2012 was a tough year.
It started on May 1st, when it was decided that Miami Dade voters would have the chance to overturn our city’s 23-year-old breed ban that targets the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier and all mixes of these breeds. Sabal Chase Animal Clinic sprang into action.
We booked a session on WLRN’s Topical Currents with Joseph Cooper to discuss the issue. We passed out literature about pit bulls and breed bans to everyone that visited our clinic. We added pages to our website devoted to facts about pit bulls, and the unintended, often cruel consequences of banning certain breeds. We turned the mandatory, government-issued, “dangerous dog” warning poster that all Miami veterinary clinics are required to post into a shameless propaganda tool. We talked to a LOT of people, some of whom, to put it mildly, did not share our enthusiasm for this cause.
One day, a colleague pulled me aside and asked if she could have a quiet word with me.
“Listen Doc,” she said. “Everybody in our field hates this ban. It’s nice to see you all fired up, but I’m worried you may be committing professional suicide. I mean, we all know pit bulls aren’t dangerous, but seriously - why are you doing this?”
Professional suicide….ouch...why was I doing this?
Let me bgin to answer that question by stating why I’m not doing this. I do not own pit bulls. I am not secretly dreaming of a day when I can walk my illegally owned pit bull on Lincoln Road with impunity. I am not what some anti-pit bull websites refer to as a “pit bull nutter” or a member of the so-called “pit bull mafia”. I own two dachshunds and a geriatric lovebird. I have no hidden agenda.
As a veterinarian, it is my responsibility to make sound judgements on the basis of peer reviewed scientific data derived from lifetimes of slavish devotion to the scientific method. There’s what we know, and there’s what we think we know. This is what I know.
PIt bulls do not have locking jaws. As public awareness of dog fighting grew, so also did a series of myths and urban legends associated with pit bulls. Many people mistakenly believe that when a pit bull bites, it cannot let go due to a unique, breed-specific physical anomaly.
Dr. I. Lehr Brisbin of the University of Georgia has stated under the oath “There is absolutely no evidence for the existence of any kind of ‘locking mechanism’ unique to the structure of the jaw and/or teeth of the American Pit Bull Terrier”.
An additional study out of Presbyterian College by Jesse M. Bridgers III titled “Mechanical Advantage in the Pit Bull Jaw” reached a similar conclusion: “After graphing and analyzing the derived ratios, I have found no evidence of mechanical advantage in the pit bull compared to other domestic breeds of dogs.”
Pit bulls are not inherently more dangerous than other dogs.
The American Temperament Test Society, as of February 14, 2013 found the American Pit Bull Terrier to have a passing rate of 86.8 percent out 870 dogs tested. They are the organization’s sixth most tested breed. By comparison, Golden Retrievers had a passing rate of 85.2 percent. Shih-tzus scored 77.8 percent.
Many factors lead to aggression including, but not limited to, being sexually intact, being tethered or chained, breeding situations, poor nutrition, veterinary health problems, lack of proper socialization, and abuse. That being said, consider for a moment that of the 51 pit bulls rescued from Michael Vick’s dog fighting operation, only one was euthanized after being deemed too dangerous to return to society. The rest were placed in loving homes, and several even work as therapy dogs. All of these dogs were subjected to unthinkable cruelty, in addition to the factors mentioned above.
“But don’t pit bulls, like, attack without warning?” a client once asked me.
In a word, no. All dogs give a warning before they attack or bite. The signs can be subtle, and can even be mistaken for playfulness, but they are always there, and they often go unrecognized. It is especially difficult to see these signs in dogs who spend little or no time interacting with the humans in their world. Known in my profession as resident dogs, these animals spend much of their lives living outdoors in pens or on chains, without proper exercise, nutrition, socialization, or veterinary care. They are rarely spayed or neutered, have little to occupy their minds, and are often protecting litters of puppies. These residents dogs are ticking time bombs, and are often mislabelled as “family pets” simply because they live on a property owned by a family. While it may seem like an exercise in quibbling over semantics, resident dogs of all breeds are responsible for nearly all severe bites and attacks to humans and other dogs. It is impossible to have an intelligent discussion of dog bites and attacks that excludes the distinction between family pets and resident dogs.
So why is this breed so feared by so many?
Pit bull advocates have long complained of a perceived breed bias in media coverage of dog bites and attacks. Pit bull bites and attacks, they claim, are sensationalized and over-reported, while stories of attacks carried out by other breeds are doomed to die in the slush pile. This new brand of yellow journalism leads to misconceptions about their beloved breed that has destroyed its reputation in the collective consciousness of mainstream America. In fact, in a recent survey of people who admitted to having negative opinions of pit bulls, 60 percen of the participants cited media reports as the basis of their negative opinions. Are pit bull attacks really reported differently?
A 2008 report by the National Canine Research Council compared media coverage for dog attacks that occurred during a four day period in 2007. The results are as follows:
Day 1: A Labrador Retriever mix attacked an elderly man, sending him to the hospital. One article appeared in the local paper.
Day 2: A mixed breed dog fatally attacked a child. The local paper ran two stories.
Day 3: A mixed breed dog attacked a child, sending the child to the hospital. One article ran in the local paper
Day 4: Two tethered pit bulls broke from their chains and attacked a woman walking her small dog. The woman was hospitalized. Her dog was uninjured. The attack was reported in 232 articles in national and international newspapers, as well as on the major cable news networks.
Still not wanting to be accused of joining the “pit bull mafia," I decided to try an experiment of my own. I scanned a list of children killed by dogs, looking for uncommon names that would be easy for Google to find. I wanted to see for myself if pit bull attacks were truly reported more often.
On July 25, 2008, 14-month-old Addison Sonney was killed by an English Sheepdog mix. A Google search of her name produced 28,900 hits. Several weeks prior, 7-year-old Tanner Monk was killed by two off-leash pit bulls. A Google search of his name produced an astounding 1,960,000 hits. One MILLION, nine hundred and sixty thousand.
Are we to infer that the loss of one child is greater than the loss of another? Was Tanner’s life somehow more valuable, or his death more tragic than baby Addison’s? Was it somehow less agonizing for Addison’s parents to bury their child? Why do we as a species, as a breed, if you will, have such a lust for gorey pit bull stories that we beg our media outlets to feed us more?
It’s a rhetorical question that some have been gracious enough to answer anyway. “The public has a right to know,” I’ve been told. “We have a right to know if a breed is dangerous.” This just might be the most dangerous statement of them all.
When certain breeds are labelled as “dangerous," the public assumes that, by default, all other breeds are “safe." One only needs to scan the list where I read about Addison and Tanner to see the flaws in this thinking. The list serves as a chilling testimony to the dangers of complacency, and the folly of a false sense of security.
Aiden McGrew, 8 weeks old, killed by a Golden Retriever. Trey Paeth, 11 months old, killed by a Siberian Husky. Justin Mozer, six weeks old, killed by a Jack Russell Terrier. Zane Earles, two months old, killed by a Labrador Retriever. Liam Perk, two years old, killed by a Weimaraner. None of these children were killed by “dangerous breeds”. This is likely to offer little consolation to the parents who must now endure a life without them. A favorite rallying cry of pit bull advocates is “Punish the deed, not the breed.” I prefer this one: Any dog, of any breed, can, and occasionally will, bite.
Any dog. Any breed. It’s not as catchy, but this is what I know.
So back to the original question. Why am I doing this? Because I’ve studied the evidence, and I’ve reached a verdict. Because I know the facts, and therefore the truth. Because pit bulls are just dogs. Because in fifteen years of poking them, palpating them, and sticking my fingers in their mouths, I’ve never met a pit that didn’t lick my face or plonk its goofy head in my lap. Most importantly, because it’s the right thing to do. Professional suicide? Like Miami’s pit bull ban, I’m still here.
As for those who have accused me of joining the so-called “pit bull mafia”, I’ll leave these folks with one final question:
You got a problem with that?