The Malden City Council Tuesday approved a measure to require pit bull-type dogs to wear muzzles in public, joining Worcester, Everett, and Boston to designate controls aimed at the breed.
The 7-4 vote follows three years of discussion and debate, and represents a legislative victory of sorts for Ward 6 City Council Neil C. Kinnon, who has fought for the muzzle law, saying the dogs are disproportionately responsible for violence.
"We have 6.7 percent of dogs responsible for 32 or 33 percent of all bites," Kinnon said, to jeers from the crowd of dog owners who packed the chamber.
City Council President Judith Bucci was forced on several occasions to gavel the chamber back to order.
Kinnon, undeterred by the hollering, quizzed a panel of three animal experts who advocated against the breed-specific legislation.
"A leash will prevent dog bites as well as a muzzle," said Dr. Amy Marder, director of the center for behavior and training at the Animal Rescue League of Boston.
"If the leash laws were enforced, there would be a very good chance of reducing dog bites," she said.
Owners of the dogs -- who say their pooches are no more vicious than other breeds -- decried the measure as overly broad and simplistic, despite a last-minute overhaul of the law that would grandfather current owners before a May 1 cutoff.
The caveats were of little interest to the crowd and to some councilors, who said the grandfather provision only complicates future situations.
Under the ordinance, registered pit bulls wouldn't have to wear a muzzle, while dogs obtained or brought into the city after May 1 would have to wear the device on public streets or when not secured behind a fence on private property.
The requirement that a leashed pit bull be forced to wear a muzzle in owners' unfenced yards irked Ward 5 Councilor Barbara Murphy.
"I also do not believe that it is in our best interest to tell people what they can do on their own property," Murphy said. "I have a problem with taking away people's personal liberty."
Although seven councilors agreed to enact the measure, in comments during the debate some seemed to back it for different reasons.
Ward 7 Councilor Neal Anderson said he believed people walked their pit pulls with the express intention of using the dogs to show power.
"Too many [pit bull owners] are walking the dogs on a leash, hoping to intimidate people," Anderson said.
The crowd erupted: "Gimme a break!"
"That's my reading of it," Anderson said.
Marder argued that if the councilors believe the intent is intimidation, then the focus of legislation should be on the owner and not the animal.
"Take this person, who is a 'tough,' with a pit bull, and you take the pit bull away from that person," Marder said, "That person is less scary?"
Anderson said he welcomed suggestions to improve the law.
"If there are things that we need to change to make it effective, than that's what I'm here to do," he said.
"Reducing dog bites is number one," Marder said. "And intimidation …"
Anderson cuts in:
"A close number two."
Council newcomer John P. Matheson tried to soothe the crowd, explaining that the law does not seek to penalize good owners -- like the families who were in the audience, he said -- but the city's "transient population."
"What we want to do is get everyone with a pit bull registered," Matheson said. "We have a transient population. We have apartment complexes, and people who come in and stay for a few months and leave. If you're a responsible owner in Malden, this ordinance won't effect you."
Frustrated by the outcome was Kathy LeBlanc, who carried photographs of a pudgy, 13-year-old black and white pit bull sleeping with a young child and nuzzling a baby.
"We're just really disappointed," LeBlanc said as the crowd filed from the chamber, flipping through the photos and shaking her head. "They're not all bad."