I've been struggling for days with how to begin my blog about the latest book I read to add to my animal advocate education – Bronwen Dickey's “Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon” - and ultimately decided I needed to start with what the book did to me and for me. It blew my mind and I mean that in a good way. I have so many adjectives inside my head to describe the book that it's hard to know just where to start. Beautiful, amazing, encyclopedic, scientific, endearing, frustrating, enlightening, empowering. This book is hands down the most comprehensive coverage of the topic of pit bull type dogs in our society which I have read in the last decade. I cannot implore you strongly enough: if you read one book this year that relates to companion animals in our society, please make it this one. I have already purchased additional copies to share with my local shelter director, a city councilman and some others I think may benefit from the information.
I came to the book somewhat indirectly and still shake my head that I was unaware of it until it had been in print for over two years. I'm not new to many of the topics covered in the book, having done a lot of research in 2009 to write a research paper at the request of my local shelter director advocating adoption of pit bull type dogs (which I later revised in 2014). The best treatise on the subject of pit bull type dogs at that time was written by Karen Delise who, to this day, is still considered the foremost authority on Dog Bite Related Fatalities (DBRFs) and to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for helping me with my research. I learned about Bronwen's book after banging my head against a wall related to some people who promote a website called Dogs Bite dot org either to justify disparate treatment of the dogs or as part of an effort to render pit bull type dogs extinct.
It is the scope of Bronwen's book which blew my mind and which I am still processing even weeks after having finished reading it. It contains so much information that I know my simple blog about it can never do it justice. The book is not just about dogs and how we have breed dogs to look like hundreds of different species (often to their detriment) and how we judge dogs by what we see and what we fear. It is also about our society and how we judge dogs based on who owns them and what purposes they serve (or we think they serve) for those people. This book is as much an examination of how we view each other, be it right or wrong, as how we view the dogs with whom we share our lives.
I had hoped to do a Q&A with Bronwen for this blog, but that will have to wait a few months. For now, I want to hit on some of the highlights from the book in my efforts to convince you to read it. I consider the information below the tip of the iceberg; I had to pare down my original blog to what you see below, which was no easy task. It is my hope that you will find this information compelling enough that you will read the whole book. You will absolutely not be disappointed.
The information shared below consists of both quotes and paraphrased content from the book which is used with the permission of Bronwen Dickey. Thanks, Bronwen. You have my utmost respect and I know that what I have learned will help me not only be a better advocate for dogs, but be a better advocate for people who love dogs.
Our History with Dogs
In America there was never a formal movement to “weaponize” dogs of private citizens until the 1960s when graphic coverage of several high profile murders combined with political assassinations and the backdrop of race riots led many Americans to believe that they were no longer safe in their homes. As citizens fears of one another increased, so did the size of their dogs. While only a fraction of these dogs were professionally trained to guard or attack, the sudden swell in the popularity of dog breeds with formidable reputations marked a significant change in how many Americans viewed the dog's role in modern society.
In depressed American neighborhoods, owning a dog for protection was thought to be necessary for survival, and for many people, it probably was. Once the pit bull was portrayed as an “inner-city dog,” however, it became a magnet for racial fears about crime and the American underclass. Over the course of history, the dogs most often portrayed as “dangerous” and subjected to the highest penalties have belonged to people with the least political power.
Pit Bulls in General
The origins of the American pit bull terrier date back to the late 1889 when dog fighter John Colby began selling his brindle and white fighting bulldogs as pets. Chauncey Bennett established his own dog registry in 1898, the United Kennel Club, after the newly formed American Kennel Club wanted nothing to do with people associated with pit bulls. Bennett knighted Colby's dogs as “American pit bull terriers” because the only thing more fashionable than a terrier was a patriotic terrier.
“Pit Bull,” as it is most commonly used, has become a slap-dash shorthand for a general shape of dog – a medium-sized, smooth-coated mutt – or a “dog not otherwise specified.” The four primary breeds of dogs we call pit bulls are the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier and the American bully. The related breeds are English bulldog, American bulldog, French bulldog, Boxer, English bull terrier, Boston terrier, Bullmastiff and Dogo Argentino.
The Role of the Media Regarding Pit Bulls
Once reporters and mis-informed advocates cast the dogs as willing participants in their own abuse, pit bulls were exiled to the most turbulent margins of society, where a cycle of poverty, violence, fear and desperation had already created a booming market for aggressive dogs. . . America's century-old love for its former mascot gave way to the presumption that pit bulls were biologically hardwired to kill.
The overwhelming majority of pit bulls, like most dogs in America, live uneventful lives as family pets. You would not know this from reading, watching or listening to the news. Nor would you know that only about thirty-five Americans are killed by any type of dog each year.
Most of us decide what we believe based on our emotions and intuitions, not on the facts. Once we have made an intuitive judgment, we search for the facts that will support our position, then surround ourselves with people who agree. One misinformation takes hold, actual facts can do very little to dislodge a false belief. This is the social and psychological vortex that pit bulls were sucked into. The more we hear about an idea, the more we believe it's true, whether or not the belief is supported by credible evidence.
Breed Specific Legislation
In nearly every municipality where breed-specific legislation (BSL) has been adopted, it has failed to prevent serious dog bite injuries and hospitalizations. Veterinarians, animal behaviorists and public health experts, including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are virtually unanimous in their denunciation of BSL on the grounds that it is both cruel and ineffective.
More than half of America's seventy-seven million dogs are not purebred. The most common method of labeling mixed-breed dogs is to describe the pedigree breed or breeds we think the most resemble. The majority of mixed-breed dogs in America are not crosses of two purebred parents, but multi-generational mutts, or mutts mixed with other mutts mixed with other mutts. Because the number of genes that determine the dog's shape is extremely small, and so many variations within those genes are possible, looking at a dog's physical chassis and making a guess as to its probable heritage will inexorably lead to error. (emphasis added).
In 2009, researchers at Stanford University mapped roughly sixty-one thousand canine SNPs (single-nucleotide polymorphisms) and discovered that only fifty-one regions of the vast genome determine the entirety of the dog's physical architecture (.000836 percent). (emphasis added).
The Mars Wisdom DNA panel is now able to match the DNA of more than 250 dog breeds but the American Pit Bull Terrier is not one of them. Some APBT blood lines have been tightly bred for many years and constitute legitimately closed gene pools, but others have been outcrossed with other breeds. The resulting group of dogs contains so many mutts that scientists can't isolate one signal. Only the AKC breeds, the American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire bull terrier can be genetically mapped.
Dogs in Animal Shelters
Shelter worker's visual guesses – that is, the breeds they would have written on the dogs' kennel cars and medical paperwork – did not match the animals' DNA results 87.5 percent of the time. . .once a breed label is affixed to a dog, it not only influences what kind of life the dog's family can have but also sets up expectations that the animal will behave a certain way, which it may or many not. Shelters that have abandoned using breed labels for dogs from unknown backgrounds have seen the number of dog adoptions rise significantly.
Dog Bites and Dog Bite Fatalities
Dog bites almost never cause serious injury. . .the overwhelming majority of bites don't even break the skin. The risk of dying from a dog bite injury in the United States in any given year is approximately one in ten million. Most dogs bite out of fear – not malice or vengefulness or dominance – when a human pushes the animal beyond its stress threshold or forces it into a situation it feels it can't escape. Bite victims often mistakenly believe that the bite “came out of nowhere,” when in fact that dog was sending subtle signals about it's level of discomfort for quite some time. (emphasis added).
According to Randall Lockwood, almost every dog bite related fatality is “a perfect storm of bad human-canine interactions – the wrong dog, the wrong background, the wrong history in the hands of the wrong person in the wrong environmental situation. . .it's not old Shep sleeping by the fire who suddenly goes bonkers. Usually there are all kinds of other warning signs.”
Karen Delise of the National Canine Research Council
When Karen Delise (regarded as something akin to the Erin Brockovich of dog bite deaths) began her research into dog bite related fatalities in the early 1990s, there had never been more than thirty-two DBRFs in the United States in any given year despite a human population that was then approaching 260 million and a dog population that exceeded 55 million.
To get more accurate data, Delise did what no other researcher before her had done: she personally interviewed the police officers, animal control officers and medical examiners who had directly handled each case. (I can attest to this myself, having connected Karen with law enforcement authorities in my state related to multiple DBRFs).
Delise found many DBRFs other researchers and organizations had all missed and nearly every one was a case that did not involve pit bulls. These were harder to locate because they did not receive the same level of media coverage as pit bull incidents. Many of the “pit bulls” responsible for DBRFs appeared to be generic mutts.
Dogs Bite dot org
Dogs Bite dot org was created by a web designer and self-professed fortune teller named Colleen Lynn who was bitten in the arm twice for a period of a few seconds by an unaltered male “pit bull mix” while jogging through a Seattle neighborhood in 2007. She then dedicated herself to the promotion of breed-ban laws (and continues to do so to this day; many of her followers openly and loudly seek the extermination of all pit bulls). The website contradicts everything put forth by group most qualified to speak about animal science, animal behavior and dog bite epidemiology.
Most of the information on the site comes from self-published paper on “dog attacks and maimings” by Merritt Clifton who possesses no relevant credentials and readily admits that his research methods are limited to scanning media reports and classified ads rather than personally speaking with investigators or reviewing primary source documents. Clifton's paper has never been peer-reviewed and it contains no citations. It does not draw upon government sources, public health records, or expert opinion. Numerous deaths on Clifton's list are contradicted by official medical examiners' reports. Clifton also includes breeds of dogs in his data set that do not exist.
"Despite everything that has happened to these dogs over the past two hundred years, I realized, 'people' do not hate or fear pit bulls. To believe that 'people hate pit bulls,' you have to believe only those who grab the microphone and scream the loudest into it matter. . .the dogs moved out of the darkness a hundred years ago. We are the ones who are stuck there.“
“Pit bulls are not dangerous or safe. Pit bulls aren't saints or sinners. They are no more or less deserving than other dogs of love and compassion, no more or less deserving of good homes. They didn't cause society's ills, nor can their redemption – real or imagined – solve them. There is nothing that needs to be redeemed anyway; they were never to blame in the first place. . . Pit bulls are not dogs with an asterisk. Pit bulls are just . . . dogs.”
A dog is a dog is a dog is a dog.
I have long stood against breed discriminatory legislation and breed specific legislation. It is my genuine belief that dogs are products of the manner in which they are treated immeasurably more so than the breed they are perceived to be. I got deep into this subject back in 2009 when I was asked by my local animal shelter director to write a research paper advocating adoption of pit bull type dogs. She claimed she would use the paper to help persuade city officials and long-time members of her staff that adopting out dogs believed to be “pit bulls” was something her shelter should be doing. I have blogged on my research paper before (which I later updated in 2014) and won't revisit the entire topic here. If you'd like to read the paper, you will find it here. If you would like to look at the hundreds of pages of research, you will find it here.
I was brought back to this topic of breed bias recently when I learned that the very shelter director who asked me to write a research paper almost a decade ago either never read the paper or has never taken any steps to educate herself on this topic even though she is a licensed veterinarian. I learned recently that she not only relies on but “studies” a website called Dogsbite.org and that she truly believes that pit bull type dogs are inherently dangerous.
No. No. No and no.
It seems that not a week goes by when I don't hear of someone singing the praises of Dogsbite.org. The site is run by a web designer and self-professed fortune teller named Colleen Lynn who was once bitten by a pit bull type dog. I am sorry she was bitten. Taking that personal experience and using it to create a platform which is based not on science or actual research is both irresponsible and incredibly harmful to all dogs and all dog owners. The site is based, on its own admission, by media reports which are notoriously unreliable and more often than not wrong. Others have written about the website before me on more than one occasion. One glance at the data for my state shows that the information is focused on pit bull type dogs and to the exclusion of other breeds. The 2012 dog bite fatality attack I became involved with indirectly in 2014 due to my job involved Rottweilers so you won't find any mention of it on Colleen Lynn's website.
I rely on research from the National Canine Research Council and from reliable sources like the Animal Farm Foundation. I believe the JAVMA study about dog bite related fatalities and I believe in the research of Karen Delise which is based not on media reports but on official records like law enforcement reports. I have communicated with Karen on more than one occasion related to her research of dog bite fatalities in my state, referring her to law enforcement authorities as part of her research. If you have never taken the time to look at the NCRC website or read Karen's book, "The Pitbull Placebo: The Media, Myth and Politics of Canine Aggression," you owe it to yourself to do so.
The reasons for actual dog attacks (as opposed to incidents of simple and avoidable injuries) are often complex, but the answer to preventing dog attacks is relatively simple: humane care and control of dogs is often all that is needed to prevent most dog attacks. The National Canine Research Council's investigations into dog bite-related fatalities reveals the majority of these tragic cases involved circumstances where owners failed to provide necessary care and human control of their dogs: 1) failure by dog owners to spay or neuter dogs not involved in a responsible breeding program; 2) maintaining dogs in semi-isolation on chains or in pens; 3) allowing dogs to run loose; 4) neglecting or abusing dogs; 5) maintaining dogs not as household pets, but as guard dogs, fighting dogs, intimidation dogs, breeding dogs or yard dogs; and 6) allowing children to interact with unfamiliar dogs.
The 2016 Final Report on Dog Bite-Related Fatalities by the National Canine Research Council was most recently updated on March 8, 2018. If confirmed the data in the 2013 JAVMA Study and states:
MULTIPLE FACTORS CONTINUE TO CO-OCCUR THAT ARE WITHIN THE CONTROL OF OWNERS.
THE CONCLUSION OF EXPERTS:
I realize that the topic of dog attacks on people is an emotional one. The fatality case I was involved with indirectly was the most gruesome case I have dealt with in more than 25 years in the legal profession. But we do our society, our families, our dogs in animal shelters and our family dogs a complete disservice when we focus on breed - because there is no scientific basis to show that it has anything at all with dog attacks and fatalities.
A dog is a dog is a dog is a dog. When dogs are treated well and socialized to people, they make wonderful companions. When dogs are not treated well, are used as resident animals, are not socialized to people and not sterilized, they all become potentially dangerous no matter what they look like and no matter what breed we think they are.
If you really think that pit bull type dogs are naturally aggressive, I challenge you to educate yourself on the topic. You can start with my research paper, which is not particularly long, and go from there.
If your lead an animal shelter that destroys dogs based on perceived breed, shame on you. It's time to stop relying on junk science and time to get educated not only on the causes of dog aggression but about how you can better market pit bull type dogs to get them through the system and into good homes. If you are not willing to do that, it truly is time to find another occupation which does not involve making decisions regarding who lives and who dies. Now.
(image of Roo Yori and Wallace courtesy of Roo and Josh Grenell; infographic images courtesy of Animal Farm Foundation)
On April 27, 2007, law enforcement authorities converged on a property at 1915 Moonlight Road in Surry County, Virginia, to execute two drug search warrants. What they found on this rural property quickly became the subject of intense national discussion and drew a great deal of attention to pit bull type dogs. Because of the involvement of then NFL football player Michael Vick in a multi-state dog fighting operation, the dogs soon came to be know as “the Vick dogs.” The dogs became the subject of a civil legal proceeding regarding their disposition as property. The following wording is taken from the Verified Complaint regarding the dogs which was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Richmond Division (federal court) on July 2, 2007:
On or about April 25, 2007, state investigators executed two search warrants at 1915 Moonlight Road, Smithfield, Virginia. During those searches, the officers recovered and observed numerous items associated with an illegal animal fighting venture, including approximately 54 pit bulldogs. Many of the pit bulldogs recovered or observed in the search had scars and injuries consistent with injuries sustained in dog fighting.Additional items were recovered and observed. These items include: a blood-stained fighting area; animal training and breeding equipment, including a "rape stand," a "break" or "parting" stick, treadmills and "slat mills;" assorted paperwork documenting involvement in animal fighting ventures; and performance enhancing pharmaceuticals commonly used to increase fighting potential in dogs trained for fighting, as well as to keep injured dogs fighting longer.
On August 31, 2007, the Court entered a judgment forfeiting the seized dogs to the United States. Although some large national organizations were calling for the dogs to be destroyed (namely PETA and HSUS), they were not. On October 16, 2007, the Court granted a motion by the government to appoint Professor Rebecca J. Huss as the guardian/special master to evaluate the permanent disposition options for the forfeited pitbulls. The recommendations were adopted by the court and the dogs went to a variety of organizations: 22 dogs went to the Best Friends Animal Society Sanctuary in Utah, 10 went to Bad Rap in California, 3 went to the SPCA of Monterey County in California, 1 went to Our Pack in Virginia, 4 went to the Richmond Virginia Animal League, 3 went to Recycled Love in Maryland, 3 went to the Georgia SPCA, 1 went to Animal Farm Foundation in New York and 1 went to Animal Rescue of Tidewater. (Of the 52 dogs taken from the Vick property, 2 died while in government custody and 2 others were euthanized due to physical/emotional suffering)
It seems since the time of the initial seizure of the dogs and we learned about Vick's personal participation in the dog fighting operation and killing dogs he has been in the news regularly. I will not recount the history here. He was last in the news in late August when it was announced that he had been named as sports analyst for Fox Sports. Prior to that, he was in the news in July when he was inducted into the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame. I often read statements by people to the effect that Vick “did his time” and “paid his debt to society.” I beg to differ. We all know that Vick spent some time in prison. What many people either don't realize, or refuse to acknowledge, is that he did time in federal prison for federal crimes related to engaging in a criminal enterprise which crossed state lines. The Surry County District Attorney at the time of the dogs were seized and the scope of the dog fighting operation was discovered was Gerald Poindexter. He chose to not prosecute Vick for the state law crimes which included his personal participation in torturing and killing dogs. If you have never read Jim Gorant's book which sets forth what really happened at 1915 Moonlight Road and what happened after the dogs were seized, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to do so. "The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick's Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption" is an incredibly well researched book which holds a place of honor in my own animal welfare library. For me, Vick's “debt to society” will never be paid because he was never fully prosecuted for his crimes. I realize that he has a right to earn a living and feed his family. I do not believe that he should enjoy any type of celebrity status in our society or that he should be put forth as a role model of any kind.
When I think about the ten years since the dogs were saved, I choose to focus on the dogs and not on the thugs who used dogs for their own entertainment and financial purposes, leading to abuse, neglect and death. Although there were calls for their destruction, the 48 dogs who went on the organizations approved by the court proved to be far more resilient and far more forgiving than anyone would have imagined. They are examples that even when pit bull terrier type dogs have been subjected to the worst that humans have to offer, they are capable of defying the media hype of them as super-predators and of overcoming incredible abuse. Many of the dogs saved on April 27, 2007, have since passed away. To learn the history of all of the dogs, please consider reading Jim Gorant's recently published book, “The Found Dogs: The Fates and Fortunes of Michael Vick's Pit Bulls, 10 Years After Their Historic Rescue.” I don't want to spoil the book for you. I will say that of the 48 dogs placed, "17 passed their CGC (Canine Good Citizen test), seven were certified as therapy dogs and more than half have made public appearances to support anti-breed legislation or to raise awareness and fight discrimination. At least that many have also been used in training programs and foster homes to act as role models and help calm other dogs."
We've learned a lot about pit bull type dogs in the last ten years. It has obviously not been enough as municipalities continue to enact and enforce BSL (Breed Specific Legisaltion) and BDL (Breed Discriminatory Discrimination), objectifying perfectly good family dogs who have done nothing wrong while perpetuating myths about the dogs which are not based in science. The pit bull ban is still in effect in Denver, Colorado. It is also still in effect in Miami-Dade County, Florida, although a federal lawsuit challenging the legality of the ban was filed on October 11, 2017. I'll be watching that case closely and genuinely hope the ban is repealed.
To learn more about fact-based research related to pit bull type dogs and dog aggression, I encourage you to visit the website for the National Canine Research Council. I relied heavily on materials published by the organization in my original 2009 edition of my research paper advocating adoption of pit bull type dogs and the revision of my paper published in 2014.
If you'd like to read an incredible law review article on the topic of pit bull type dogs and Breed Specific Legislation, Katie Barnett of the Barnett Law Office is published here. Katie and I first interacted during the time when the criminal and civil cases about the former Vick dogs were pending. I consider Katie another one of my go-to subject matter experts; her law review article is incredibly comprehensive and goes far, far beyond the scope of my research paper.
In honor of National Pit Bull Awareness Month, let's all take a moment to reflect on the dogs saved more than 10 years ago, on those dogs still being unfairly judged due to media hype and on the people who love them dearly - who know the truth about the capacity of these dogs to love and be loved.
(image of Molly courtesy of the Best Friends Animal Society; image of Hector courtesy of Roo and Clara Yori)
It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I don’t get along with the veterinarian who runs the municipal animal shelter in the city where I work. We come from different worlds and our history is just too rocky for us to recover. She likely doesn’t know it, but I became an animal welfare advocate as a result of a conversation I had with her in the summer of 2006. Her words led me to an epiphany about what happens to healthy and treatable animals in the shelter using our tax dollars. I got mad, I got smart and then I decided to speak out for the animals who cannot speak for themselves. We first met in person on January 22, 2009, after I wrote a letter to the newly elected mayor about no kill philosophies and he asked to meet to talk about the letter. The shelter director was outside the mayor’s office when I arrived for the meeting. She told me that she had read the copy of Nathan Winograd’s book about the no kill movement which I had sent to the mayor (“Redemption: They Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America") and that it upset her so badly that she almost quit her job. I was tempted at the time to offer to help her pack her things, but I bit my tongue and tried to play well with others.
In August of 2009, when the shelter director and I were still on speaking terms (at least to a degree) she asked me to write a white paper about adoption of pit bull type dogs. She said she was having issues with the attitudes of some of her staff related to adopting out these dogs and she needed some help convincing city hall to help her overcome what I understood was a de facto pit bull ban. The city doesn’t have an actual breed ban, but any dog entering the shelter which looked even a little like a pit bull type dog was destroyed.
I knew in my heart that she really didn’t care much about using a white paper to change her operation. Looking back, I think it was a way to keep me from being too critical of her operational choices while challenging me to give some proof or evidence that pit bull type dogs were worthy of redemption and should be spared. Because I felt like the paper would be of more use outside of my area than here, I began my research with the plan to make the paper of value to anyone, anywhere. Dog lovers, pit bull type dog advocates, opponents of Breed Discriminatory Legislation (BDL) or Breed Specific Legislation (BSL). I was not qualified to write a white paper. But I work in the legal field and I am familiar with how to do research and compile evidence, so I felt I could do a decent job of putting together something which may be of some value to someone.
I finished my first version of “Forsaken No More: Reclaiming the Truth to Save Man’s Best Friend” in September of 2009 and I felt pretty good about it. I had learned a lot in the course of doing my research and I had connected with one of the foremost authorities on my topic, Karen Delise of the National Canine Research Council. I sent copies of my paper to the shelter director and shared it with contacts across the country. The original version was posted to the Animal Law Coalition website and is still there to this day.
In early January of 2014, I was watching a local morning news program and heard the shelter director’s voice. Between the time I had finished my paper and that morning, a lot had happened in my life and in the community. The most relevant thing for the sake of this story is that I had formed a no kill advocacy coalition to take the topic of how our shelter runs to the public in order to get their support to stop the killing of healthy and treatable animals in our shelter. No Kill Huntsville had been rocking the community boat for change for a couple of years by then and people were starting to listen. The news segment was an interview of the shelter director to ask her opinion on the possibility of ours becoming a no kill community (a place where healthy and treatable pets are not destroyed for space). When she began talking about how many problems she was having adopting out pit bull type dogs, I got mad. From what I could deduce, nothing had changed in the way these dogs were handled and there had been no obvious public education programs developed to overcome stereotypes. I decided to channel that anger into a revised version of my research paper.
The 2014 version of Forsaken No More is found at this link. Because some of my citation links are no longer valid, the research to which I cite is located here. The topic of how we treat pit bull type dogs in our country and in other countries continues to evolve with each passing month so it is unlikely that I will work to update the paper repeatedly. I stand by the content and I think it is as relevant today as it was when I did my rewrite two years ago. I had my draft reviewed by Karen Delise to seek her input and I am grateful that she took the time to help me again.
Whether you are a dog lover, a rescuer, an animal welfare advocate, a public official or just someone who doesn’t like the idea that perfectly good dogs are destroyed using your tax dollars, you are welcome to read my paper and use it in any way which helps you. I am certainly not an authority on this topic. But I think if we are ever to bring an end to the destruction of healthy and treatable animals in places we call shelters, we need to educate ourselves enough to understand why they are being killed with our money and we need to see past the hype which leads to the destruction of dogs which have served us long and well as a culture.
Healthy and treatable pit bull type dogs continue to be destroyed in the shelter in the city where I work for space, for convenience and because the public has been bamboozled into believing the hype about these dogs which is not based in fact. I am powerless to do anything to stop that in my shelter or in yours. But perhaps we can save these dogs by making ourselves smarter and then making better choices so that their destruction is not some foregone conclusion. And we can work to fight junk legislation around the globe which spreads like a cancer and which does nothing to keep the public safe.
(images courtesy of Melissa Rickman and Joshua Grenell)
There was a time about a decade ago when I considered myself pretty well informed about animal issues simply because I grew up in an animal friendly household and I just like animals. Looking back now, I just didn’t have a clue. Yes, I meant well, but I really was completely out of touch with most of the issues which now take up a lot of space in my head and about which I find myself thinking. A lot.
One of those issues relates to pit bull-type dogs and something called either breed discriminatory legislation (BDL) or breed specific legislation (BSL). I really didn’t have much awareness on this subject until long after the Vick debacle related to his arrest and which led to the 2007 relocation of 47 of the 49 dogs seized from his property (one dog was destroyed early in the process and another was later destroyed for medical reasons). I knew the dogs had been treated in ways most of us simply cannot imagine and they all deserved a second chance. But I really didn’t get into the topic of pit bull-type dogs and legislation issues related to breed until the summer of 2009 when I was asked by my local shelter director to write a “white paper” advocating adoption of “pit bulls” from her shelter. She told me she wanted the paper so she could use it to persuade some of her old guard employees that these dogs were not inherently bad and to convince some folks at city hall that she should not have what then was essentially a de facto ban on these dogs in her building, leading to their destruction. I told her I was not qualified to write a white paper, but that I would be happy to prepare a research paper if it would help her and would save the lives of dogs.
I think I knew even the she would never use the paper and so I wrote it to be of use pretty much everywhere, in hopes that someone would get some use out of it. It took me weeks to research and write and when I first shared it in September of 2009, I felt good about it. I had learned things along the way I just did not realize before and developed a great contact in the process through my interaction with Karen Delise, the founder of the National Canine Research Council. The paper got passed around a bit, ended up on the Animal Law Coalition website, and the feedback was generally positive. When I saw my shelter director being interviewed by a local news anchor years later (in late 2012), lamenting the fact that she had so many “pit bulls” she simply had trouble placing, I’ll admit it made me angry. Yes, I just wrote a paper. Yes, it was just research. But had she been genuinely interested in advocating for these dogs and helping to educate those around her on how great they are, all she had to do was read my paper and develop a plan of her own on how to use it. I decided to channel my anger into action and I revised my research paper in February of 2014. Some of the end links no longer work, but I stand by my research all of which is found here.
When you put the media hype aside and you take a real look not only at the breeds of dogs we all call “pit bulls,” but at the research regarding factors which cause fatal dog attacks, the reality is that these dogs are no different than any other dogs. All dogs have teeth. All dogs bite. How we treat dogs, objectify dogs, use dogs, whether we spay and neuter dogs and whether we neglect or abuse dogs all play a role in their behavior. I am a huge proponent of breed blind legislation and I firmly believe that all dogs should be treated as individuals. I’m fine with legislation which is focused on public safety, but which is completely silent regarding dog breed. Some dogs really are dangerous. Some dogs are just broken, for lack of a better word, and should not be around people. But to take entire breeds of dogs – or worse yet – perceived breeds of dogs and try to legislate them is not only unconstitutional, but it is entirely ineffective.
I was on Facebook today and two items in my news feed stood in stark contrast to each other and served as a reminder that legislating dogs by breed simply does not work and is just wrong.
If you really care about dogs or just about how municipalities spend your money in the name of public safety and through use of police power, please educate yourself about the history of the types of dogs we call “pit bulls” and about the real reasons behind dog aggression. The best way for you to help man's best friend is to be an informed animal lover or animal advocate. If the whole subject is a bit too overwhelming for you and you need a place to start, well, my research paper may just help you.
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson