Back in February 1989, a 7-year-old girl named Melissa Moreira was walking home on SW 18th Terrace in Miami. She had spent the evening shopping with her family. As she walked by a neighbor's home, a pit bull ran at her and leaped.

The dog tore apart the girl's face and arms as she screamed. It then savaged her mother and grandmother before a neighbor shot it four times in the head.

The animal left the little girl in critical condition. She survived only after extensive reconstructive surgery to her face.

Dahlia Canes adopted Diva last week and will find her a home in Broward County.
Laura Massa
Dahlia Canes adopted Diva last week and will find her a home in Broward County.

Soon after that attack, the Miami-Dade County Commission banned all pit bulls. The ban was probably the first such countywide measure in the nation. Since then, thousands of pit bulls have been killed in a drab building near the Palmetto Expressway. In 2008, the county confiscated 802 pit bulls and euthanized more than 650. Workers every month halt scores of animals' hearts with an overdose of barbiturates, then cart them en masse out the back door.

The Miami-Dade ban effectively began a pit bull exodus northward. Neither Broward nor Palm Beach has such a ban, and dozens of dog owners have fled here over the years with their dogs just to avoid the law.

National animal groups from the Humane Society to the American Veterinary Medical Association have been unable to get the ban overturned. But thanks to a tiny 57-year-old woman with a short haircut and a paw print tattooed on her left wrist, that may soon change. Dahlia Canes led a group that won an unprecedented legal victory this past March. And now she has hired a lawyer and plans to mount a lawsuit that might overturn the measure. "The ban doesn't work," she says. "It's insane that we're taking them away and killing them."

The catchall term "pit bull" actually refers to at least three common breeds of dog — the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. All three probably descended from bulldogs bred in England in the 1800s for "bull baiting" — brutal bull-versus-canine blood matches. The sport was banned in the 1830s, so the hardy animals were bred for dog fights instead.

Hundreds came to America with Irish and English immigrants. By the early 1900s, pit bulls were among the nation's most popular breeds. The Little Rascals' dog, Petey, was a pit bull. So was Sgt. Stubby, a beloved WWI mascot who earned dozens of medals in the European trenches with the 102nd Infantry.

Pit bulls didn't become pariahs until the past two decades, after well-publicized, stomach-churning attacks. The one on Melissa Moreira brought out the anti-pit bull forces, including the Miami Herald, which came out in support of the Miami measure. Before an April 4, 1989, vote, Moreira's mother tearfully asked Miami-Dade commissioners: "Who in this room is going to bring my child back to the way she was?" It passed unanimously.

But it didn't take long for the law's problems to become obvious.

One owner chained 16 pit bulls to a tree in a Miramar field and left them to starve rather than face the $500 fines for each dog. A month after the ban was approved, the Herald flip-flopped and wrote a scathing editorial demanding its repeal. The next year, Florida's Legislature passed a statewide prohibition against "breed-specific" dog laws. Miami-Dade's rule, however, was grandfathered in.

The law has plenty of supporters, including PETA. In 2001, the Centers for Disease Control reported that pit bulls had killed 66 people in the '80s and '90s, twice as many as any other kind of dog.

But that statistic is nonsense, says Adam Goldfarb, a Humane Society spokesman. No one has shown that breedwide bans reduce pit bull assaults. He contends that the laws are expensive and almost impossible to enforce. Thousands of pit bull owners flaunt the law every day just by walking their dogs in Miami-Dade. "We don't believe any one breed of dog is inherently more dangerous than any other breed," Goldfarb says.

Miami's ban has met its most ardent — and dangerous critic — in Canes. She fled to Miami in 1959 with her family at age 6 when her father, a member of Batista's regime, was forced from Cuba. Her love for animals goes back to her homeland, where she once spent her $12 allowance on a mule.

In 2003, the paralegal spotted a stray dog while driving on NW 32nd Avenue in Miami. When she opened the door, the mud-colored mutt leaped into the car and laid her head on Canes' lap. Though a friend in the backseat shouted, "Watch out, it's a pit bull!" Canes was in love and named her Chocolate.

But soon, Animal Services discovered the dog. Canes sent Chocolate to live in Broward, beginning her quest to overturn the pit bull ban.

Since then, Canes has adopted dozens of pit bulls and founds homes for them in Broward or other places where the canines are legal.

She's also met people like Pierre Bahri, who have moved north to save their pit bulls. Bahri, an art gallery worker, packed up in December after an Animal Control officer gave him 48 hours to remove two pit bulls from his Wynwood home. He broke his lease and moved to Hollywood. "I love my dogs," he says, "like they're my kids."

Thousands of others simply flout the ban. Among them is a 25-year-old Mercedes-Benz employee in Kendall who asked for anonymity because he's already been cited for his pit bull. Since then, he's kept his dog in his dark bedroom every day while he works. "I have to hide him like he's an abomination," he says. "When I walk him, people put their cars in reverse and stare like I'm holding a fucking Bengal tiger or something."

Canes hopes to change that. She lives in an antiques-packed bungalow in Miami Lakes, drives a canary-yellow 1980 Fiat convertible, and devotes every hour outside work to fighting the law. In October, she founded a group called the Miami Coalition Against Breed Specific Legislation. She's already recruited 80 members.

The new group notched an important win on March 18. Canes and her friends took on the case of Leo Mahecha, a 27-year-old Kendall mechanic whose dog, Apollo, was seized by Animal Control.

In an administrative hearing at the South Dade Government Center, the group's lawyer, Rima Bardawil, argued that the county doesn't have an accurate test for deciding whether dogs are pit bulls. Inspectors rely on a 12-point checklist, with questions like, "Eyes: set far apart?"

The hearing official agreed. Apollo was freed.

"To my knowledge, it's the first time we've ever lost an appeal on a pit bull case like this," says Dr. Sara Pizano, chief of animal services.

Canes was emboldened by the ruling. Bardawil is now compiling a group of people who have lost pit bulls to the county's ban. They hope to sue the county this summer.

"We've gone the political route. We talked to every member on the commission, we went to hearings, and they all said it's political suicide to overturn the ban," Canes says. "So we're suing."

And they just might win. An Ohio appeals court struck down a Toledo law in 2007 — before the state's Supreme Court reversed the verdict.

"It's a smart approach," says Humane Society spokesman Goldfarb.

Pizano, who's charged with enforcing the ban, says it's up to politicians to decide whether the law makes sense. But she allows that "it's devastating for our staff to euthanize any animal." Since Pizano took over three years ago, her staff has had to kill more than 1,800 pit bulls.

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