Thursday, March 4, 2010

on pit bulls and pedophiles

i met an incredible dog yesterday. he stood out to me instantly because he was beefy, red and white and looked similar to my boy. he had a huge joker's smile and was your typical, effusive pit bull. his owners were surrendering him to the animal control facility where i work.

as i was petting him and getting a thorough facial of slobbery pit bull kisses, i asked his owners why they were surrendering him. they told me they lived next door to a day care center, and that the dog, jack, liked to dig under the fence and escape. 9 times out of 10 he wound up at the day care, no doubt looking for the small people he wanted to befriend. the day care center regularly freaked out, calling animal control to report the loose dog which i'd be willing to bet they referred to as "a vicious pit bull." (and having worked in a large urban animal control for two years, i can assure you virtually every stray dog that is reported is a pit bull, and they are overwhelmingly labeled vicious).

jack's parents didn't have the money to adequately fix their fence so that it could keep him contained, and they were unable to keep him inside. the complaints and threats they received from animal control officers and day care officials were mounting, and had reached the point where they felt like their only option was to surrender him. they tearfully recounted all his good points to me in the hopes that i could find him another home. i promised them i would try and i went back to my office, feeling heavy-hearted.

about 20 minutes later, a co-worker told me jack had already been euthanized. i hadn't even had time to start calling possible rescuers. owners surrendering pets are informed that their dogs could possibly be immediately euthanized, but i doubt many truly understand that once they hand the leash over to the kennel staff, their dogs are often walked directly to the euthanasia room to meet their death.

while i was processing my thoughts and feelings, i started to think about the day care and about people's perceptions of the breed. the parents and the day care officials believed that if jack were away from the children, they would be safe. i can completely understand people's concerns over safety--child and otherwise. but i am also skeptical about widely-touted "solutions" of any kind; they tend to be quick fixes which address the ailment, but not the cause. they wind up functioning as bandaids rather than real treatments or preventative measures.

the concern for these kids' safety is propelled by the hysteria surrounding pit bulls. if jack had been a weimaraner, an australian shepherd, a lab, or a pomeranian, i would be willing to bet all the money i wish i had that the reaction would have been different--even though the aforementioned breeds have all been responsible for fatal dog attacks. any dog can bite, and any dog could be involved in a fatal bite or attack--but the media would have you believe otherwise. the media has helped perpetrate the myth that pit bulls = vicious. this is not only inaccurate and has detrimental effects on the breed and those of us who love them, but also on the public discourse around animal and human's--particularly children--safety.

in this regard, i can't help seeing parallels to public discourse on pedophilia and child safety. arguably one of the widely-touted so-called solutions to the problem of child sexual abuse and rape is the sex offender registry. depending on the locality, the sex offender registry alerts police and/or the general public to convicted sex offenders' presence, or at least makes the information available.

what i find profoundly problematic about this registry is that it gives people a false sense of security. it enables people--particularly parents--to feel that they can, based on this information, keep their children from being raped and abused. (this, of course, assumes that the parent is not the perpetrator(s)). the registry's existence, prevalence and popularity is predicated on a number of inaccurate and dangerous assumptions--namely, that rape and sexual abuse are things which exist outside of the family, as opposed to inside of it.

the registry lets the public and parents know who these sex offenders are and where they reside. (i am not even going to address some of the problems inherent with some of the definitions for "sex offender" which can include those who had consensual sex with minors who are thisclose to being adults). using the registry as a tool to keep kids safe is problematic because it a) takes the focus off of the most probable actual or prospective perpetrators, which are family members and friends and b) it does not address the broader, systemic ideas and structures which enable sexual abuse and rape to occur in the first place.

the public hysteria over pit bulls and child safety is similar. this hysteria helps the public to believe that by getting rid of or restricting this breed their children are safe from dog attacks. similarly, the sex offender registry allows well-meaning parents to believe that by knowing who and where convicted sex offenders are, they can protect their kids from rape and sexual abuse.

however, the cumulative effects of the sex offender registry and the notion that pit bulls are more likely to attack than other breeds is a simple and false solution to the complex problem of child safety. the facts are: any dog can bite a child and any adult can sexually violate a child. believing otherwise is dangerously false.

i write this as a pit bull parent whose only dog bite came from a black lab, and as a woman whose rapist--my brother--will never be listed on any sex offender registry. i write in the hopes of provoking readers into new ways of thinking. none of this is to say that pit bulls never bite, or that convicted sex offenders are never recidivists. it is to say, however, that i firmly believe this information should be used to supplement safety measures, rather than serve as the basis for them.