EDITORIAL: Pit bulls & political recklessness

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  September 2012:

Editorial feature: Pit bulls & political recklessness

A well-funded and aggressively promoted ballot measure meant to repeal the 23-year-old Miami-Dade County pit bull ban went down to an upset landslide defeat on August 14, 2012, attracting just 37% support–the most lopsided failure of a ballot measure endorsed by major national humane organizations in at least a couple of decades.

Miami Marlins star and Best Friends Animal Society celebrity spokesperson Mark Buerhle began vocally objecting to the Miami-Dade pit bull ban in December 2011, soon after accepting a four-year, $58 million contract to pitch for Miami.  Opting to live in Broward County, with one of the highest median household incomes in the U.S., instead of Miami-Dade County, whose median household income is about 10% below the Florida norm, Buerhle complained that his choice of an upscale neighborhood was dictated by possession of a pit bull.   His complaints were amplified by electronic media more than 1,200 times during the nine months preceding the Miami-Dade voting.

Best Friends began airing radio ads in opposition to the Miami-Dade pit bull ban in March 2012. Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle and Mike Markarian, president of the HSUS subsidiary Humane Society Legislative Fund, both blogged in favor of repealing the Miami pit bull ban.  The Miami Herald also endorsed repealing the ban.

A week ahead of the Miami-Dade voting the American Bar Association passed a resolution “Urging Adoption of Breed-Neutral Dog Laws and the Repeal of Breed Discriminatory (Pit Bull) Ordinances.”  The resolution was avidly publicized by pit bull enthusiasts.There was no organized opposition to the proposed Miami-Dade pit bull ban repeal.  No celebrities spoke in favor of keeping the ban–only a few local pit bull victims, including Melissa Moreira, 31, who at age 8 was facially scarred for life in an unprovoked pit bull attack in the driveway of her family’s home.

The Miami pit bull ban was adopted soon after the Moreira attack, just ahead of the 1990 passage of a Florida state law prohibiting new breed-specific legislation, which exempted Miami-Dade.  But contrary to the claims of pit bull advocates, the Miami-Dade ordinance was no hastily passed panic response.  Attempts to ban pit bulls from Miami-Dade began in 1945, after Doretta Zinke, 39, was killed during an evening walk by nine pit bull terriers kept by Joe Munn, 43, of Hialeah.  Twenty-six pit bulls, some implicated in previous attacks on humans, were impounded from Munn and killed.

The Humane Society of Greater Miami, which then held the Miami-Dade animal control contract, claimed to have received hundreds of calls of protest from pit bull advocates throughout the U.S.–an almost unheard of response in an era when long-distance calls were expensive and had to be manually connected by an operator.

Munn served one year of a five-year prison sentence for manslaughter.  Paroled, Munn acquired more pit bulls.  Two of them in 1955 mauled Harry Smalley, 73, after attacking Smalley’s dog.  But another 35 years of deliberation elapsed, while many other pit bulls killed and injured animals and humans, before the Moreira attack finally tipped the Miami-Dade political balance against pit bull defenders, who ranged from the Humane Society of Greater Miami to advocates of legalizing dogfights and segregationist splinter groups associated with the Ku Klux Klan.

Pit bull advocates were poised at the “scratch line” on August 15, 2012 to celebrate ripping the Miami-Dade ordinance to shreds.   As ANIMAL PEOPLE pointed out in March 2012, however,   at least 10 newspaper public opinion surveys conducted in the U.S. since 2005 have shown respondents favoring restrictions on possession of pit bulls.  The majorities have ranged from 50% to 69%, with the average at 59% and the median at 63%.  The Miami-Dade outcome landed right on the median.  Only 20% of the eligible electorate turned out to vote, but this should have favored the pit bull ban repeal effort, since the people most motivated to vote should have been those who want to keep pit bulls.  The only “get-out-the-vote” effort made in connection with the repeal measure was made on behalf of it.

Banning breeds

The Miami-Dade ordinance exemplifies the simplest and oldest of three different approaches to breed-specific legislation meant to curb pit bull proliferation and the problems associated with pit bulls,  including attacks on humans and other animals; dogfighting; the frequent use of pit bulls as accessories to other crimes including selling drugs, extortion, domestic violence, and pimping; and the strain on animal shelters of having to often accommodate dangerous dogs who cannot be safely housed with other dogs and will usually be killed, after a holding period of several days, due to lack of safe adoption prospects. Like the highly successful Denver ordinance, which is nonetheless equally unpopular with many animal advocates, the Miami-Dade ordinance was passed in 1989, and outright prohibits possession of pit bulls.

Despite the frequent howling of pit bull advocates that breed-specific legislation “doesn’t work,”  and despite a tendency of Denver and Miami-Dade animal control officials to interpret the definition of “pit bull” in a manner that allows possession of many pit bull variants, Denver and Miami-Dade are among the most populated U.S. jurisdictions that have had no pit bull fatalities since their ordinances took effect.  The remainder of Colorado has had at least one pit bull fatality since 1989 and many close calls; 17 people have been killed by pit bulls elsewhere in Florida.

Pit bull advocates often allege that outright prohibitions, like those in effect in Denver and Miami-Dade, condemn pit bulls to death just for existing.  In truth, all U.S. and Canadian pit bull bans known to ANIMAL PEOPLE, including those in Denver and Miami-Dade, have either allowed reasonable time for people found in possession of pit bulls to relocate them, or have contained “grandfather clauses” allowing pit bulls already within the jurisdiction when the ban was passed to remain, providing that they are sterilized, vaccinated, insured against liability, licensed, and safely confined.

Far from resulting in pit bulls being killed, the Miami-Dade and Denver ordinances have resulted in Miami-Dade ranking second only to Denver among major U.S. cities in fewest pit bulls impounded and killed per 1,000 human residents. New York City and San Francisco rank third and fourth, ANIMAL PEOPLE learned in a 2009 survey.  New York City excludes pit bulls from public housing; San Francisco requires that pit bulls be sterilized.

Mandatory sterilization

Mandating sterilization of pit bulls avoids allegations that pit bulls are condemned to death, and has also proved eminently successful in achieving most of the goals of breed-specific legislation,  though sterilization does not completely prevent attacks and does not prevent the use of pit bulls as weapons.  In the three fiscal years before the San Francisco ordinance took effect in 2006, the city Department of Animal Care & Control impounded 1,891 pit bulls, 210 of them for biting, and killed 1,129 pit bulls.  In the three most recent fiscal years, San Francisco impounded 956 pit bulls, 39 for biting, and killed 873–declines of 50%, 81%, and 26%, respectively.

U.S. humane organizations, both national and local, have almost unanimously argued for 40 years or more that sterilizing dogs (and cats) is a condition of responsible pet-keeping.  Every U.S. national humane organization and most local humane societies have endorsed legislation meant to encourage pet sterilization, including licensing schemes intended to make keeping any unsterilized pet economically prohibitive.

But keepers of pit bulls have been notoriously resistant to the incentives and subsidies that have made discussions of “overpopulation” of most dog breeds an anachronism.  Pit bulls over the past 30 years have increased from 2% of shelter dog intake and 5% of shelter dog killing to  30% of shelter dog intake and 60% of the killing.

Yet,  instead of endorsing ordinances modeled after the San Francisco success, most national humane organizations and many local counterparts reflexively and paradoxically oppose breed-specific legislation in any form–in effect running interference on behalf of pit bull breeders and dogfighters.

People who practice neuter/return feral cat control usually hope to eradicate homeless cat colonies by preventing breeding.  People who campaign against horse slaughter mostly emphasize that the solution to horse neglect and abandonment is to prevent speculative breeders from producing surplus foals.  Rescuers of birds, snakes, lions, tigers, bears, and every other species caught up in the exotic animal trade mostly seek stronger legislation to keep these animals from being bred and sold.

There are some animal advocates who oppose contracepting wild horses and bison, pointing out that the western range historically accommodated vastly more wild horses and bison than now.  These advocates hope, rather unrealistically, that the habitat available to wild horses and bison today can be expanded to rebuild their populations to the historic norms.

But this argument, like the arguments for endangered species restoration, is rooted in ecological idealism.  Though the envisioned outcome differs, the philosophical approach parallels the ambition of hunters to boost deer, elk, and waterfowl populations.  Preventing animal suffering is not part of the calculus in promoting species abundance–but making animals more abundant is often a prelude to exploiting them, as evidenced by the present rush to hunt wolves in the Yellowstone National Park region and the upper Midwest, and to trap otters in Illinois.  Though few activists who worked to accomplish wolf and otter restoration want the wolves and otters to be hunted, hunting inevitably followed abundance.

The paradox of humane organizations opposing mandatory pit bull sterilization is that they are saying, in effect, that while the humane community contends that the births of all other dogs, and cats, should be limited to the numbers for whom good homes exist, there should be unlimited pit bull breeding, regardless of the availability of any homes.  Reality is that almost a third of the total U.S. pit bull population enters animal shelters each year, and more than 85% of these dogs are killed from lack of safe adoption prospects, at the average age of 18 months.  Yet invoking legislation to help curtail the surplus births producing this appalling waste of life is opposed as “breed discrimination.”

The objection is often raised that “breed discrimination” is “speciesism,” and that if sterilization of pit bulls were to be mandated, pit bulls would soon be “extinct.”  Such arguments overlook that pit bulls are not a species.  Rather, pit bulls are an artificially created extreme variant of the species canis familiaris:  dog.  Pit bulls exist only because of intense, controlled inbreeding to produce animals with no analog in either current wild dog subspecies or the fossil record.  When allowed to breed freely, pit bulls–like all so-called “purebreds”–breed back to normal dog configuration and behavior within two or three generations.

If a member of a species cannot mate successfully with others of the same species, the failure almost always ends that animal’s genetic line, since a member of a species will seldom hybridize with another species, except among very closely related species such as horses and donkeys, or lions and tigers–but even then, the offspring are usually sterile.

A dog, however, has no preference for mating with his or her breed, and will mate willingly with dogs of any other breed, except for some pit bulls who are so abnormally dog-aggressive that they will kill each other if the male is not muzzled and the female not held securely in a “rape stand.”  Dogs consider themselves dogs, nothing else, and do not recognize or care about the human controlled breeding of their ancestors that caused them to display physical or behavioral characteristics which may be desirable to human breeders, but are irrelevant to the dog, unless they are detrimental to the health and well-being of the dog, as is often the case.  Dogs do not have ethnicity, culture, or religion which causes them to seek out similar partners with whom to breed–a breed of dog does not recognize itself as a “race” of dogs.  Thus the analogy to “genocide” made by pit bull enthisiasts in response to any suggestion of a breeding ban on pit bulls and other bully breeds is both inaccurate and inappropriate.

Pit bulls were produced to exploit some dog traits by breeding out others, especially the tendency of most dogs to avoid fights through social behavior.  Pit bull ancestors include a variety of comparably artificially created fighting dogs, slave-tracking dogs, dogs bred to hunt and bait dangerous wildlife, and butchers’ dogs, whose work was holding animals by the nose while their throats were cut.  Each of these ancestor dogs was bred to expand the human capacity for inflicting suffering on other animals, including upon the dogs themselves.

Animal advocates who echo the anti-breeding ban rhetoric of pit bull breeders should ask themselves why any authentic animal advocate would want to preserve the legacy of people who,  over thousands of years, deliberately bred dogs to kill each other and other animals in sadistic spectacles.

The short answer is that dogfighters and pit bull breeders have infiltrated, hijacked, and co-opted animal advocacy to the extent that much of the humane community has unwittingly come to amplify dogfighting lingo.  Consider the contemporary ring to the words of dogfighter and pit bull breeder Charles Werner of New Orleans, in an April 1911 letter to the magazine Dog Fancier:

“For the last ten years, continuously I have been the owner of Pit Bull Terriers and can truthfully say that I have, by practice, done what others advocate by preaching that our noble dog does not need to be classified as a fighting dog pure and simple, useless for any practical purposes, but have tried to convince through my dogs and through those which I bred and sold that the much feared Pit Bull Terrier is one of the most intelligent as well as most loyal dogs that any man could ever own.  I pointed out, with considerable pride, that the gameness and fighting qualities of my own dogs always made them so much more valuable as protectors for my home and family during my absence and I have succeeded in overcoming prejudice of those who know me to be sincere in the argument that a real thorough bred Pit Bull Terrier was never known to be treacherous to those who treated him with kindness.”

Dogfighters and pit bull breeders do not have to make such claims for themselves today, because the humane community does the job for them.

Strict liability

A common mantra of pit bull advocates is “ban the deed, not the breed,” meaning that legislation should take a punitive rather than preventive approach to addressing dog attacks, dogfighting, the use of dogs as weapons, and reckless dog care. Either banning pit bulls or mandating sterilization seeks to prevent the problems resulting from pit bull proliferation by preventing the proliferation itself.  “Banning the deed” means that breeders remain free to produce pit bulls, while more severe punishment is meted out to those people whose pit bulls physically harm others, or others’ pets, or who engage in dogfighting and other criminal behavior using pit bulls.

The difference in approach between banning the deed and banning the breed is in gist the difference between the libertarian approach to government, which holds that people should be allowed to do whatever they wish, so long as they are held responsible for the consequences, and legislative approaches putting the needs of the community first, practiced by everyone else on the political spectrum.

But the outraged response of pit bull advocates to the April 2012 ruling of the Maryland Court of Appeals in Tracey v. Solesky demonstrates that pit bull keepers don’t really want to be held responsible for the consequences of their dogs’ behavior.  Opposition to the Tracey v. Solesky verdict, including the opposition of the Best Friends Animal Society, Humane Society of the U.S.,  American SPCA, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, amounts to rebellion against being obliged to take responsibility.

Originating from an unprovoked pit bull attack on two boys in April 2007, the Tracey v. Solesky verdict held that “When an attack involves pit bulls, it is no longer necessary to prove that the particular pit bull or pit bulls are dangerous,” as a requirement of establishing negligence and therefore economic responsibility on the part of the pit bull keeper, since the risk that pit bulls might kill or injure people is widely known.

Unable to recover medical expenses from the tenant whose pit bull attacked their son, the Solesky family sued his landlord, Dorothy M. Tracey, for allegedly renting premises that were inadequate to contain the tenant’s dogs.

In 35 other states–70% of the U.S.–“strict liability” laws are in effect, which hold that the person in possession of a dog is responsible for whatever harm the dog does.Courts have ruled in several states that this includes landlords who rent properties that are unsafe for keeping dogs, or allow tenants to keep dogs in an unsafe manner.  Maryland, however, is still a “one free bite” state, where the person in possession of a dog has historically not been held responsible for foreseeing and preventing dog attacks if the dog has not had a history of biting.

Wrote Judge Dale R. Cathell for the 4-3 majority, “When an attack involves pit bulls, it is no longer necessary to prove that the particular pit bull or pit bulls are dangerous. We are modifying the Maryland common law of liability as it relates to attacks by pit bull and cross-bred pit bull dogs against humans,”  in order to “punish the deed” by making the possessors of such dogs economically responsible for whatever harm the dogs do.

On August 12, 2012 the Maryland Court of Appeals amended the original Tracey v. Solesky verdict to remove the mention of “cross-bred pit bull dogs.”  This was widely acclaimed by pit bull advocates, who often insist that no dog is accurately described as a pit bull because “pit bull” is a generic class of dog, rather than a specific breed defined by a closely written breed standard.

But the Maryland Court of Appeals did not amend the incorporation into the Tracey v. Solesky verdict of language from a Colorado Supreme Court ruling on the Denver ordinance, holding that “A ‘pit bull,’  for purposes of this chapter, is defined as any dog that is an American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one or more of the above breeds.”  The “mixed breed” language removed by the reconsideration thus pertains only to dogs not “displaying the majority of physical traits of” American pit bulls, American Staffordshires, and/or Staffordshire bull terriers.  Uunaffected is the premise of the Tracey v. Solesky verdict that keepers of pit bulls should be aware of the risk that their dogs might harm someone.

Libertarian theory holds that the “invisible hand” of the marketplace should enforce socially responsible behavior, not legal mandates.  According to libertarian theory, if certain behavior is dangerous, such as keeping pit bulls, the people who keep pit bulls–and their landlords–should be sued for the costs resulting from attacks, and should pay higher insurance premiums to offset the risk of lawsuit.

Landlords should have the option of either excluding pit bulls from their private property or charging higher rents.  If keeping pit bulls becomes economically prohibitive, due to the costs of insurance and compensating pit bull attack victims, libertarian theory holds that breeding pit bulls should become economically unviable and come to an end.

Arguing that pit bulls should be subject neither to breed-specific law nor to market pressures is in effect arguing that people who keep pit bulls should be exempt from any restraints taking into account the unique behavior and physical characteristics for which pit bulls are bred and acquired.

Conflicting agendas

Pushing a legislative agenda which is opposed by nearly two-thirds of the public, as in Miami,  could become a liability for national animal advocacy organizations in their efforts to maneuver several other agendas through Congress and state legislatures.

One such agenda is opposition to large commercial dog-breeding establishments, or “puppy mills,” which often produce unhealthy and unsocialized dogs. Winning passage of new regulations for dog breeders in Missouri, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Texas, this campaign appears to have brought about a 40% decline in the numbers of puppies offered for sale in June 2012 as compared to June 2011.

Yet closing or more closely regulating puppy mills does nothing to stop or slow the proliferation of pit bulls.  Few large commercial breeders produce pit bulls, perhaps because of the difficulty of housing large numbers of pit bulls–even puppies–in close proximity.Pit bulls are far more likely to be bought from backyard breeders than they are to be bought in pet stores or adopted from shelters.

Another longtime humane goal is seeking passage of stronger legislation to discourage dogfighting and cockfighting.  But both dogfighting and cockfighting are mechanisms for extracting profits from the disposal of animals who are bred in perpetual surplus.  At the high-stakes apex of the dogfighting and cockfighting industry are some expensively bred and trained animals of pedigree,  but even these exceptions are considered expendable by the people who pit them in fights, and exist in contrast to the reality that the average fighting dog or gamecock is an animal no one really cares much about, or keeps for long.

Pass-along pit bulls

Dogfighting in the U.S. today–and for the past 20 years, at least–uses mostly pass-along pit bulls who are bred in backyards, sold to people who strut them around for a short while and then give them away or resell them.

These dogs are eventually pitted against other dogs of similar history, or are starved and dehydrated for use as “bait dogs” in rigged matches meant to boost the reputations of the breeders of the “winning” dogs and the prices of their top lines. Dogfighters need risk no money or property producing “bait dogs,” when pit bulls can be acquired on the street or through false-front “rescues” for less than the cost of feeding a dog for a couple of weeks.  The real money, for most dogfighting “professionals,” is not in “winning” fights per se, but rather in organizing the fights and collecting a cut of the admission price, gambling stakes, sales of  videos, and concession sales (including sales of illegal drugs on the premises)–and, especially, breeding and selling dogs to would-be dogfighters, like Michael Vick, who paid hugely inflated prices for dogs of exaggerated pedigree before his 2007 arrest.

Often, as in two recent mega-dogfighting busts in the Philippines, the organizers furnish the dogs on either side of the pit.  Dogfighters promote an image of themselves as would-be trainers of champions, but reality is that every dogfight is fixed: both dogs lose.  The “winner” may be bred, however, before being killed, either in fighting or after losing a fight.

Still another longtime humane legislative goal is seeking to outlaw the private breeding, sale, and possession of exotic and dangerous wildlife, including big cats, venomous snakes, and constricting snakes.  Markarian in particular has made much of the purported risk to human health and safety posed by private possession of pythons.

Globally, pet pythons and boa constrictors are known to have injured 10 people since 2005, killing a child in Florida, a man in Nebraska, and a man in Japan.  Large and exotic cats kept as pets, such as pumas, lions, tigers, and leopards, have killed and injured about twice as many, if the definition of “pet” is stretched to include big cats kept at private sanctuaries.

During the same years, pit bulls have killed 153 people in the U.S. alone, disfiguring 552. Relative to total numbers in homes, exotic pets may be more dangerous than pit bulls, but as a matter of priorities, most legislators tend to look first at the issues involving the most people.

Pandering to 2% of voters

Animal advocacy organization leaders should not be willing to squander the chance of legislative success on behalf of major categories of animals to court the support of the 5% of dog-keeping Americans who keep pit bulls and other “bully breeds”–perhaps 2% of U.S. voters.

To be sure, pit bull enthusiasts are a vocal and well-funded tiny minority, cultish in their devotion to “bully breeds.”  Pit bull advocates have also had more than a quarter century since the introduction of the first breed bans in major U.S. cities to rehearse and hone their rhetoric.  The rise of “no kill” advocacy has elevated wishful thinking that every dog might be saved, no matter what,  into an article of faith as fervently held as any tenet of organized religion.

Humane workers hoping to avoid the frequent necessity of killing pit bulls who are too dangerous and much too numerous in shelters to have rehoming prospects, and to avoid being stoned by “no-kill” zealots, have eagerly embraced falsehoods propounded by pit bull advocates, such as that pit bulls were once popular pets, even “nanny dogs,” who were bred by old-time dogfighters–like Charles Werner–to be not  human-aggressive despite being hair-trigger dog-aggressive.

Reality is that pit bulls–by any of their many names –were never more than 1% of the U.S. dog population until recent decades, according to retrospective surveys of newspaper mentions and classified ads offering dogs for sale.  The myth of pit bulls as “nanny dogs” appeared only once in mainstream print before the rise of debate over proposed breed bans.  John P. Colby, the old-time dogfighter who popularized pit bulls as pets from 1889 to 1941, produced dogs who in 1909 killed his own two-year-old nephew, Bert Colby Leadbetter, and later injured several other children.

But pit bull advocates are correct in asserting that “bully” dogs are the most frequent victims of abuse and neglect.  About 21% of the dogs impounded in cases of severe and prolonged neglect since 2005 have been pit bulls, and also 21% of the dogs impounded in cases of violent abuse–including 49% of the dogs set on fire and 14% of the dogs raped in bestiality cases.  No other breed type has ever been commonly fought.

The popularity of pit bulls among violent and abusive people is in itself a strong argument against breeding more.

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