No Justice for "Bad Breeds"

By: Gail T. Fisher

I can’t avoid it any longer. In all the years I’ve been writing for The Critter Exchange, I have never tackled the controversial subject of “pitbulls.” But a recent rash of reported pitbull bites in Massachusetts and the passing of a “pit bull” ordinance in the City of Boston, has forced me onto my soapbox.

The final straw breaking the back of my reluctance to write about this hot button topic happened a few weeks ago. The 11:00 news showed footage of the actual shooting by police of a pitbull in Dorchester. Needless to say, sleep was slow in coming that night.

The report started with, “A six-year-old little boy was viciously (emphasized) attacked by a pitbull . . .” The reporter said that dog had bitten the arm of the boy, and EMT’s were called. (The next morning a newspaper story reported it as a superficial bite to the boy’s buttocks, but the TV news team either didn’t bother to learn the truth or ignored this less-than-sensational part of the story).

The TV reporter said that police had no choice but to shoot the dog to death. Did they not? I think they had several choices, and had it been virtually any other breed, they would have exercised one of their alternatives.

Reading the story in the paper the next day, I learned that after he bit the boy, the six-month-old puppy was put in a fenced area by the owner’s brother. The puppy had wriggled through a hole in the fence and was on the sidewalk in front of the house, barking at the police. The report said he was running toward the police. Not true. The video of the tail-wagging puppy just before he was shot clearly showed the police moving toward the dog, who was standing still. True he was barking, but not aggressively. He wasn’t stiff and staring, his body was relatively relaxed and he was glancing around, tail swinging widely. Anyone who can read dog body language could see that it wasn’t an aggressive stance. Yet the TV news report used the words “aggressive”, “angry”, and “attacked” in describing the dog’s behavior. I saw no evidence of such behavior.

If the dog had been menacing bystanders, the police had no choice. If the dog had been approaching toward the police, they used good judgment. But he wasn’t. He didn’t. He stayed right in front of his house.

Could anyone else have stepped in to handle the dog? What about the dog owner’s brother? After he put the dog in the fenced area, he went inside to phone his brother. He was talking with him on the phone when he heard the shots. Too late to do anything, he was distraught and rightfully angry when he was interviewed by the TV newsperson. Clearly he could have handled the dog, “protecting” the police from the puppy.

The report went on to say the police were waiting for a tranquilizer gun that was on its way. Couldn’t they have waited? The puppy posed no immediate danger, and the victim wasn’t in a life-threatening state. The vicious bite was a superficial wound to his buttocks.

The TV news report repeatedly referred to the victim as a “little boy” – emphasis on the little, as if to further sensationalize this incident. He may well be little, but the dog owner’s brother said that the boy had thrown rocks at the puppy in his pen. In other words, there’s another side to the story – and there were options.

If the dog weren’t a pitbull, virtually everything would have been different. The police likely would have reacted differently. And certainly the news reports would have been different – in fact, had it not been a pitbull (or perhaps a Rottweiler), it wouldn’t even have made the news.

A few years ago, Dog Fancy magazine reported on several findings about false media reports related to specific breeds. One was a story in the New York Post about a man who was attacked by a dog and badly bitten on the leg. He reported it to the local media, but they ignored the story. A few days later, out of curiosity, he falsely told the same story to the same media, but said the dog was a pit bull. Three TV stations and four newspapers sent reporters immediately.

In England, this same kind of biased reporting has been uncovered by the Rottweiler club. They performed the same experiment as Dog Fancy reported on, and found that if a dog bite is reported as being inflicted by a Rottweiler, the media will flock to get more information and it is front page news. If a bite is reported by another breed such as a Cocker Spaniel, a Boxer, or a Golden Retriever, they do not even send a reporter.

The public’s impression about a breed is very much connected to news reports of incidents. Having a reputation as a “bad” breed makes it attractive to criminals, bullies and less than reputable people who buy one and then train an otherwise good dog to menace and injure people.

Sadly, no one reports about the good dog owners who have wonderful pitbulls. No one reports about pitbulls that visit nursing homes as Therapy Dogs, or are loving companions and pets, dressed up by children, sleeping in bed with them, never growling once in their lives. But that doesn’t make for good TV news. Instead they go for the sensational – even mis-reporting for a better story. The result is that people believe the worst about pitbulls – and it just isn’t the truth.

Was the pitbull puppy shot by the police vicious? Too little information to know for sure, but it didn’t look it to me. Did the dog deserve to die? Certainly not for standing in front of his house barking at men in uniform as they stared at him and approached threateningly.

Any dog might have reacted the same. If someone is staring at him, my Bearded Collie would bark at them, wagging his tail. And depending on their posture and demeanor, he might or might not move toward them. He wouldn’t deserve to be shot, nor would he be. He would be recognized as a friendly, noisy dog. But then, he’s not a pitbull.

Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2007. All rights reserved.
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