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Breeding Killers?

A Pitt bull seized in a raid in Yonkers, NY.Photo: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times A Pitt bull seized in a raid in Yonkers, NY.

A few days before Christmas, a Houston woman placed her 3-month old girl in a baby swing and momentarily left the room.? In her absence, one of the family’s nine dogs – a 150-lb Rottweiler – broke through the back door of the house and attacked the infant.? Out of precaution, the mother had barricaded the back door with a “washing machine and slab of marble.” It was of no use.? EMS reported that the girl’s chest was covered with deep lacerations. She died an hour later.
The story is horrific beyond belief. But it happens more than you’d think. In 2009, there were 32 fatal dog attacks in the United States. Some of these “canine homicides” were random – consider the attack on a German professor and his librarian wife in rural Georgia by 11 dogs. But even a cursory glance at the reports confirms a pattern: victims were usually children, the dogs were usually intact males, the attack took usually place at home, and – most controversially – the offending canines were usually (75 percent of the time) either pit bull terriers or Rottweilers.
Whenever such a tragic incident happens, the question inevitably arises: should something be done about these breeds? Legally speaking, most states already have an answer to this question: no. Breeds generally don’t matter when it comes to most pet legislation. Instead, states typically apply “dangerous dog laws” on a case-by-case basis irrespective of the type of dog. The owner of a dog determined to be dangerous – and the breed can range from a teacup Maltese? to a Bull Mastiff – is subjected to a series of regulations (muzzling, neutering, etc.) that, should the owner disobey, could result in the forfeiture or death of the companion animal.
But – with pit bulls and Rottweilers exploding in popularity – many interest groups are seeking broader regulations.? Hence the strong push to ban breeds altogether (especially pit bulls), or to at least legislate their ownership more stringently than other breeds (this is called “breed specific legislation,” or BSL). The city of Denver outlawed pit bulls in 2005. A year later, Ohio enacted BSL by requiring owners of pit bulls to take out a $100,000 insurance policy and keep the dogs in a cage.? Support for both breed bans and BSL is widespread. Even PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) supports a pit bull ban. Its president, Ingrid Newkirk, shocked many PETA followers when she declared that, “an unpredictable Chihuahua is one thing, an unpredictable pit another.”
Newkirk has some rabid bedfellows–many of whom she’d presumably want to keep at arm’s length. When a woman was nearly killed by a pit bull in Lynn, Mass., last March, the local paper exploded in anger: “Pit bulls by their nature are ferocious animals. They are attack dogs-and they attack often. They love violence and mayhem. They enjoy mauling people they do not know.” Not very PETA-like, this assessment. But the editorial pretty much echoed the sentiments of Newkirk, who noted that pit bulls were “a human concoction,” an animal “designed specifically to fight other animals and kill them.” Anyone who argues against their banning, she concluded, was “naive.”
Rottweilers are coming under a similar kind of scrutiny.? Along with pit bulls and Dobermans, Rottweilers were banned from New York City housing projects in 2009. In 2010, the Long Island town of Rockville Centre disallowed owning Rottweilers (it was later overturned).? The East Texas community of Van is considering a ban of pit bulls and Rottweilers after a non-fatal attack on a two-year-old girl last Halloween.? Kenmare, North Dakota banned Dobermans, pit bulls and Rottweilers in 2008. There’s an entire Facebook page dedicated to ending the ownership of Rottweilers in the UK.? Point being, many people living in many places would prefer to see the Rottweiler go the way of the Dodo bird.
The strongest argument for banning breeds is that certain breeds (i.e., pit bulls and Rottweilers) have been bred so relentlessly to fight that, even in the hands of responsible owners, they’re instinctively prone to dangerous behavior. Professor Alan Beck, head of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, explained in an interview, “Are dogs that spontaneously herd, point, or dig genetically predetermined to exhibit their behavior? Yes. The behaviors that facilitate fighting, including not needing a provocation, are also genetically predetermined.” Nature, in Beck’s assessment (and many others’), cannot be overcome by nurture. Thus, the breeds should be discontinued.
Those with more faith in nurture, however, oppose breed bans and, in some cases, all BSL as well. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) rejects breed bans (but supports the forced spaying and neutering of pit bulls) on the grounds that, in President Wayne Pacelle‘s words, it’s unfair to owners who care for “well-socialized, well-behaved pit bulls.”? From another angle, but clearly supporting the nurture argument, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in a 2006 New Yorker piece that, “The dogs that bite people are, in many cases, socially isolated because their owners are socially isolated, and they are vicious because they have owners who want a vicious dog.” In other words, as opponents of breed bans are quick to insist, “there’s no such thing as a bad dog, just a bad owner.”
This last comment, though, strikes me as deeply flawed.? I’ve personally cared for four companion mutts in my adult life and, while three of them have been remarkably sweet pets, one (a pit bull mix named Le Roy) was something of a hell hound. No amount of training or socialization helped him in the least. Le Roy was genetically hardwired to be anxious, aggressive and defensive. Not only did he get me sued, but he nipped several friends and family members. Mercifully, he died of cancer at the age of six.? But when he did so, I found myself, despite the havoc he wreaked in my life, heartbroken. (On the very few occasions that he did manage to behave, he became “Le Roi,” and seemed momentarily proud to be thusly called.)
Every time I think about Le Roy, I feel sorry for him. I feel this way because, deep down, I know he wasn’t in the least bit responsible for his erratic predilections to canine violence. And it is for this reason — the fact that dogs are to such a large extent a “human concoction” — that I think getting rid of an entire breed is fundamentally unfair to the individual dogs within that breed, many of whom defy their genetics to become wonderful companion animals. It’s not their fault that we’ve bred to them to fight.? It isn’t their fault that humans, for whatever ignoble reason, have rendered them inclined to lash out in order to satisfy our perverse notions of entertainment and safety.
That said, we’ve done what we’ve done. Perhaps the best compromise solution is therefore to seek a middle ground between dangerous dog legislation and breed bans.? Perhaps Ohio was on the right track when it stipulated high insurance policies and caging requirements. Maybe if, in addition to these measures, we required certain breeds to be muzzled in public (or when in the presence of children), banned certain kinds of people (convicted felons, owners of dogs with a history of biting, etc.) from owning dangerous breeds, and banned certain breeds from highly dense urban settings, we’d take a small bite out of this big problem.