Pit Bulls

We’re Safer Without Pit Bull Bans

By Bronwen Dickey Oct. 11th, 2016

In 1986, the first dog ever to be used by the Los Angeles Police Department for narcotics detection died of liver cancer at the age of 10. His name was Frog. During his eight years on the force he was credited with locating drug shipments worth more than $160 million.

I mention Frog’s service because he was a pit bull — a dog that Montreal recently decided is such a threat to human safety that it doesn’t belong within city limits. Under Montreal’s new ban, no resident can acquire or adopt a “pit-bull-type” dog. Those who currently own pets bearing this vague label will be subject to a number of complex licensing protocols. New residents to the area risk having their companions seized and put down. Unclaimed pit bulls in the city’s animal shelters will be slated for euthanasia.

The ban, in a word, is stupid: Far from protecting the public, breed-based laws actually imperil it. They divert resources away from the individual animals causing real problems, focusing attention instead on dogs who look a certain way yet haven’t harmed anyone. The American Veterinary Medical Assn., the National Animal Control Assn., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Bar Assn. and even the White House have denounced this approach.

Of the roughly 60 dog-bite deaths reported in Canada since 1964, “pit bulls” have been involved in only two.

But Montreal is not alone in its folly. In the last three decades, several hundred U.S. cities and towns have passed breed-based laws like Montreal’s. (The city of Los Angeles flirted with an anti-pit-bull ordinance in 1980, but did not enact one.)

Laws of this type can be traced back to at least the late 19th century, when fluffy white “spitz” dogs were persecuted on the mistaken belief that they were uniquely susceptible to rabies. Soon after, Massachusetts banned bloodhounds and Great Danes on account of their supposed “viciousness.” And in the 1920s, a New York magistrate urged that German shepherds be regulated because they were “bred from wolves.” Each of these outcries reflected the media-driven hysterias of the age. Today’s breed bans are no different; only the targeted dogs have changed.

Frenzied media coverage tends to follow dog-bite fatalities — at least if a “pit bull” is to blame. (In Montreal’s case, the dog that killed 55-year-old Christiane Vadnais in early June, triggering the latest panic, was registered as a boxer.) For whatever reason, incidents involving dogs from other breed groups don’t inspire quite the same level of public outrage. Just a few days before Vadnais’ attack, for example, a 4-year-old girl was killed by a “husky mix” in the rural Canadian territory of Nunavut. No one in Canada clamored for a ban.

In fact, of the roughly 60 dog-bite deaths reported in Canada since 1964, “pit bulls” have been involved in only two, while “sled dogs” and “huskies” have been responsible for more than 25.

The most obvious problem with breed-specific legislation is that it is in no way specific. Like “hound,” the term “pit bull” denotes several breeds, not just one. Montreal’s new bylaw prohibits ownership of pedigreed American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers and Staffordshire bull terriers. It also bans any mixed-breed dog thought to be related to one of those breeds and any dog that presents a physical “characteristic” of one of those breeds. It is unclear which canine “characteristics” will be most salient (having four legs and a tail happens to be a “pit bull characteristic”) and who, if anyone, is qualified to make that call.

The second issue is that these laws are notoriously ineffective. Denver banned pit bulls in 1989, yet according to data collected by the Coalition for Living Safely With Dogs, the rate of dog-bite-injury hospitalizations in Denver is now significantly higher than that of the surrounding areas, where no bans are in place. The United Kingdom banned pit bulls in 1991, yet serious dog-bite injuries there have also risen, especially in under-resourced areas. Ontario banned pit bulls in 2005, but in Toronto, dog bites are up, not down.

Cynical politicians tend to frame the need for breed bans in zero-sum terms: Either you care about public safety, or you care about animal welfare. What gets lost in the divisive rhetoric is that there’s a superior alternative: Ordinances that hold every dog owner to the same high standards of civic responsibility serve both interests equally.

In 1991, Multnomah County, Oregon, established a community-based animal control program aimed at reducing dog bites without targeting specific breeds. By imposing strict regulations on nuisance dogs before serious injuries occurred, the county decreased recidivism by 60%. The Canadian city of Calgary has also enjoyed great success with a similar program geared toward responsible pet ownership. A 2013 survey of 36 Canadian municipalities found that increased enforcement of breed-neutral regulations (such as leash- and containment laws) led to the most noticeable drop in dog-bite injuries.

In recognition of such facts, a Quebec Superior Court judge has put Montreal’s ban on hold — for now. One can only hope that science, rather than fear, will determine what happens next. The lives of domestic dogs are shaped by the choices humans make for them. It’s up to us to keep each other safe.

Bronwen Dickey is the author of “Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon.”



Is it Time to Ban Pit Bulls?

By Priscilla DeGregory, Natalie Musumeci and Danika Fears|Feb. 20th, 2017

Nasty, snarling menaces — or loyal, lovable dogs?

The nearly fatal mauling of­ ­5-year-old Jeremiah Rivera of Brooklyn has reignited a debate for New York City residents: whether pit bulls should be allowed as pets.

Many experts contend there is no credible evidence the dogs are more dangerous than others, while some insist they were bred for violence and are not safe to keep in homes. More than 700 US cities have already enacted breed-specific legislation — which typically regulates or bans pit bulls — and in the Big Apple, they’ve been banned from NYCHA housing. “They were selectively bred to execute the killing bite — to attack without warning,” said Colleen Lynn, who runs DogsBite.org. “No growl, bark, or direct stare, and they will continue until death. Those are the three keys that make them more dangerous than other breeds.”

Between 2005 and 2015, 360 Americans were killed by canines — and pit bulls were involved in 64 percent of the fatal attacks, according to DogsBite.org.

Many New Yorkers have experienced firsthand what it’s like to be attacked by a pit bull. Little Jeremiah needed 2,000 stitches after being maimed on Saturday by a pit bull his father was temporarily caring for at their East New York home. His dad, Joel, woke up from a nap to find Jeremiah choking on his own blood. “He didn’t have a face,” the devastated father said. “Just teeth — that was all I could see.” In December, 72-year-old Abdul Hakim was suddenly attacked by a pit bull in the Bronx as he walked to a mosque with his 9-year-old grandson. The dog bit him several times, and his wounds required surgery. Two months earlier, a pit bull bit a woman and a 16-month-old boy in the laundry room of an East Harlem apartment building. And last May, a dog owner’s arm was nearly ripped off when several of his pit bulls attacked him in his Brooklyn apartment.

Pit bulls have been a problem in the city for years. In November 2011, cops shot a pit bull that had bitten a 16-year-old boy on Staten Island, then charged at the officers. The teen was visiting a friend, a 12-year-old boy, and was attacked as soon as his pal opened the door. In 2004, a pit bull turned on his owner’s boyfriend inside a Brooklyn apartment, biting his hand. "I wouldn’t let my kids play with them,” said mom-of-two Kelinda Waller, 43. “That’s why we got a small dog — they’re safer for the kids. Dogs like that shouldn’t be around kids, period. There’s just too much potential for disaster. As a parent I wouldn’t want to risk it,” she said. Dog owner Kate Lindsey, 34, said she is not sure there should be a ban on pit bulls, but that more regulations would be a good thing. “Especially if they’re going to be in an environment where there’s children,” she added.

But many pit bull owners and advocates are adamant that bad dogs are the result of bad owners, and they are not inherently more violent. “Pits aren’t any more dangerous than any other dog when unmonitored and untrained,” said Ronnie Vanzant, a dog trainer and founder of Pitbull Advocates of the United States. “They need to be trained and raised responsibly their entire life.” "Any breed is at risk for biting somebody,” he added. “Unfortunately, the craze is to get on top of the pits.”

The firefighters of Engine 15/Ladder 18 on the Lower East Side, dubbed Fort Pitt for its Pitt Street location, are now well acquainted with the cute and cuddly side of pit bulls after recently adopting one named Ashley — affectionately called Ash for short — who was saved from a Staten Island crack den by a nonprofit animal group.The 1-year-old pup’s Instagram account, @probyash, which is maintained by the station, shows the pooch hanging out in the firehouse’s kitchen, riding in a firetruck and hanging out with her new family. “From the crackhouse to the firehouse. Life is good,” her bio on the social media site reads. When the animal group picked up the dog on Jan. 9, she was “filthy,” “extremely malnourished” and about 25 pounds underweight with cigarette burns on her head, Erica Mahnken, the co-founder of No More Pain Rescue, told The Post on Monday. “Despite all that, Ash was so happy to see us.” Mahnken said she and her fiancé have a few friends at the firehouse and knew they were looking to adopt a pup, so she contacted them right away. Ash spent her first night away from the crackhouse at the firehouse. “The minute we walked her through those doors, we knew that’s where she was meant to be,” Mahnken said.

“Every single Fort Pitt firefighter instantly fell in love with her, and she fell even more in love with them.”

Additional reporting by Gina Daidone



How Did Pit Bulls Get Such a Bad Rap?

Jun. 17th, 2015

By Jon Bastian

If current news reports are to be believed, pit bulls have been attacking and biting humans left and right—to the point that many communities are considering breed-specific bans on pit bulls.

Would it surprise you to learn that pit bulls used to be America’s darlings? Before the mid-80s, stories of pit bull attacks are practically non-existent. There is even some confusion over exactly which breed of dog is a pit bull — the definition includes the American pit bull terrier, the Staffordshire terrier and, at times, the bulldog. This confusion seems to have dogged the breed from the beginning, as there is some disagreement over the origin of pit bulls.

Where do pit bulls come from and how did they get such a bad rap?

Two possible histories of pit bulls

In one theory, pit bulls began during antiquity as the so-called Molossus, a now-extinct breed that was used by the Greeks as shepherds and guard dogs. In times of war, they marched off to battle with their humans. Eventually, so the theory goes, the Molossus made it to early Britain, where it became known as the Mastiff. In the first century CE, Rome discovered the breed after defeating the Britons, and the dogs spread all over the empire. For the next four hundred years, they were used as war dogs, and intermixed with various local breeds all over the European continent, becoming the forerunners of the modern pit bull.

A competing theory places the origin of the pit bull in England at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, when butchers would use large, Mastiff-type dogs as “bullenbeissers,” which translates as “bull biter.” Trained to latch onto a bull’s nose and not let go until the animal was subdued, these dogs were the only way that humans could regain control when a bull became agitated. Unfortunately, this practical if dubious use eventually led to the “sport” of bull-baiting, where dogs were put in a pit with an intentionally riled-up bull and spectators placed bets on which dog would hold on the longest, or bring the bull down. You’ve probably guessed it by now, but this is also the origin of the terms “pit bull dog” and “bulldog.”

Still not a specific breed, the bullenbeissers were bred with Terriers, combining their intelligence with the strength of the Mastiffs. As bull-baiting came to be banned in the 19th century, dog fighting became popular as an underground and quasi-illegal activity in the UK. British immigrants to the U.S. at that time brought dog fighting, as well as their dogs, to the New World. However, as the breed spread to Americans and Americans spread across the continent, pit bulls began to be put to their original use, as general purpose herding and working dogs. Because of their fighting history, though, the American Kennel Club would not recognize the breed until 1936, although they defined it as a Staffordshire terrier, distinct from the American pit bull terrier.

Early perceptions of pit bulls

Far from being considered a killing machine on legs, pit bulls seem to be an American favorite in the early half of the century — indeed, during World War I, the country itself is personified as a pit bull on army recruitment posters, and several pit bulls go on to become famous in the American military. Referring to an athlete as a pit bull is a very common sports metaphor through the 1930s, and it is meant as the highest compliment. There is also a famous racehorse in the late 1930s named Pit Bull, as well as a number of pit bull stars of early motion pictures. Frequently, pit bulls are associated with children, as in the Our Gangcomedies, as well as with Buster Brown, both in short films and as the corporate mascot for a shoe company. The famous RCA Victor image of a dog and a gramophone also featured a pit bull terrier.

From the turn of the century until the early 1980s, there is exactly one dog attack story to make the national papers and mention pit bulls, but that’s probably because it involved a man intentionally siccing a pack of 26 dogs on a young woman. According to a 1947 article in The Independent (St. Petersburg, Florida), “Attorneys said they believed it was the first time the state had invoked a statute which would find the owner guilty of manslaughter if it were proven that he permitted vicious animals to run free and they attacked and killed a human being.” There’s no mention of pit bulls as vicious and no call for a ban of the breed, just a human who is held responsible for inducing the dogs to attack. Ironically, though, it is in Florida forty years after this incident that the first breed-specific ban is enacted. In the intervening decades, “pit bull” continues to be a popular description for athletes and when the breed does turn up in newspapers, it’s more often than not in a classified ad for puppies.

The only mention during the 1960s that isn’t an ad is a rather amusing bit from gossip columnist Earl Wilson, who reported in his August 22, 1969 column, “Sonny and Cher, who used to scare people, have now been scared by people. ‘Totally horrified’ by the Sharon Tate murder case, they bought a big dog — ‘a pit bull terrier’ — to protect them and their little daughter Chaste [sic] at their Hollywood Home...” It is at about this time that using large dogs for personal protection becomes popular, but pit bulls are still not singled out as particularly dangerous. In 1971, a new law allows the U.S. Postal Service to bill people for injuries caused to letter carriers by their dogs, but it applies to all dogs, and the general attitude is still one of human responsibility. In a syndicated New York Times story from 1977 on dog bites, opening with the story of a seven year-old boy receiving a very minor injury from a Great Dane, author Jane E. Brody advises, “(S)imple precautions on the part of the dog owners and potential victims could prevent most of these attacks.”

Change in perception and ban on pit bulls

Less than a decade later, that had all changed, and by New Year’s Day 1986, over thirty communities are considering breed specific legislation and bans on pit bulls. What changed?

For one thing, despite being illegal in all fifty states, dog fighting made a comeback in the 80s, and the pit bull is the dog of choice. It is also the preferred guard dog for drug dealers and gangs, with a hugely publicized attack in 1987 in which a pit bull guarding a marijuana crop in California mauls and kills a two-and-a-half year-old boy.

By the summer of that year, every single proposed ban has become law, but not necessarily with the support of animal professionals. Kent Salazar, head of Albuquerque’s animal control division, commented at the time of their proposed ban on pit bulls that he didn’t think a ban on pit bulls was necessary, saying, “We have all the means to protect people with clauses about vicious dogs.” He also noted that, a few years previously, Doberman pinschers were the target of such bans. His words went unheeded, and Tijeras, New Mexico, just outside of Albuquerque, passes the toughest pit bull ban of the time, allowing animal control officers to seize and destroy them on sight without compensation to the owner.

The various pit bull breed bans are decried by animal control officials as “the most concentrated legal assault on a pit bull they can recall,” as well as “canine racism.” The Houston Chronicle quotes unnamed officials as placing the blame for the problem squarely on humans. “(M)any of the pit bull attacks are due to a skyrocketing number of poorly bred and badly trained dogs raised by backyard breeders, who are trying to cash in on the pit bull’s growing reputation as a cheap, but deadly effective guard dog, particularly in urban areas.”

Nearly thirty years after the beginning of this anti-pit bull hysteria, the tide seems to be turning a little bit, but every step forward is followed by a step back. Even as Florida is attempting to overturn all breed-specific legislation, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin is considering imposing a new ban. Yet it only takes a brief look at the history of pit bulls to realize that the dogs are not the problem; the humans who misuse them are. For over a hundred years, holding the owners personally responsible was enough to prevent attacks, and the breed was perceived as very child-friendly. With outreach and education, it may be possible to restore that image and rehabilitate the pit bull’s reputation, restoring an iconic American dog to its rightful place among mankind’s best friends.