Although dogs pay the ultimate price, the discrimination in breed specific legislation is often aimed at people. And they suffer, too.
The City of Montreal has sent a letter to as many as 500 families who live with pit bulls telling them they have only a couple of weeks “to find their dogs new homes in towns where the breed isn’t outlawed or surrender the dogs to animal shelters” where they will be killed.
Animal protection groups are expressing shock and dismay that it will lead to abandonment. And those families who can afford to and have tried to comply with the city’s grandfather clause have spent hundreds of dollars even though many of them do not even know if their dog is a pit bull, “a catch-all term used to describe a continually expanding incoherent group of dogs, including pure-bred dogs and mixed-breed dogs. A ‘Pit Bull’ is any dog an animal control officer, shelter worker, dog trainer, politician, dog owner, police officer, newspaper reporter or anyone else says is a ‘Pit Bull’.”
What makes this especially tragic is that no one really expects the law to reduce dog bites. Virtually every study that has looked at them found that dogs targeted for breed discriminatory laws were not more likely to bite, did not bite harder, and the laws did not result in fewer dog bites or bite-related hospitalization rates. In fact, they make things worse, often resulting in a greater number of overall bites (as officials tasked with preventing bites focus on the irrelevancy of what dogs look like and encourage people to ignore warning signs in non-legislated breeds which lead to avoidable bites).
After neighboring Ontario banned pit bulls, for example, thousands of dogs and puppies have been “needlessly put down” according to the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association. At the same time, “Toronto’s reported dog bites have been rising” and “reached their highest levels this century” even as pit bulls are being exterminated.
Going to someone’s house, knocking on the door, and seeing their American pit bull terrier sitting in their living room watching television with the rest of the family, and have to take it out. Where the dog has done nothing wrong, no problems, but just because [of] its breed, he has to be removed.
Why then are these kinds of laws passed? In some cases, pit bull bans are an easy choice for lazy, backward, and unethical politicians to appear “tough on crime” and focused on “protecting public safety,” regardless of their documented failure. But while “public safety” is the excuse, in many cases, the real motivation appears to have less to do with dogs and more to do with people: “proxies by which uneasy majorities can register their suspicions about the race, class and ethnicity of the people who own those dogs.”
The roots of Miami-Dade’s pit bull ban was growing anxiety and social tension about Cuban immigration. Denver’s ban was enacted after the energy industry bust resulted in “migration [that] dramatically changed the population of the city”: whites moved out and Latinos moved in. When Aurora, CO, enacted a ban, one of the commissioners stated that she did not want “those sorts of people” moving into her community. When then-Mayor Ed Koch sought similar measures in New York City, he did not do so because of evidence that the dogs were dangerous but because “of who was thought to own them.” In Sterling Heights, MI—a sundown town that once excluded African Americans—a supporter of the pit bull ban called it necessary because, “We have inner-city people who bought homes here.” In Ellenville, NY, officials did not even bother using coded language. They wanted BSL to address the growing number “of Mexicans moving into the community.” In short, says one target of the ban, “it seems that ‘pit bull’ has become a synonym for ‘black.’” Not surprisingly, support for BSL remains strongest with older, white, and more conservative voters and in predominantly white suburbs.
This isn’t limited to the U.S. In the U.K., the ban on pit bulls was not because they bit disproportionately to other dogs (to the contrary in fact); pit bulls were picked specifically because of race. The dogs most correlated with dog bites were supported by what Kenneth Baker, the then-Home Secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s government, called the “kennel club” types: wealthy, white, and conservative; Thatcher’s constituency. With pressure to do something, Baker admitted that “social class” and what he termed “optics” played a role in choosing to target pit bulls.
In other European countries which followed suit, the goal was not protecting the public from dangerous dogs, it was “keeping out the specter of American inner-city culture” even though evidence showed that dogs in American inner cities were not disproportionately dangerous. In fact, people in inner cities were acquiring dogs for the same reason as wealthy people in suburbs: “companionship” and a “social connection.”
Tragic though this is, it is not surprising. The “use of racial stereotypes and coded language… to justify the necessity of such laws,” writes Bronwen Dickey in Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon, “perpetuated a long, troubling tradition.”
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…
In antebellum America, the least powerful were African slaves. Among the planter class, it was accepted as a foregone conclusion that dogs owned by slaves were most likely to attack sheep and cause general mayhem around the estate. ‘It is not for any good purpose Negros raise, or keep dogs, but to aid them in the night robberies, George Washington wrote to a friend in 1790. Any of Washington’s slaves who was found with a dog was severely whipped, the dog hanged.
Likewise, Thomas Jefferson wrote his Monticello overseer to kill all dogs belonging to slaves in 1801: “the negroes’ dogs must all be killed. Do not spare a single one.’”
This kind of belief even infected the humane movement. In the 1970s, Rutherford Hayes, the head of the American Humane Association, the country’s oldest national companion animal protection group, once cautioned that only “certain” kinds of people were worthy of having pets. Past adoptions in “ghetto areas” were a failure, he argued, because these dogs were now doing little more than “attacking children in schoolyards.”
Discrimination not only undergirds enactment of many discriminatory laws, it is the basis of enforcement, too: “There appears to be a racial end of this,” said one veterinarian of the ban in Denver. “Look at the dogs that have been impounded, and the surnames of their owners… They aren’t killing dogs from Cherry Creek [a wealthy Denver suburb]. They pick on the easiest people to pick on…” These are families who are then “forced to pick up their dogs from the municipal shelter in body bags.”
Even when there is an economic component to going after pit bulls, the use of language with racial overtones is never very far off. When Grove City, Ohio, enacted a ban on the commercial sale of purposely bred dogs and cats in a bid not only to curtail abuse at puppy mills, but to increase opportunities for dogs in shelters to be adopted (pet stores would only be permitted to partner with shelters and rescue groups), industry witnesses played the race card. They argued to the court that pet stores protect public safety by offering “safe” dogs for purchase. Shelters, they argued by contrast, are filled with little more than pit bulls and pit bulls—they claimed—are a bigger threat to the lives of Americans than “jihadi terrorists.” (A study in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, by contrast, found that “Nothing in the prevalence estimates we reviewed suggest that overall, dogs who come to spend time in a shelter… are dramatically more or less inclined toward problematic warning or biting behavior than are pet dogs in general.” Indeed, a shelter director with experience at municipal agencies taking in as many as 30,000 animals a year says that “the percentage of truly aggressive dogs I have seen in small to very large shelters is well under one quarter of 1%.”)
Thankfully, more and more communities are repealing breed specific laws, especially with turnover on city councils or county commissions. But sometimes they do not. Once passed, it sometimes proves difficult to repeal a ban without appearing indifferent to public safety simply because of the argument—repeated ad infinitum—that these dogs are dangerous, even when there is no legitimate proof of this claim. In places like Miami, it is easier to simply maintain the status quo, regardless of the cost in animal lives. Moreover, those who introduce pit bull bans and restrictions, vote for them, enforce them, or defend them are provided political cover by a small, but vocal, group of disinformation peddlers who give their untoward actions the false stain of legitimacy.
Canada’s leading promoter of eradicating pit bulls—who is a booster of both the Ontario and Montreal bans—freely admits she relies almost exclusively on an evidence-ignoring pundit named Merritt Clifton: “My primary source, you will not be surprised to learn, is animal-industry historian and investigative reporter for more than 40 years, Merritt Clifton, until recently editor of Animal People News and now editor of his own site, Animals 24/7.”
But using the term “historian” and “investigative reporter” to describe Clifton is dubious at best. Clifton, in fact, has been called the “academic impostor behind the pit bull hysteria.” According to an article by Douglas Cooper in The Huffington Post, “Merritt Clifton is prominent not simply because he has been making noise for decades, but because he uniquely claims to be a rigorous statistician: a scholarly expert. People who hate pit bulls lean on this man’s putative expertise. And he’s a charlatan.” Clifton, for example, claimed to have 100 peer-reviewed articles, a claim which was debunked as “fictional.” “Merritt Clifton is worse than your average academic fraud,” Cooper writes, “he is a medical fraud.”
Dickey concurs, calling his work “pseudoscience”: “The emphasis is not on meaningful, controlled, repeatable scientific experiments. Instead it is on unverifiable eyewitness testimony, stories and tall tales, hearsay, rumor, and dubious anecdotes. Genuine scientific literature is either ignored or misinterpreted.”
And who did the puppy mill industry cite as a source for its claim that pit bulls are jihadi terrorist-like dogs? Merritt Clifton. Tragically, however, he’s not the only one.
PETA has joined Clifton’s witch hunt by arguing that all pit bulls in all shelters should be killed: “Most people have no idea that at many animal shelters across the country, any pit bull that comes through the front door doesn’t go out the back door alive,” writes PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk.
From San Jose to Schenectady, many shelters have enacted policies requiring the automatic destruction of the huge and ever-growing number of ‘pits’ they encounter. This news shocks and outrages the compassionate dog-lover. Here’s another shocker: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the very organization that is trying to get you to denounce the killing of chickens for the table, foxes for fur or frogs for dissection, supports the shelters’ pit-bull policy… People who genuinely care about dogs won’t be affected by a ban on pits.
PETA even supported the pit bull ban in Ontario, which in addition to killing thousands of dogs, mandates the pound seizure of animals from shelters by companies who use them for animal experimentation—the fate that ostensibly awaited some of the family pets seized under the PETA-supported breed ban. PETA also wrote a Mayor in Tennessee telling him not to work with rescuers and to kill all pit bulls: “PETA recommends a ban on the adoption/release of dangerous dogs and fighting breeds (commonly known as ‘pit bulls’).”
And PETA is a member of an umbrella group “to have pit bulls banned across the United States—a move which seems to lead, inexorably, to the dogs being killed.” “We’re not talking about dogs who have done anything wrong,” writes Arin Greenwood in The Huffington Post. “This concerns all pit bulls. The therapy dogs, the police dogs, the war heroes, those who’ve saved lives, … and those who are still in shelters, waiting to be given a chance.”
PETA also kills pit bulls themselves. As one employee noted,
I did witness [PETA] bring back a pit bull to the Norfolk location. This pit bull was wagging its tail, jumping (an obvious friendly dog; not feral) while receiving praise, treats and getting pet by the [two PETA] employees. It was the end of my shift, so I was cleaning and restocking, which required me to go into their shed for supplies. I saw the [two PETA] employees take the pitbull into the shed’s euthanasia room, which is inside this shed. It is a small room where they have a table and a huge walk-in freezer with [four] large trash cans. The trash cans contained deceased animals and were usually full. As I continued to do my job, I heard the [PETA] employees talking to the dog and trying to calm it down as it whined. Later … they opened the door and I saw the pit bull deceased on the table.
Not surprisingly, PETA specifically targets vulnerable and disadvantaged populations through its “Community Animal Project” in order to kill their dogs. According to an affidavit filed in a recent court case, “The main purpose of the Community Animal Project was to persuade people to surrender their animals, so that PETA could then euthanize the animals.” This included lying, trespassing, trapping, and stealing animals to kill. According to PETA employees who have spoken out, PETA argues that since these people cannot adequately take care of animals, animals are better off dead, which PETA is willing to do. When PETA was recently caught stealing and killing a family’s dog, it focused on a trailer park where the population was largely poor, immigrant, Spanish-speaking, and possibly undocumented.
Although it was sued and was forced to settle the case for $49,000, it unsuccessfully tried to defend itself by seeking information as to the family’s immigration status under the implied argument that people in this country illegally do not deserve dogs or, at the least, stealing and killing their dogs should not be actionable in court, even though the killing of the dog was no accident. PETA routinely kills or causes to be killed over 90% of animals it seeks out: as high as 98% of all animals. Many of these are from neighborhoods deemed undesirable by the men and women who—indifferent to the pain they cause families—PETA hires to go into poor neighborhoods to round up and kill their animals.
There are the “experts” pit bull ban proponents use as a “race-neutral” cover to justify their deadly actions. And the list of victims includes both dogs and the people who love them. The fact that breed discrimination does not work and is not designed to adds insult to the injury suffered by hundreds of Montreal families who must face the specter of knocks on their door, officers taking their beloved family members, and then having to go to the pound to pick them up in body bags. It likewise adds insult to the thousands of dogs who will be killed year after year for reasons which have nothing to do with their behavior. And it ultimately begs the question: if diversity is Canada’s strength—as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stated on more than one occasion—why is it employing racist policies to kill family dogs? And why is it hiding behind race-baiting academic imposters, charlatans, and in the case of PETA, what is almost certainly a death cult, to do so?
Balko, Radley, The dirty secret behind banning certain dog breeds, Washington Post (Oct. 26, 2016)
Cain, Patrick, Toronto’s pit bulls are almost gone. So why are there more dog bites than ever?, Global News (Feb. 20, 2016)
Chagrin, Teresa, Letter to Rogers Anderson, Mayor of Williamson County, TN, PETA (Mar. 15, 2013)
Coleman, Stacey, Personal Communication, Animal Farm Foundation (Aug. 30, 2017).
Cooper, Douglas, The Academic Impostor Behind the Pit Bull Hysteria, The Huffington Post (Sep. 24, 2014)
Creedon, Nancy, et al, Dog bite injuries to humans and the use of breed-specific legislation: a comparison of bites from legislated and non-legislated dog breeds, Irish Veterinary Journal (Jul. 21, 2017)
Dickey, Brownen, Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon, Vintage Books (Apr. 2017)
Greenwood, Arin, Dear PETA: Dogs Respond To PETA Joining Terrible Anti-Pit Bull Coalition, The Huffington Post (Oct. 19, 2015).
Hayes, Rutherford, Proceedings of the National Conference on the Ecology of the Surplus Dog and Cat Problem, American Humane Association (May 21-23, 1974)
Newkirk, Ingrid, Deadly, abused, doomed, San Francisco Examiner (Date unknown)
Patronek, Gary, et al, No better than flipping a coin: Reconsidering canine behavior evaluations in animal shelters, Journal of Veterinary Behavior (Sep-Oct. 2016)
Rae, Doug, Personal Communication, Humane Society of Fremont County, CO (Sep. 27, 2016)
Sayres, Edwin, Expert Report of Edwin Sayres with CV and Bio, Petland vs. Garden Grove, OH (Aug. 11, 216)
Staff, Montreal orders hundreds to get rid of pit bulls within four weeks, Montreal Gazette (Aug. 24, 2017)
Troje, Heather, Inside the PETA Kill Room, Interview upatdaylight.com (Aug. 22, 2017)
In addition to the above, sources include court records from the lawsuit against PETA by the family of Maya, a dog they stole from her porch and killed (Wilbur Zarate Llaven vs. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), personal communications with PETA employees conducted between 2015-2017, and annual disposition statistics reported by PETA to the Virginia Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. These documents can be found at nathanwinograd.com and whypetakills.com.
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