Where banning dogs isn’t really about the dogs
(Photo by Melody McFarland)
By Molly Tamulevich
As I sat in the folding chair, surrounded by my co-workers and friends, I could only see the back of our opposition’s heads. The council room was packed: representatives from the humane society, neighborhood associations and the press squeezed into the small space, quietly conversing. Most of us sat defensively, our arms crossed, glancing suspiciously at other cliques.
At the front of the room, a rank of women sat stiffly. Some of them carried infants, attending to the demands of children who sat dwarfed next to them. From where I was sitting at the back, they shared certain characteristics: they were all white, their clothing tended towards the pastel, collared shirts crisply creased over their slim shoulders. Their sons and daughters were dressed expensively.
According to the women, we were here to eliminate a threat to the town’s children. According to my colleagues and me, we were here to protect animals who were at risk of unfair persecution.
How it all started
Plymouth, Michigan, is a wealthy outlying suburb of Detroit, one of several predominantly white, upper middle-class small towns where family values and Ralph Lauren walk wrapped up in each other through pedestrian friendly streets. It’s home to a number of yearly festivals, one Starbucks, some upscale boutiques and charming homes with big front porches.
The downtown area is particularly dog-friendly, and people often walk their animal companions through the center square, pausing to let them drink at the many water bowls scattered along the sidewalks.
Like many Detroit suburbs, this town’s history is wrapped up in the transportation industry and white flight. The average family income is over $75,000 a year, and more than 95 percent of the residents are Caucasian.
It was 2008, and there had been a conflict between a homeowner and his neighbor. The neighbor’s dog, a large, un-neutered red pit bull, had run up to the homeowner’s door in what was perceived to be a threatening manner. The dog’s guardian, who was new to the area, apologized, but continued to restrain the dog haphazardly. The dog never bit anyone, but the situation made the homeowner extremely upset. After seeing the dog loose on more than one occasion, he spoke to the city council and proposed banning pit bulls within the city limits.
It sounded like a classic case of fear-based breed specific legislation: a pit bull misbehaves, a neighbor gets upset, the town attempts to ban the breed, but nothing is accomplished because it’s not the dog but the guardian who’s the problem.
However, it struck me that there were some additional factors that made this more than a simple case of knee-jerk reactions and a poor understanding of the issues.
It was never really about the dog
The guardian of the dog in question did not own the home he lived in; he was renting. He and his girlfriend were unmarried and had two children. They were both Latino and had moved to the town from another state. He bragged to his neighbors that he’d purchased his dog from a breeder online called Gargoylepits.com. The dog was not neutered and the man had told people he wanted to breed him.
All of this made him the odd man out in a neighborhood of married, white, homeowners, whose dogs (none of them pit bulls) come either from private breeders or one of two local humane societies. The animals that promenade through the square are more likely to be Shi-Tzus, golden retrievers or designer dogs. The large head, enormous muscles and intact genitalia of the pit bull were not in line with the image of the community any more than an unmarried family of color was.
I’m a pit bull advocate, so the stereotype of a young man bragging about his huge, unfixed dog makes my eyes roll. But so, too, does the unfounded fear of the community. With these ingredients simmering, the meeting seemed to me to be about more than just banning the dog. The dog was a symbol for latent prejudices against people who did not fit the town’s majority.
At the council meeting, the women in the front row spoke first. They described the fear they felt for their children if pit bulls were allowed to run loose. Their husbands, who had visited gargoylepits.com, argued that everything about the breed is marketed to be intimidating and that the dogs are a risk to any community.
The man who had initiated the ordinance described the fear he felt when he had been “charged” by the dog in his front yard.
In response, the people from animal protection and rescue groups presented well-researched arguments. They asked the council to enforce leash laws, ban tethering and create a dangerous dog ordinance that did not mention a particular breed. Attorneys, animal control officers and other residents told stories of wonderful pit bulls they had known, a few even revealing that their own dogs were part pit bull. They voiced their concern that they would lose their companions if the breed was banned. The “at-risk children” watched us all, little sponges soaking up the rhetoric.
Finally, the dog’s guardian spoke. The news cameras focused on him as he defended himself and his dog. He was a young man, clearly nervous. There was obvious bitterness between him and the neighbors. He said that his dog does not “charge” people, that the dog plays with his two small children and only runs up to people because he is friendly. He went through every allegation and did his best to explain his side of the story. Everyone in the room watched him, rapt.
After stating his case, he sat down and the crowd began to buzz again with anticipation of the council’s decision. This case had drawn more people to a city council meeting than average, and as we packed in together, the polarization was tangible. We were not speaking to each other; we were tattling on each other to a higher authority.
The result: not as simple as it seemed
The council did not ban pit bulls. Thanks to a policy paper from the Animals & Society Institute and some excellent testimony regarding the ineffectiveness of breed bans, they decided to create a vicious dog ordinance that punished aggressive animals and their owners, regardless of breed.
The animal advocates were thrilled, and the humane society where I worked offered to pay for the dog’s neutering. It was regarded as a success by the animal welfare community, and we saw it as a clear cut case of tolerance trumping ignorance.
The conclusion, however, is not as simple as it appears.
To the town, he was doing what they feared the most: bringing a “dangerous” dog into the community.
Four months after the council decided to forgo a breed ban, an attorney friend of mine who had been heavily involved in the debate ran into the pit bull’s guardian downtown. Now he was walking two pit bulls: the original male and a nearly identical red female. A quick glance confirmed that he had not taken the humane society up on their free neuter offer. His intentions were clear. The puppies from this pair would be registered, have papers, and be in demand. He was becoming a backyard breeder.
I doubt that the anti-pit bull coalition would classify themselves as xenophobic, but the vehemence with which they attempted to ban the breed spoke to a level of mistrust that was not simply about dogs.
And I doubt that the dog’s guardian realized that his decision to breed his dog was a slap in the face to those of us who had gone out on a limb to defend a misunderstood animal.
But the two stakeholders in this case played into unfortunate stereotypes. To the dog’s guardian, the town must have seemed unwelcoming, unaccepting and prejudiced. To the town, he was doing what they feared the most: bringing a “dangerous” dog into the community.
Cases like this remind me not to think in absolutes. There will always be dangerous dogs and irresponsible guardians. There will always be people who simplify community problems and try to enact legislation that punishes people and animals who are already at a disadvantage.
Effective advocacy requires flexibility. The anti-pit bull groups that we vilify often have valid concerns, and the animals we protect may, on occasion, be aggressive. With this in mind, we can only do our best to be voices of reason.
Perhaps if homeowner and dog owner had been able to communicate more clearly with each other, there would have been understanding instead of intolerance. Perhaps communication is the most effective tool in advancing our understanding of our dogs and our communities.
Molly Tamulevich received her B.A in anthropology with a minor in biology from Bryn Mawr College in 2007. She is pursuing her Master’s degree in Community, Agriculture, Recreation & Resource Studies where she is studying the social status that people receive from their companion animals and how purchasing or adopting an animal based on perceived social value can lead to pet overpopulation and violence.
Her interests include pit bull welfare, vegan cooking, volunteering for a variety of animal welfare organizations and spending time with her guinea pigs, Jambi and Paul.