One of my dogs, Doc. Photo by Melissa McDaniel, melissashouse.com
About a month ago, there was a loose dog running around behind the Orlando Weekly offices. Every day for an hour or two, this dog would be skulking up and down Woodward Street, sniffing around and barking at anyone who wandered by. As the days went on, he went from only barking at people who got too close to him to actually rushing at people who were down the street, people who were riding bikes and the neighbors who came out of the houses next door to the one he lived in. His coat was sparse, he was thin and he clearly wasn’t a dog that should have been running at large by himself. He was insecure, easily aroused and uncomfortable with people he didn’t know. Though, it was clear when his “owners” would occasionally come to retrieve him after people complained, he was fine with people he knew. He was probably, in the appropriate environment for him, a very sweet dog.
Unfortunately, as I discovered when I caught the dog one day and brought him home and told the owners I was worried that the dog might bite somebody if they didn’t contain him, they didn’t take the problem seriously. They told me they had found the dog and weren’t sure what to do with him anyway and that they were trying to find him a home or something.
A couple of days later, I saw the dog running loose again. He was still barking at people and menacing them, but now he was accompanied by another dog. So I called 311 and asked to make an Animal Control complaint. A dispatcher took my complaint, the address where the dogs were roaming and my description of what the dogs were doing (barking, menacing, scaring people). I told them that I was afraid somebody would get bitten. I was given a confirmation number and assured somebody would be out to address the situation.
Hours wore on. My office window overlooks the street. One of the dogs disappeared, but the usual suspect was still out there. Nobody from Animal Control came to address the problem. I called 311 again and gave them my confirmation number. They told me that Animal Control said that they couldn’t respond to the call because no address was given (it was) and that they’d closed the case. So I logged another complaint.
The next day, the dog was out there again. I called Animal Control again. I talked to a neighbor, who told me she had called Animal Control multiple times and nobody had responded. She said she had a Brighthouse cable guy come to her house the day before, and the dog bit him. Still, nobody had come to get the dog or talk to the owners.
The next day, after we had all called Animal Control multiple times with no result, somebody called the police. They came to the call, but by the time they arrived, the dog was in the backyard and not bothering anyone. They looked around, said they couldn’t do anything because the dog wasn’t doing anything and was now contained, and they left.
What we have here is a classic case: This is how dog attacks happen. A dog is causing problems in a neighborhood, the owners are not responsive, people try to get somebody to do something and the people who are supposed to be addressing these issues (animal control or the police) don’t respond because there is no injured party and the threat to public safety isn’t abundantly obvious until the dog has either hurt someone or is threatening to do so right before the officer’s eyes.
Today, the Sentinel ran an editorial from noted pit bull hater Colleen Lynn, who runs an organization called DogsBite.org., called “Banning pit bulls saves lives and protects the innocent.” She claims that pit bull bans will help keep communities safer because, in theory, the dogs that she thinks are doing all the biting won’t be around anymore. She cherry-picks a bunch of dubious statistics (for instance, she cites a dated CDC study that looked at dog breeds responsible for dog bites over a period of years that the CDC itself has said really didn’t prove much of anything; they’ve since stopped using breed as a way of categorizing dog bites because they say their findings weren’t really conclusive enough to draw conclusions) and some sensational information (for instance, she says pit bulls don’t let go of what they’re biting until they’re dead – which is why people sometimes say they are “dead game.” That’s a whole lot of malarkey, but also beside my point for now) and concludes that a pit bull ban would keep people from being mauled by dogs.
Here’s another theory that I’d like to float: Effective and responsible animal control in our cities and counties would keep even MORE people safe from being mauled by dogs than any breed ban put into place ever could be. In my adult life, I have lived in four cities in different areas of the country (the Northeast, the MidAtlantic and now the Southeast). They’ve been vastly different in terms of geography, demographics and economics, but they all had one thing in common: Animal control was not a priority and as a result, tended to be unresponsive and sometimes downright ineffective in dealing with complaints about nuisance animals, loose dogs and sometimes even dangerous dogs. Whenever it made news that a dog had injured someone in any of those cities, there was often a common thread to the story: People in the neighborhood saw the dog running loose/chasing people/complained about the dog. Often, they’d complained to animal control, only to be told that there was little that could be done unless the dog was lacking shelter and water or actually had hurt somebody.
Animal-control departments tend to be understaffed, underbudgeted and overworked. As a result, they have to prioritize calls – the situations that pose the most danger to human beings or other animals are tended to first, while the nuisance problems (the dogs who are causing low-level problems that have yet to reach a crisis level, for instance) fall to the bottom of the list. If that weren’t the case, perhaps we’d head off some dog-bite situations before they ever occur. And most of the time – the vast majority of the time, in fact – a dog bite does not happen as an isolated incident. There's almost always some indication that a dog is a risk way before the bit ever happens.
And while we’re on the subject, if your animal-control department is the one applying the law, and your animal-control doesn’t have the resources to effectively apply the laws that exist, how is it going to be able to apply a breed ban? Breed bans are notoriously expensive, difficult to enforce and are often blatantly ignored by the people most likely to break the law – you know, the ones who probably own the dogs that are going to cause your community problems in the first place. Your responsible pit bull owners – the ones who obey the law, keep their dogs as beloved family members and whose dogs probably aren’t being allowed to run at large and hurt people – are going to be the ones most likely to obey the law. Why punish them when you should be putting the pressure on the people who are known to be putting our community at risk?
One more thought, then I’m done: What’s more dangerous – a well-trained, properly contained elderly 40-pound pit bull with no teeth who’s never threatened or bitten a soul in her life, or a 65 pound fearful mixed breed dog with no socialization who frequently escapes from his backyard and menaces people from the house he thinks he needs to guard? Obviously, the latter. However, if you pass a breed ban that’s specific to pit bulls, you’re not protecting your community from the dangerous dog – your only passing a placebo that’ll give people the illusion of being safer. Meanwhile, that second dog? His neighbors are probably still waiting for animal control to show up and do something.
We all deserve to be safe from dangerous dogs. Of all breeds.
Check out our accompanying photo gallery of 80 pit bulls who want you to know that they are family.