A few weeks ago The New York Times published an unnerving story about Diggy, a dog in Michigan whose crazed smile had gone viral. The widely shared photo of Diggy and owner Dan Tillery had caught the eyes and ire of local police. They contacted Mr. Tillery demanding proof that Diggy wasn’t a pit bull, a breed Waterford Township bans. If Diggy was even part-pit, he would have to return to the Detroit Dog Rescue.
Now in Montreal, police await DNA results for a dog that mauled a woman, Christiane Vadnais, to death in June. The dog was registered as a boxer, but that didn’t stop myopic Mayor Denis Coderre and 37 councilmembers from panic-voting on September 27 to ban pit bulls in the city.
Contrary to what Montreal, Waterford Township, and countless other places would have us believe, we cannot glean a dog’s goodness or wickedness from its breed.
We don’t need a DNA test to tell us that a dog who mauls a woman to death is bad. (Though he probably wasn’t born that way: the dog’s owner named him Lucifer, and one shudders to think how he treated him.) Likewise, we don’t need to know Diggy’s breed to know that he is good. We know Diggy is good and Lucifer is bad the same way we know how people are good and bad—from their actions.
Not that it should matter, but Diggy is an American bulldog. He can stay.
I recently came across a cartoon in which a pack of Salem pilgrims force a dog off a plank into a tank of water, saying, “If he floats, he’s a pit bull!” Idiot humans have demonized many breeds over the years—German shepherds, Dobermans, Rottweilers, mastiffs—but no dog has been so victimized and vilified as the pit bull. (The jaw-locking thing is a myth, by the way, one that’s been linked to those other breeds as well.)
We chop off their ears, choke them, breed them, torture them, and force them to fight—and then we oppress and execute pit bulls for their inherent cruelty.
The pit bull is not an official breed; it’s a catchall term for American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers, and/or any strong dog with a blocky head, short hair, and a wide smile. That is one of the many, many problems with breed-specific legislation (BSL): as exemplified in Waterford Township, pit bulls are misidentified as often as they are identified. You can’t determine breed via eye test, only DNA test.
A 2015 study in The Veterinary Journal found, “Whereas DNA breed signatures identified only 25 dogs (21%) as pit bull-type, shelter staff collectively identified 62 (52%) dogs as pit bull-type.” (So no, René Cadieux, pit bulls are not like pornography.)
More importantly, there is no evidence that BSL reduces dog bites. It’s expensive and ineffective, so much so that the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Bar Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Obama administration, the Canadian branch of the Humane Society International, and even an independent advisory group appointed by the Quebec government all oppose BSL. (PETA remains a joke.)
A 15-year study of Ireland’s BSL found “a significant increase” in hospitalizations from dog bites over that time. Bites have gone up in Toronto, too, since Ontario banned pit bulls in 2005 after 567 dog bites in the capital city the previous year. (One hundred and twelve of those attacks were by German shepherds, 86 by pit bulls.) In 2014, there were 767 bites—200 more than in 2004.
Bill Bruce, Calgary’s director of animal services from 1997 to 2012, told the Montreal Gazette, “I don’t support breed bans because they don’t work… The thing that disturbs me the most is that in every city I’ve looked at, they have not reduced the overall number of bites in the community.”
So what does work? Focusing on the other end of the leash. That’s what Calgary did after a spate of bites by Labrador retrievers. Instead of punishing an entire breed, the city spearheaded public education, pet identification and licensing, subsidized sterilization (70 percent of dog bites are by unneutered male dogs), and training. They held owners responsible and treated dogs on a case-by-case basis.
From 1985 to 2014, these measures reduced aggressive dog incidents by two-thirds, from 2,000 to 641.
In lieu of sensible legislation like Calgary’s, which would actually protect people, Montreal’s mayor has issued a death sentence for thousands of good innocent dogs like Diggy. Any “pit bull-type dog” in a shelter will be euthanized. There are roughly 700 of them today, and there will be thousands more in the years to come.
In his defense of the indefensible ban, Mayor Coderre has repeatedly turned a blind eye to these shelter dogs. He focuses only on pit bulls already in homes. These dogs will be grandfathered in (not murdered), but they must be muzzled and leashed whenever outside. There will be a two-dog and four-pet limit to every household, so if someone has three dogs, or two dogs and three cats, they will have to apply for a special permit or get rid of one of their pets (or move, as many Montreal animal lovers have threatened to do).
The heroes at the Montreal SPCA—who tried in vain to reason with Mayor Coderre—are fighting the new law tooth and nail. They sued the city and last Wednesday secured a key victory when a judge agreed to suspend the pit bull by-laws until a Superior Court can hash out their legality. (Mercifully, this could take awhile.)
In an open letter sure to trigger any dog lover’s gag reflex, Mayor Coderre hinted at an appeal of the judge’s decision, writing, “Montreal sets a very high bar when it comes to respecting animals’ lives and well-being.” He said that his
top priority will always be people and their safety. That is why we adopted a by-law concerning dangerous dogs and one in particular, the pit bull. Pit bulls have been banned in numerous cities throughout Quebec, Ontario and around the world.
This is the first and last refuge of someone with no actual evidence to support his or her stance: But everyone else is doing it! (Runner up: This is how we’ve always done it.)
Yes, pit bulls have been banned around the world, which has only served to punish and demonize the breed. There is no evidence that these costly bans have saved a single life—only that they have taken hundreds of thousands.
In his letter Mayor Coderre bemoaned that the pit bull debate had taken an emotional turn. But he is the one who has failed to present a sound rational argument for the ban, or even a clear way to carry it out. He is the one who made an emotional, knee-jerk decision in the wake of Ms. Vadnais’ death. And now he is the one whining because experts, advocates, and even judges are questioning his muddy, deeply misguided law.
The mayor’s letter was titled “People first!”, as if his town wasn’t big enough for both people and pit bulls—as if he had to choose between them. He doesn’t.
It should go without saying, but breed discrimination is a global problem, not just a Canadian one. If we are going to #BanMontreal, we must also #BanDenver and #BanMuchofEurope.
Though American pit bull terriers score above average on temperament tests—higher than golden retrievers, beagles, and Chihuahuas—pit bulls are banned in the UK, Denmark, Norway, Australia, Israel, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Malaysia, and restricted in Ireland, France, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Poland, and New Zealand, among other places.
Here in the States they are outlawed in several hundred towns and cities, including Denver and Miami, plus the territory of Puerto Rico. Michigan, to its credit, is considering a law that would repeal BSL statewide. (Miami might repeal, too, though that vote was just pushed back by Hurricane Matthew.)
But even in places where the breed is not restricted, the pit bull label can shatter a dog’s chances of ever leaving a shelter. The stigma is such a powerful repellant that dogs deemed pit bulls or pit mixes spend three times as long in the shelter as similar-looking dogs who are called something else. In many cases, this can mean the difference between adoption and euthanasia.
Every year 1.2 million dogs are put down. Forty percent of them—nearly half a million—are pit bulls.
The night of the Montreal vote, my girlfriend Sam and I curled up on the couch with what we believe is a pit bull/American bulldog mix, Petey. On the coffee table sat Bronwen Dickey’s book, “Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon.” Ms. Dickey has received death threats over her exhaustively researched defense of the breed.
Eight months ago Petey was a “pit bull-type dog” at the no-kill Sean Casey Animal Rescue. He had been found chained up in Flatbush, 20 pounds underweight, covered in fleas, and battling several nasty infections.
We were only supposed to foster him until he found a home, but wilted beneath his brightness, total devotion, and world-class cuddling prowess. We named him Petey for his likeness to the pit bull from “The Little Rascals” (the breed was adored back then), and refused to give him up.
Petey could be Diggy’s spotted uncle. He is 80 pounds of chunky muscle and has teeth like a shark. He is also the most affectionate dog I have ever known. Despite being treated like trash by humans (he flinches often and is terrified of basements), he has never shown a whiff of aggression toward them. He makes a truly pitiful guard dog, all licking and wiggling. Children climb all over him, calling him “moo cow”; he just stands there, barely registering their presence. I don’t need a DNA test to know that he’s a good boy.
The night of the vote, Sam, Petey and I streamed “The Champions” on Netflix, rendering our Kleenex extinct. “The Champions” is a 2015 documentary about the redemption—against PETA’s wishes—of Michael Vick’s pit bulls, almost all of whom have found loving homes, many of them as service or therapy dogs. (One, Cherry, loves cuddling with kittens and is “the heartbeat of [his] family.”) It will open your eyes and jerk tears out of them, and I have not ruled out mailing it to Mayor Coderre and The Magnificently Ignorant 37.
After the movie, the three of us squeezed into our queen-sized bed. Like most nights, I slept with Petey’s piebald brick of a head on my chest—his ostensibly unlockable, homicidal jaws just inches from my neck. He snored, drooled, dreamed, shifted, and licked me, like always. (If I move to the couch, he follows. If I move back to the bed, he follows.) I didn’t sleep well, but not because of anything my dog had done.
In the morning we went out into the world, unmuzzled and asking for a fair shake.