Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Pit Bulls, Sex Offenders, and stereotyping

I am not a fan of pit bulls. Personally, I think they are ugly as sin with fat, bloated heads with floppy mouths and slobber (the demon dog from "Turner and Hooch" immediately comes to mind). My fiancee thinks they are adorable. I'm not really a dog person, come to think of it.

A few months ago, my fiancee and I were walking around the neighborhood on a lazy Sunday afternoon when this stray dog came up to us and started sniffing us. It looked like a pit bull. I was one of those people who believed the media hype about vicious pit bulls, so I was on guard. The dog was very friendly, however, and followed us like the lost puppy it was. It eventually followed us home, and after some tearful pleas for the dog's life (as shelters routinely euthanize Pit Bulls), my fiancee talked me into letting her keep the stray.

The stray turned out to be a "Rhodesian Ridgeback." They are related to bulldogs such as Bull Mastiffs by breed, so it could be rather easily confused for a Pit Bull. So now I'm the reluctant "co-owner" of an energetic, bone-chewing, poo-and-grass eating, hole digging bag of fleas that is scared of kittens. The dog is far from vicious. Rhodesian Ridgebacks were bred for chasing lions, but this particular dog is more cowardly lion than lion chaser. It reminded me how little I knew about Pit Bulls or dogs in general.


People stereotype everything. If I say a group of anything, such as "pit bulls," we conjure up a particular image. Many people, when asked to imagine a pit bull, will conjure up an image of a vicious dog that kills cats or people, is vicious, and has "locking jaws." I was one of those people. I just accepted news media accounts and my own fear of the dogs as absolute fact. Only when I thought I was on the verge of having to share part of my life with one of those "vicious dogs" did I really research the breed.

The first information I found was a website called www.pitbulls.org. There is a wealth of information at that site that breaks down the stereotypes surrounding the breed. The site refers to http://atts.org/,  a site that tests various breeds for certain traits that make dogs less-than-ideal pets, like unprovoked aggression, strong avoidance, and panic without recovery. The more dogs than show one of these traits, the lower the score. Below are the numbers of a few select breeds:

American Pit Bull Terriers: 86%
German Shepherd: 84.2%
Collie: 79.7%
Miniature Poodle: 77.9%
Chihuahua: 71.1%

As an aside, my Rhodesian Ridgeback scored a 84.4%. My fiancee's mother owns a chihuahua. She's quite a vicious little nipper, and I've been bitten by the little runt. Which dog is the more dangerous dog? [To see a really good video on the Pit Bull CLICK HERE]

Don Mattingly Cover - Sports Illustrated July 27, 1987
Thanks in part to selective breeding, the Pit Bull is a very people oriented dog. In fact, at one time they were also known as "nanny dogs" because of their people-friendliness. However, it is also thanks to people that Pit Bulls have a very bad reputation. Many people are scared of Pit Bulls. Pit Bulls gained their reputation because they are powerful and tenacious dogs, making them perfect for pit fighting (hence the name). According to the Pitbulls.org site, the current state of Pit Bull Panic stemmed from a 1987 Sports Illustrated article on Pit Bull fighting. The 1987 cover was indeed a very powerful image depicting the dog in the most negative light. It is an image not easily shaken, and fits perfectly the "dangerous Pit Bull" stereotype. Sports Illustrated has admitted their 1987 cover played a major role in the hysteria surrounding Pit Bulls. As an act of penance, Sports Illustrated ran a more recent article following the success stories of the animals rescued from Michael Vick's dog fighting ring.

Destroying stereotypes embedded in our culture is no easy task. A recent article landed on CBS news, entitled "Pitbull Kills 2-Year-Old Boy in California: Recent String of Attacks Renewed Calls for Regulations on Dangerous Breed." The article lists a total of two attacks, on that killed a 2-year-old boy in California, and one that killed an elderly man in Memphis (the dog's owner is a registered sex offender). Apparently it does not take many incidents to declare an epidemic, especially when a child is involved. The article also highlights the city of Worchester, MA, and the typical knee jerk reaction to news stories. The city is looking to pass restrictions on Pit Bull owners, including muzzling the pets and placing warning signs on the properties of owners after dog bite reports. Other cities, like Minneapolis, MN, Seminole Co., FL, and Sarasota Co., FL all have public "dangerous dog" registries, complete with mapping software (Ironically, upon actually viewing these registries, there are a lot of non-Pit Bull type breeds on this list). They look a lot like the public sex offender registries run by the same sheriff's websites. Some cities have outright bans, including Miami, FL, Denver, CO., and Cincinnati, OH (as a former Cincinnatian, I can assure you they do not enforce the ban).These actions are referred to as "Breed Specific Legislation" or BSL.

Fueling BSL is a lot of inflated statistics and fear mongering. One of the Worchester city councilmen went on record stating while the Pit Bulls make up 2% of the population of licensed dogs on the city, they are accountable for 25% of dog bite reports. That comment mirrors the statistic mentioned in the 1987 Sports Illustrated article-- 12 of the 18 fatal dog bites in the 18 months prior to the 1987 article were from Pit Bulls, though they make up only 1% of the US dog population. I'm admittedly not an exprt in the field, but I have enough common sense to know that many individuals keep large, powerful dogs like Put Bulls, German Shepards, Rottweilers, and Dobermans for protection. Even many police departments have canine units and killing a police dog can carry as bad a penalty as killing a human officer.

In a heavily-criticised Miami Herald article on using Pit Bulls as service dogs, Broward County resident Larry Steinhauser states, "I've never seen one that isn't aggressive. I think they're a danger to society."

Pit Bulls are ALL dangerous, cannot be cured, the stereotypes, the inflated "OMG" epidemic statistics, the blanket bans, the targeted legislation, and the public registries, the outcries for more laws to protect our children from these vicious predators.

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

I was in the dark about Pit Bulls until I decided to research the facts. I eventually learned everything I believed about them was a lie. How many people have changed their opinions about American sex offender laws after they were targeted by the very laws they blindly supported? How many have read both of the story? How many have researched the facts?

Education is sorely needed to separate fact from fiction. We are indeed fighting an uphill battle. Many current laws were passed out of fear, loathing, and blind ignorance. It will take tanacity, persistence, and the ability to grasp the truth and never let go. Not all Pit Bulls fit the sterotype. Not all sex offenders fit the stereotype. The best example we can lead is in our own lives. Educate one person at a time. Live your live above the stereotype and do not believe the hype.

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