Maybe it’s time for Philly to consider outlawing pit bulls.
On the weekend of February 19, there were three serious pit bull attacks across Philadelphia. In Olney, a 52-year-old woman nearly lost her left hand to one of the dogs. In Frankford, 10-year-old Philip Sheriff was found facedown on a ballfield, his right arm almost severed. And Christine Staab, a 38-year-old Fishtown woman, was killed when her mother’s dog, Jade, grabbed hold of her neck and wouldn’t let go.
Following the attacks, there was a predictable back-and-forth between advocates of pit bull regulation and those who defended the dogs. The newspapers and airwaves were full of opinion; WHYY’s Radio Times pit the founder of DogsBite.org against an attorney for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Ledy VanKavage, of Utah’s Best Friends Animal Society, told the Daily News that the debate was “all hype, the dangerous dog du jour.” In the same article, Kenneth Phillips, a Beverly Hills lawyer and dog-bite expert, said: “Like many problems we have as a society, the right way to address it is not to go at the instrument that’s doing people harm but the people behind it.”
To lawful owners, pit bulls are not blood-thirsty maulers but playful little scamps. Christy Landry of Gardendale, Ala., told the Birmingham News that “if [her dogs] were small enough, they would be lap dogs.”
Why mention this case? Because Gardendale, like an increasing number of cities throughout the country, recently banned the breed, angering the area’s “pitty” community.
According to the News, Crestwood pit bull owner Melanie Colvin’s dogs “might ‘lick you to death’ but that is about as close to vicious as they get.”
Certainly, the jury is out on the efficacy of such bans. Denver’s 20-year-old ban is widely seen as draconian. The mayor of Sioux City, Iowa, now regrets voting for his city’s ban in 2008.
According to the ASPCA, “There is no evidence that breed-specific laws … make communities safer for people or companion animals.” Yet as Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper told Westword in 2009, “Whether the ban works depends on what side of the argument you’re on.”
PETA, for one, takes this view:
“We … support pit bull bans, as long as they include a grandfather clause allowing all living dogs who are already in good homes and well-cared for to live the remainder of their lives safely and peacefully … PETA supports such laws because they have the potential to prevent an enormous amount of suffering.”
In light of Philadelphia’s recent contribution to this suffering, Mayor Nutter and City Council should consider regulation and study its ramifications.
When confronted with such a prospect, however, law-abiding pit bull owners use an argument familiar to law-abiding handgun owners: Why penalize us for the actions of a malicious few? We love our dogs, we feed them well, we take them to the park. Pebbles is just super with the kids. Why restrict our access to creatures that we’ll treat with warmth and respect?
It’s a sensible argument, usually followed by another: Instead of punishing everybody, simply focus on the lawbreakers. And in insisting that, as the Daily News headline read, “It’s not the dogs, but the people behind them,” the blame shifts toward those who seem quite worthy of it: the thugs in dark hoodies, the Michael Vick contingent. And wasn’t Christine Staab high on something? And, really, what parent would let a 10 year old walk a pit bull?
These arguments, taken in tandem, actually bolster the problem, unintentionally strengthening the cycle of harm and rescue. In vigorously defending their right to own pit bulls, those well-meaning owners—not to mention the ASPCA—unwittingly defend the rights of abusers as well. For city governments such as ours, there’s little to gain in outlawing the family pet, in upsetting our own Christy Landrys. It’s politically easier to cope with the occasional horror and maintain the status quo. So no legislation of any sort materializes—and that same nonlaw applies to the Clark Park Frisbee-tosser as equally as the dogmen in the cellars. The well-intentioned speak out, the politicians move on and the dogfighters place their bets.
My next-door neighbors own a pit bull. The dog is thickly muscled and incredibly quick, but friendly and enthusiastic. He sits when he is told to and generally heeds his master. He’s a pretty good dog. He hasn’t been raised for the ring and isn’t killing “bait cats” in the basement. Yet I feel ill at ease around him. His defenders would say my trepidation is a product of bad PR and hysterical coverage. And perhaps that’s part of it. But there’s also something fundamental at work: an instinctive fear of a powerful animal, a fear not solely reserved for the “dangerous dog du jour.” And whenever I’m sitting on the stoop and I see him trot by, I wonder: Why didn’t they just get a different dog? ■
CBS 3 reports a 38-year-old woman was killed by a pit bull during an argument with her mother, the dog's owner. "According to police, Christine Staab was attacked at about 7 a.m. Saturday while at her mother's house on the 1400 block of East Oxford Avenue. Staab and her mother reportedly got into an argument on the front steps of the home, prompting a pit bull named Jade to attack. "When the police got here, they discharged on the dog because the Mom couldn't get the dog off the daughter," said neighbor Erin Houdshell. Officers shot and killed the attacking dog and another pit bull who reportedly charged at police. Four other dogs were taken to an area animal shelter. Neighbors told CBS 3 that Staab's mother, Barbara Erb, had been raising six pit bulls in her North Philadelphia home. "I think because they've had some physical altercations in the past. The dog was being protective and kind of jumped the girl," said Houdshell."
Even before Michael Vick arrived in Philly, the city was known as a mecca of dogfighting. Egregious violations were met with a slap on the wrist. Now one offender has been sent to prison. Will more follow?
The only way Vick can begin to make up for his heinous crimes is by dedicating a generous portion of his salary to animal welfare organizations here. After that, shut up and go win us a Super Bowl.
Since last week's column on pit bulls, the U.K. has proposed strong regulations on dangerous dogs--and not a breed ban.
The problem is not the “pit bull” belonging to Jacob Lambert’s neighbors—the problem is the system.
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4