Dahlia Canes didn’t know pit bulls were banned in Miami-Dade County until the early 2000s, when she found Chocolate wandering the streets.
The American pit bull, in bad shape from being fought and bred, jumped into Canes’ car. She had planned to put her up for adoption, but after a three-day vet visit, decided to bring Chocolate to her Miami Lakes home.
A year later, Canes had to travel to New York and left Chocolate with friends in South Beach. That’s when Miami-Dade Animal Services took custody of the dog. Canes returned to Miami and rushed to the shelter.
When she arrived, she said Chocolate was set to be euthanized. A decades-old ban on the breed was approved after a pit bull attacked a 7-year-old girl in 1989.
Canes dropped on her knees, begging to spare Chocolate’s life. An employee let Canes take Chocolate and place her in a friend’s Palm Beach County house.
“That’s what this ban was like,” she said.
Miami-Dade’s decades-long pit bull ban ended Sunday. In June, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law that bars local governments and public housing authorities from banning dogs of a specific breed, weight or size. Under the new law, local governments can still adopt policies to prevent attacks as long as they don’t single out a breed.
Since the incident with Chocolate, Canes, the founder of the nonprofit Miami Coalition Against Breed Specific Legislation, has been advocating for pit bulls in South Florida. The group, along with the Best Friends Animal Society and the Humane Society, helped push for the legislation, which was penned by two South Florida lawmakers: Sen. Alexis Calatayud, R-Kendall, and Rep. Demi Busatta Cabrera, R-Coral Gables.
“It was way, way overdue,” Canes said. “It’s time. It’s not the dogs, folks. It’s the owners.”
The origins of the ban
In 1989, a 7-year-old Melissa Moreira was mauled by a pit bull, leading to the ban in Miami-Dade. Melissa was helping unload groceries after a weekend getaway when a pit bull came out of nowhere, knocked her down and ripped off most of her lip, she told Miami Herald news partner CBS News Miami in 2022. Moreira underwent more than eight reconstructive surgeries on her face.
“It would completely change the way I would interact outside of my home knowing that anyone could have a pit bull next door to me,” she said.
After the attack, the county enacted a $500 fine for anyone who insisted on keeping one of the stocky dogs. The issue could reach the courts, and the dog could be “removed,” according to county law.
But the muscular breed, feared by many but defended by their owners, were a common sight in Miami-Dade. In September 2022, several county officials, including Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, expressed interest in overturning the ban.
More on the dog-ban change
Aside from reversing the ban, the new state law limits public housing from placing breed and weight restrictions on dogs. People previously faced a difficult choice: Either remain on the street with their dogs or give them up, Canes said.
“What happens to those dogs?” she said. “The shelter is full to capacity. They end up on the street. They get used for dogfighting. They get hit by cars. They die. They starve to death. It’s horrid.”
Gilda M. Nuñez, Miami-Dade’s chief of legislative affairs and communications and interim assistant director of humane law enforcement, told the Miami Herald that the state law automatically reverses the county’s pit bull ban.
However, residential communities, such as homeowner associations, are still allowed to ban specific dog breeds, Nuñez said.
Canes and her nonprofit on Sunday celebrated the end of the ban with a “Pitnic” at Amelia Earheart Park in Hialeah. Pit bull lovers — as well as current and former public officials — attended in support of the change.
Through the year, pit bull attacks have reignited conversation about the breed in South Florida.
In June, a pit bull with a troubled history attacked a 7-year-old boy and his parents in Miramar. The boy’s mother was critically injured.
But for Canes, these instances can be prevented with proper treatment and training.
“Practice responsible ownership, now more than ever,” she said. “Show the world what your dog is really like, and what you can do with your dog.”
Miami Herald staff writer Doug Hanks contributed to this report