Earlier this month, a docile pit bull was confiscated from her owner for the crime of protecting his daughter after their house burned down. The woman was lying on the ground outside, unconscious from her injuries.
She lived with her father, a 65-year-old blind man named James Newell, in their Prince George’s County, Maryland home. When the house burned down, they both sustained injuries. As the unconscious woman was sprawled on the grass outside the home, the pit bull, named Precious, stood quietly and calmly beside her.
When firefighters attempted to approach the woman to treat her injuries, Precious reportedly acted “aggressively” — as many pets might act toward a stranger approaching their injured owner. Even so, Precious quickly moved aside when they deployed a powder fire extinguisher in her direction in an effort to clear her from her owner. The firefighters subsequently moved the woman to a stretcher to treat her injuries.
Though the pit bull did not attack anyone, animal control confiscated her, along with a younger pit bull in the home. A rat terrier was also taken. Though the father and daughter will be able to reclaim the rat terrier once they recover from the injuries, the two pit bulls will not be returned. Because Prince George’s County has had a ban on pit bulls since 1997, the owners were left with two options: find the dogs a new home outside the county, or leave the Prince George altogether to maintain ownership of their pets.
“I thought [she] would be with me until the day I die,” Newell said. “Everything is changed.”
Though they were able to place the dogs with family members who live outside the county, many pit bulls are not so lucky.
While some may argue that the father and daughter were breaking the law by possessing “illegal” animals, the truth remains that the pit bull did not attack anyone and had no apparent history of violence. Further, the fact that the law has been in existence for almost twenty years — yet was unable to stop them from obtaining Precious — is testament to the ineffectiveness of such laws.
However, this anecdotal case is not the only evidence against Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL), which has been heavily criticized in recent years. The American Veterinary Medical Association has pointed out that BSL, which most often affects pit bulls, Rottweilers, Dobermans, and Boxers, is not only discriminatory, but inaccurate — especially when it comes to pits.
“A recent study showed that even people very familiar with dog breeds cannot reliably determine the primary breed of a mutt, and dogs are often incorrectly classified as ‘pit bulls.’ By generalizing the behaviors of dogs that look a certain way, innocent dogs suffer and may even be euthanized without evidence that they pose a threat.”
Indeed, The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) summarized the findings of one study specific to the county where Precious was confiscated: “In Prince George’s County, the Animal Management Division reports that 80 percent of the approximately 500 to 600 animals seized and killed by animal control every year under the ban are ‘nice, family dogs.’”
The inability to correctly identify a pit bull is widely known among dog experts, many of whom say the pit bull is not an actual breed. As Mic explained, “A number of unofficial, similar-looking breeds in the terrier family, such as the American Staffordshire terrier, and plenty of mutts, get called pit bulls when it’s convenient. Imprecise designation of pit bulls skews statistics about dog bites and attacks.”
A website called pickthepit.com further illustrates the difficulty of correctly identifying pit bulls. The page allows users to click on images of dogs they believe are pit bulls. The results are surprising, and demonstrate how easy it is to misidentify a dog’s breed.
But inaccuracy and difficulties identifying truly vicious animals are not the only problems with BSL, which is usually enacted at the state and local level.
Even President Barack Obama has spoken out against BSL, noting it does not deter people from owning certain types of dogs. As a White House press release stated, “The CDC…noted that the types of people who look to exploit dogs aren’t deterred by breed regulations — when their communities establish a ban, these people just seek out new, unregulated breeds. And the simple fact is that dogs of any breed can become dangerous when they’re intentionally or unintentionally raised to be aggressive.”
The American Bar Association has also called for the repeal of BSL, describing such laws as “inconsistent with traditional notions of due process.”
Considering the discrimination, the inability to correctly identify pit bulls, and the ineffectiveness of bans, BSL has also proven to be a waste of resources. As the Huffington Post summarized, “[T]he group Best Friends Animal Society has an online calculator you can use to see how much breed-specific legislation costs. Enforcement of Miami’s breed-specific legislation is said to cost the city more than $600,000 per year. A task force charged with examining a pit bull ban in Prince George’s County — in Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. — found enforcement of the ban cost $560,000 over two years, without any public safety benefits.”
The American Kennel Club has also explained the waste of resources and ineffectiveness of BSL in-depth (to view arguments in favor of BSL, please visit the website of a leading advocate of the policy).
Even so, the stigma against pit bulls persists. As Esquire noted, “Every year, American shelters have to kill about 1.2 million dogs. But both pro- and anti-pit-bull organizations estimate that of these, anywhere from 800,000 to nearly 1 million are pit bulls. We kill anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 pit bulls a day. They are rising simultaneously in popularity and disposability, becoming something truly American, a popular dog forever poised on the brink of extermination.”
While some analyses have indicated pit bulls are the most violent dogs, others offer starkly different rankings. One study identified Dachshunds and Chihuahuas as the most aggressive dog breeds. Obviously, these dogs are small and inflict far less damage than larger dogs, but a survey of dog bites in various regions of Colorado over a one year period, spanning 2007-2008, found that Labrador Retrievers, a large breed, attacked most frequently. They made up 13.3% of all reported dog bites, yet Labradors are rarely, if ever, included in BSL. Pit bulls came in second in that survey, comprising 8% of bites, but given the difficulty of identifying genuine pit bulls, the figure might actually be lower.
Additionally, a nine-year study by AMVA, published in 2013, determined factors that predict a dog’s tendency to attack. They found that factors like the dog’s upbringing and the victim’s interaction with the dog influenced the likelihood of an attack. Breed was not determined to be a factor, and the study cautioned against BSL.
One reason for the bias against pit bulls, some argue, is the media’s own bias. As Mic reported:
“In 2008, the National Canine Research Council compared media coverage of dog bites by breed over a four-day span. Incidents involving a Labrador mix and other mixed-breed dogs, including one fatal attack, got minimal local coverage. When two pit bulls attacked a woman and her dog, without killing either, however, more than 230 news outlets picked up the story.”
ASPCA noted a similar bias. As SF Gate and the Denver Post reported, the organization claims “Animal control officers across the country have told the ASPCA that when they alert the media to a dog attack, news outlets respond that they have no interest in reporting on the incident unless it involved a pit bull.”
Even if the media bias is appropriate and pit bulls are, in fact, more dangerous than all other dogs, it remains that BSL has failed to achieve its stated goals. This inability to reduce dog attacks or pit bull ownership has led many states and localities to repeal BSL policies. Many cities and states have even passed laws banning BSL, and a petition has been launched to repeal BSL in Prince George’s County.
Interestingly, the collectivization of pit bulls echoes the current discrimination against Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent in the United States. Though human discrimination is admittedly far more offensive to most people than prejudice against dogs, the underlying mechanism of presumptive thinking applies to both. As AMVA wrote:
“Imagine you were told you weren’t allowed to live somewhere or do something because [you] had a specific ‘look’ about you that some people didn’t like. Or maybe you look like someone who did something bad, even though you haven’t done anything bad yourself. Imagine someone who’s never met you decides that you’re a bad person and a danger to society. They won’t let you live in their neighborhoods or walk in their parks or streets. Is that acceptable?”