The problems associated with the group of dogs loosely identified as of the pit bull type have become one of the greatest concerns faced by those concerned with dog welfare and by those whose concern is focused on human safety from dog bites and severe attacks. In the article recently published by BarkPost (http://barkpost.com/good/pit-bulls-history-of-americas-dog/), Kellie Stevens offers a familiar defense of the pit bull "breed" (a term that defies clear definition) stating that "Thankfully, more and more people are getting on board with the fight for Pit Bulls’ rights."
Such articles beam with positive examples of pit bull type dogs throughout history and currently. These examples are lovely and heartwarming. But what’s notably absent from such articles is an honest look at the tragic plight of pit bulls in today’s culture and any real discussion of possible solutions for addressing that problem.
As usual, I bring an uncommon perspective (a perspective I’m told is often at odds with socially acceptable thought among animal advocates) because I believe we benefit from considering issues beyond black and white / popular and unpopular portrayals. With pit bulls - as this article begins - this love or hate polarization is especially pronounced.
Among the current 12 rescued dogs that reside in my home, one is a very clear pit bull, Myrtle. I learned much of the history related in Steven’s article when I researched pit bulls prior to adopting Myrtle from a county shelter where she was slated for euthanasia because she was going crazy. (Pit bulls can be highly sensitive and many do not handle intensive kenneling well!) I adore Myrtle - she is incredibly sensitive. loyal, and yes - neurotic (i.e. she has intense fears that don't quell). I'm also well aware of her destructive potential and I will not understate that. Despite the fact that she's had a wonderful and safe life here with us for the past 8 years, I am always highly selective and cautious in introducing her to new people and new animals.
Interestingly, the statistics cited in the BarkPost article regarding dog attacks in the U.S. were from 1965 to 2001. They chose not to look at the stats from 2001 - 2015 which illustrate the heavy rise in pit bull attacks and fatalities. This point is not made to vilify pit bulls but to inject some validity and balance into the discussion. One may choose his or her own preferred sources of factual information (I've cited some common ones below) but I urge you to know and consider the source and its likely biases.
While I don’t advocate the mis-characterization of pit bulls, neither do I think it’s fair to deny the valid concerns of those who know, first hand, the potential dangers of pit bulls and the statistics that document the frequency with which such incidents are occurring.
I'll focus my attention on information from the AVMA which is as balanced a view as one is likely to find on this topic: https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/LiteratureReviews/Pages/The-Role-of-Breed-in-Dog-Bite-Risk-and-Prevention.aspx
In reading the AVMA article, one should notice a frequently cited factor in the high rates of pit bull attacks - that of the high prevalence of pit bull dogs in our communities and especially in those communities that are most likely to misuse and abuse them.
- "If you consider only the much smaller number of cases that resulted in very severe injuries or fatalities, pit bull-type dogs are more frequently identified. However this may relate to the popularity of the breed in the victim's community,"
- "any estimate of breed-based risk must take into account the prevalence of the breed in the population at the time and place of serious biting events."
- "It should also be considered that the incidence of pit bull-type dogs' involvement in severe and fatal attacks may represent high prevalence in neighborhoods that present high risk to the young children"
One need only look at the prevalence of pit bulls in our local shelters to understand that our society is clearly faced with an excess number of poorly cared-for pit bulls – poorly care-for (neglected, abused, abandoned, unsocialized, ….) being the type most likely to cause harm to another. It would stand to reason that if we truly want to reduce the incidence of attacks from whatever potentially dangerous dogs are popular at a given time (be it pit bulls, or rottweilers, or shepherds, or dobermans...) we would choose to regulate the proliferation and ownership of these dogs in the society. That is NOT saying that we would seize dogs that are loved and cared for. But in choosing to permit the irresponsible breeding and proliferation of dogs that are: 1) horribly abused and misused, 2) make up a huge portion of shelter killings and long-term holdings (not to mention consumption of tax dollars), and 3) responsible for high rates of bites and fatal attacks to people and other animals, don’t we, in fact, accept the status quo?
But moving on beyond what one believes about the value of reducing the prevalence of dangerous and abused dogs, the one clear statement made by the AVMA about the effective approach to reducing dog bite tragedies is the "active enforcement of dog control ordinances" ("Strategies known to result in decreased bite incidents include active enforcement of dog control ordinances, and these may include ordinances relating to breed.")
The sad reality is that this one recognized preventive measure is at best minimally applied in many, if not most, communities in Virginia. To my knowledge, there is no tracking of the enforcement of dog control ordinances nor any reports or attention offered to provide an effective look at this across the state. If fact, I learned recently that it’s common in many Virginia localities for county sheriffs to essentially forbid their AC officers (either implicitly or explicitly) from enforcing animal control laws because the laws are often unpopular and residents held accountable to the law might retaliate by voting against the sheriff in subsequent elections! This despite the fact that law enforcement is considered by the AVMA to be the only effective strategy for decreasing bite incidents.
My own efforts (through the use of FOIA) to identify animal law enforcement among selected counties in Central Virginia are reported here: http://www.myrtlerun.com/docs/survey/srvyCitations.pdf (part of a larger survey with stats from 2010)
Anyone familiar with dog keeping habits in rural central Virginia knows that violation of our dog laws (weak as they are!) is incredibly commonplace, and yet the stats for law enforcement are miniscule! But when was the last time you heard any real discussion on this issue? Why are we not thinking and talking about this???
Am I grateful to live in a state that will not seize my dog simply because of her breed? - Absolutely!
Am I satisfied with the status quo that allows unregulated breeding and selling of the dogs most likely to cause harm to humans and other animals and to be severely abused themselves? – No!
Am I satisfied with the lack of animal control law enforcement to address irresponsible ownership and decrease dog bite incidents? – No!
If we really want to serve the best interests of pit bulls and of human safety then we must honestly address the serious problems of unregulated pit bull proliferation and ownership in our society. I may not have the answers to the pit bull problem but I’m willing to acknowledge that we have a pit bull problem and that we need to openly engage in a search for solutions without banning each other from the discussion table - because if we don’t, we’ll all - pit bull advocates, pit bull opponents, and most of all pit bulls - will continue to suffer tragically.