When his owner calls, Rocco follows.
The owner — Potomac resident Eric “Rick” Bernthal — beckoned his dog to join him in his sunlit sitting room early Friday morning and the chocolate-colored canine climbed into his lap without hesitation.
A 3-year-old rescue dog from the Washington Humane Society, Rocco has had four leg surgeries in his short life and has only just begun to roam his home like a normal dog.
Rocco is a pit bull, one of thousands in Maryland that could be separated from their owners if they were accused of biting, regardless of whether they had previously exhibited dangerous behavior.
“Imagine if someone told me I couldn’t own Rocco,” Bernthal said. “He’s a member of my family. It’s just wrong.”
Bernthal, chairman of the board of directors for the Humane Society of the United States, is a staunch advocate for striking down a Maryland Court of Appeals opinion that makes the dog owner liable for any damages if he knew the biting dog was a pit bull.
The opinion, also known as the Solesky decision, does not require plaintiffs to prove the dog was dangerous if it is known that the dog is a pit bull. The decision also makes landlords liable for damages if they knew a pit bull was on their property.
“The problem is irresponsible ownership, not the dog,” Bernthal said. “Breed-specific legislation has the impact of denying to people ownership of dogs that they would love to have as pets, but it also has this profound impact on particular dogs.
“It’s a death warrant for them because these dogs end up in shelters, people don’t adopt them, and they’re put down.”
Bernthal did not grow up with pit bulls, but dogs have always been a part of his family, he said. From age 4 to 60 he raised boxers but he adopted his first pit bull after his son, “Mob City” actor Jon Bernthal, introduced him to the breed.
“I began to learn, even before I was on the board, how much prejudice there is and how desperately they need homes,” Bernthal said. “These pit bulls are animals which have a terrible reputation, and it’s completely undeserved.”
Bernthal, a retired corporate lawyer, first got involved with the Humane Society of the United States, the country’s largest animal protection organization, after accepting a pro bono case about horse soring, the illegal practice of intentionally inflicting pain on a horse’s hooves to encourage an exaggerated gait called the “Big Lick.” He said he had always been interested in animal rights but did not have time to take on advocacy work.
Bernthal brought a 57-count indictment against a prominent trainer practicing horse soring, a successful case that seriously damaged the industry, he said.
In 2007, Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of HSUS, encouraged him to join the board of directors, a body that oversees the nonprofit and its staff. He accepted the invitation and in 2012, Pacelle asked him to become the board’s chairman.
With 26 years of experience at the law firm Latham & Watkins, 12 of them spent as a managing partner for the Washington, D.C., office, Bernthal said it would have been tough to convince him to leave it all if it weren’t for an organization like HSUS.
“I love practicing law, loved the firm, building the firm, and it would have taken something really special to make me give it up and that’s what happened,” Bernthal said.
The Solesky decision was announced only days after Bernthal was anounced as chairman. After the Maryland Court of Appeals announced its opinion in April 2012, the HSUS looked for an opportunity to challenge the ruling, finding it in a special session of the Maryland General Assembly held to discuss casino gambling. Although bills eliminating the breed-specific language passed both houses, the Senate and House versions used different language, and the chambers could not reconcile the differences.
HSUS tried again during the 2013 session of the Maryland General Assembly. Legislators successfully passed bills in both chambers but the conference report, which was a compromise between the bills, was not brought up for a vote in the House of Delegates.
For the current session, state Sen. Brian E. Frosh and Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons have each introduced breed-neutral dog-bite bills. “We think it’s vital that the legislation pass because this problem is still out there and it still causes people to be unable to keep pit bull dogs,” Bernthal said.
Still, Bernthal said, this legislation is not the ideal solution toward the ultimate goal of preventing dog bites.
“Any legislation that speaks to breed is wrong, but we would have preferred legislation that encouraged people to train their dogs and be responsible pet owners,” he said.
Bernthal is modest about his accomplishments, Pacelle said, but his leadership has been a “great boon” to HSUS.
“It’s very personal for Rick. He has rescued a number of pit bull-type dogs and he knows that they can make great companions,” Pacelle said. “To cast all of the animals as dangerous is wrong on the fact and is a threat to the well-being of the dogs and a real problem for the owners of these animals.”
Rocco is one of five pit bulls in his family, Bernthal said, including two belonging to Jon — Boss and Venice — who are also featured in a HSUS public service announcement. Bernthal considers the dogs, his immediate family, 25 foster children, and even friends of his children members of his extended family.
“Family is a big thing with me. And I can’t begin to tell you how much joy it’s brought me,” Bernthal said.
For Bernthal, fighting breed selective legislation is not just part of his job — it’s a family matter.
“I know that the only way to overcome this fear and prejudice is one dog at a time,” Bernthal said. “If you’ve never seen a pit bull before and you see how Rocco behaves, you would be a little more open to that he’s just a dog like any other dog.”