than 3,000 signatures in order to force a city-wide vote on repealing the ban.

Cindy Marshall used to walk her dog, Nitro, in her Lee’s Summit subdivision every day. Marshall lives near the town’s border with Independence and says Nitro loved collecting feathers along the way.

But as they approached Independence city limits, Marshall and Nitro would turn around and head back home.

“We would walk around one of the lakes in our subdivision and we get a lot of turkeys here, and of course turkeys lose their feathers and he would find a feather, pick it up, and we would do a 180 and go back home,” Marshall says.

Independence prohibits people from owning, transporting, or “exercising control over” pit bulls within city limits. Penalties range from fines up to $500 or jail time. It’s one of few cities in the Kansas City metro that still ban the breeds — along with Leawood, Kansas, and Kearney, Missouri.

Lately, Independence citizens have started a petition to eliminate the ban. Around 30 activists, including Marshall, will work to collect 3,500 signatures to force a citywide vote in Independence’s next election.

'Arbitrary' and ineffective

Independence defines a pit bull as “any dog that is an American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one or more of the above breeds.”

Marshall says that language is overly broad.

“I think it should be eliminated because it's arbitrary and it's subjective,” Marshall said.

Cindy Marshall's dog, Nitro, lays down on a bed.
Cindy Marshall
Cindy Marshall's dog, Nitro, lays down on a bed.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), breed-specific bans discriminate against responsible dog owners and do not address the issue of irresponsible ownership. The association also says bans can be difficult to enforce with mixed breed dogs.

Independence resident Glenda Bailey started collecting signatures for the ballot measure on Tuesday at election polling stations.

“Breed specific legislation targets a specific breed. In this case, any dog that displays the majority of physical traits with pit bull type dogs, but no dog breed is aggressive,” Bailey said. “There are aggressive dogs in all breeds, but not one breed is all aggressive.”

An extremely popular breed

Pit bulls once had a reputation for being associated with dogfighting, but most are quite affectionate. Marshall used to volunteer at Independence Animal Services and frequently brought pit bulls to her home for a visit.

She said they loved to snuggle and be close to humans. But even among pit bulls, personalities can vary. Marshall’s dog Nitro, who died of cancer right before Christmas last year, wasn’t like the typical pit bull.

“He was very reserved, kind of kept to himself,” Marshall said. “He always wanted to be up on the bed with me, but he wasn't one that wanted to snuggle.”

Independence Animal Services director Christina Heinen says that around 20% of the dogs they take in are pit bull breeds. And pit bulls don’t have much problem getting adopted, either — even if Independence residents can’t own one themselves.

“When we run the numbers for the length of stay for pit bulls here at our shelter, it's very comparable to the length of stay for any medium or large breed dog,” Heinen says. “For 2022, the length of stay for pit bull breeds was 26.95 days. For all medium and large breed dogs, it was, I believe, 25.5 days.”

KC Pet Project, the largest animal shelter in the state of Missouri, fully supports removing the pit bull ban in Independence.

“About 22% of the dogs that come into our shelter are pit bull type dogs that could be labeled as pit bulls in Independence,” says spokesperson Tori Fugate. “And so this would just make a huge impact for the dogs that are in our care at this shelter.”

A trend against pit bull bans

In this June 28, 2013 photo, Apollo, a Blue Nose pit bull is shown in Madison, Miss.
Rogelio V. Solis
Associated Press
In this June 28, 2013 photo, Apollo, a Blue Nose pit bull is shown in Madison, Miss.

Around Kansas City, some municipalities had pit bull bans on the books for decades. But Independence only passed its law after a handful of highly-publicized pit bull attacks in 2006.

In Kansas City, Missouri, a pit bull killed a 71-year-old woman after it jumped a neighbor’s fence, and an Independence man was nearly mauled to death by three pit bulls the same year.

Over the last five years, many local governments have removed breed-specific bans from their city and county charters.

Wyandotte County instituted a pit bull ban in 1990 that threatened violators with jail sentences of up to 90 days or a fine of up to $1,000. Leadersrepealed it in 2019.

Overland Park, Liberty, and Excelsior Springs have also repealed their bans in recent years. A bill introduced in the Missouri House of Representatives this session would prevent cities from regulating dogs by breed.

To get on the Independence ballot, Bailey said they will need 5% of registered voters to sign the petition, which is just under 3,200 signatures. The group is aiming for 3,500 as a safeguard, in case there are any issues with the city audit.

“We have 30 days to collect what we need and the petition then will go back to the city and they will count and verify that all the citizens who have signed are registered residents,” Bailey says.

Bailey says it’s time for Independence to embrace pit bulls again.

“The shelters are overflowing with them,” she says. “And it started because this legislation was implemented pretty much everywhere for such a long period of time.”

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