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.


  1. Interesting and obviously a personal view. A lady called in to Jane Velez Mitchell the other night (yeah, I watch that show!) and mentioned that if a bear is spotted in a park, they post signs to alert the public. But if a predator attacks a woman at the park, no signs posted. Shouldn't the public at least be equally alerted to the possible presence of a rapist as to a (probably non-violent) bear?

  2. thank you for your incisive comments and questions, yesbiscuit! my main point is that the home has historically been constructed and considered a safe space, and that inaccurate idea is able to flourish, in large part, because of the idea that danger lurks outside of it.

    so in the same ways that labelling pit bulls as "vicious" enables other dogs to be seen as family friendly, safer, and significantly less likely to bite or attack, the sex offender registry furthers the notion that rape, abuse, and danger are things which exist outside of the home, rather than inside of it. it is this sort of flawed thinking that i hoped to make clear.

    thank you for reading and commenting!

  3. Wow. Two things I care deeply about wrapped up in one solid arguement. I don't even know what to say, except what you write is written well and your arguement is (seemingly) carefully constructed.

  4. My heart dropped when I read what happened. *tears too* It's profiling no matter how you look at it.

  5. It's interesting you bring up media bias as it applies to sex offenders and pit bulls. Media coverage of sex offenses committed against children increased 128% during the 90s, while sex offenses against children remained constant (and a ridiculously small percentage of all offenses, like 1%). When policy makers were questioned on why they wanted sex offender registries, many used media coverage as an actual source. It's, in my view, a classic case of the media really shaping public policy.

  6. Bear with me and I will attempt to give another interpretation the pit bull KKK image.
    I am quite sure you all remember Michael Vick’s pit bull fighting case. You all might also recall the name Robert Byrd. He is the Senior Senator from West Virginia. From the Senate floor, Robert Byrd has spoken often about his little dog. In 2007, from the Senate floor, Senator Byrd spoke passionately and sadly against dog fighting. Byrd said he was not speaking specifically of the Michael Vick case and went to preach against the evils dog fighting with these words, “The training of these poor creatures to turn them into fighting machines is simply barbaric.” He waved his hands and repeated "Barbaric!" and ending with hear me, "Hear me!"
    In 1924, Robert Byrd joined the KKK. He achieved the ranks recruiter and Exalted Cyclops. Later in his life, he changed his mind about the KKK. And his latest autobiography he wrote about his past affiliations with the KKK, “I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times... and I don't mind apologizing over and over again. I can't erase what happened. ”
    Here we have a pit bull hanging by its neck surrounded by KKK symbols. I think this piece could be about how there is no hierarchy of oppression or violence. They both come from dark places and have the need to dominate and hurt. The camouflage teardrops could symbolize the camouflage of the real cause of bigotry: irrational fears. And once meanness corrodes the soul of any human being, it takes over how they see the world and treat others. However, if Robert Byrd can denounce his past ties and renounce his shortcomings, then others can too. And the violence against animals and others can find atonement with humane ways of treating all life. And then we will never have to see another dog symbolizing the way humans have literally lynched folks on a march toward hate stunningly deficient in love for others.

  7. Bascom, thank you so much for this comment. I didn't know all that about Robert Byrd. But you're right and those are exactly the types of issues I wanted to get at with this piece. I don't love it but I made it and it's great if it generates conversation.