Pitting bull against aggressive ignorance and the human lust to kill
By Barry Kent MacKay, Director
Whether we are talking black bears, Canada geese, mule deer, moose, wolves, cormorants, mute swans, pigeons, snow geese, wild horses, white-tailed deer, coyotes, feral cats, beavers, crows, seals and sea lions, ground squirrels – the list seems endless – whenever there are concerns about real or imagined conflicts between wild animals and people, the default, go-to answer appears always to be the same: KILL.
I call it the final solution school of wildlife management, and it appeals to the killer instinct that apparently lurks even in the psyche of those who purport to give a damn about animals. We’re by far the deadliest animal to populate this planet, the only one answerable to triggering mass extinctions of hundreds of other species while despoiling the planet in the process.
First and foremost I am a naturalist. My animal protection work is mostly directed toward wildlife issues where I have considerable knowledge and experience.
But it is as a naturalist experienced with many of the disciplines that are drawn upon by wildlife managers that I became so appalled by an issue triggered not by a wild species of animal, but a domesticated one: the dog.
While I have experienced all manner of animal protection issues involving domestic animals – meat production, animal experimentation, cosmetic and product testing, circuses and entertainment, and companion animals – I tend to leave work on resolving most of those issues to my colleagues, helping around the edges as I can. My passion, drawing on my experience and predilections, is for wildlife issues involving both wild and captive non-domesticated species.
But I am quite passionate about, and have, like so many others, a long and intricate, powerfully emotional relationship with, dogs. A heaven without dogs is not heaven; a life without dogs is impoverished.
That said, it would be my preference for dogs (or to be more exact, wild Canids, the original progenitors) to never have been domesticated. It is several thousand years too late to worry about that. It happened.
How it happened relates to a favourite topic of mine: evolution.
While polls show many people don’t “believe in” evolution, it still happens. Traits, both physical and behavioral, can have a genetic basis that gets passed down to the next generation (“she has her mom’s warm smile and her dad’s quirky sense of humour”). Certain traits, or characters, genetically determined, will be “selected for” and help the individual to survive and breed, while others, on average, will be “selected against” and thus lead to the individual not passing genes on. In the fullness of a very long time this leads to “speciation”, the process by which species “diverge” from common ancestry.
We humans try to accelerate this normally very slow process by becoming the agents of selection, choosing what traits we want to continue, and what we don’t. The process is called domestication, and began at least ten thousand years ago, and possibly, in the case of dogs, as much as forty thousand years ago.
Some animal and plant species have a great deal of genetic “plasticity” and it is relatively easy to find a specific trait, or series of traits, and breed only those individuals that have them, while culling (not breeding) those that do not. It is not quite “evolution” in the original sense of the term as the variations thus created, which we call “breeds”, are all the same species, not having had time to develop an inability to breed with others of the emerging new species. From Pekinese to great Irish wolf hound, they are all one species, the dog, but the dog has many different breeds (in plants we call them “cultivars”, and some, like tulips or maize, show considerable plasticity while others are changed little from the wild ancestor).
So in a simplistic nutshell the argument against pitbulls goes something like this: the trait that is “selected for” through generations of selective breeding is both physical, as in strength of jaw and other muscles, and temperament, pitbulls behaving, when they fight, unlike any other breeds. They are bred to fight. Fighters are selected for, non-fighters discarded, their genes thus dead-ending as the dog is removed from the picture, often literally by being killed.
Any breed of dog may bite or fight, of course, but as is true of most wildlife species where such fighting occurs – think of moose clashing their antlers together or bighorn sheep butting heads – the conflict tends to have a “ritualistic” aspect to it, in that when one dog “surrenders” the other stops fighting. Even predatory animals such as wolves can establish hierarchies with little or no bloodshed. In pitbulls, their detractors point out, there is little or no such instinctually-driven behaviour, it having been bred out of them. They fight to the finish, those not doing so having literally been selected against.
As a result of the concern, pitbulls have become banned in Ontario and other jurisdictions and following the tragic death of a human from an alleged pitbull attack in Montreal, that city has initiated incredibly strict rules on keeping pitbulls.
My concerns are many. First, there really is no such thing as a “pitbull”, or put more precisely, any of several different breeds or mixtures of breeds can be defined as “pitbull”. One recognized breed, the American pit bull, at least has the name, but it is also applied to two breeds of Staffordshire bull terriers and to bulldogs. Other breeds with broad chests, square or blunt muzzles and short hair, such as boxers and Rottweilers, or various mixtures among all these breeds, may get caught up in any effort (short of DNA analysis) to define the term “pitbull”. Certainly any of a huge range of mixtures between a breed of bulldog, or between a boxer or a Rottweiler or mastiff, or a great Dane, and something else, may appear to be a “pitbull”.
Any of these dogs, or any other, can be trained to fight aggressively against other dogs, such fighting having, indeed, been selected for in the original pitbull type. In the middle-ages those dogs were pitted against other animals, such as chained bears (“bear-baiting”) and bulls (“bull-baiting”) in an era when youngster might be publicly executed for a crime that would be considered trivial today, a brutal time when life was cheap, short and foul by the ideals of today.
Society changes more quickly than human nature and sadistic pleasures still exist for those now forced underground, where to this day dog-fights, illegal though they be, persist until stopped by law enforcement agencies.
But you can’t have it both ways: just as dogs who fight other dogs was selected for by those who created fighting dogs, they also worked hard to assure that dogs who bite people were selected against! That’s because it was deemed important that handlers were able to interrupt or walk in among fighting dogs without risk to themselves.
So if you argue that the dogs are dangerous to other dogs because they were bred to be, it is disingenuous to suggest that they are more dangerous to other people because they were bred to bite people when, in fact, the exact opposite is true. Pitbulls were very deliberately bred not to bite people, let alone pose a serious risk of injury.
And yet pitbulls do attack and bite people; right? Certainly the move recently made against pitbulls and their owners by the city of Montreal was sparked by the tragedy of a pitbull, so-called, attacking and killing a 55 year old woman in the east end. I say “so-called” because as we’ve seen there is no one biologically consistent factor identifying what, exactly, a pitbull is, since you can’t identify one by appearance alone. The dog was in fact registered as a boxer (see http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/pit-bull-ban-mauling-boxer-1.3701869).
My first dog, as a young and not too healthy child, was a boxer, Taaya, and she was my constant close companion who protected me from bullies, but a friendlier dog I’ve never had until my last dog, Kali, came along, and she was a mixed-breed German shepherd, a breed also capable of savage attacks on people, although she was sweet with everyone.
It’s the same argument my colleagues and I have fought over the spring bear hunt. There are instances of bears attacking and killing people; right?
Yes…although it is extremely rare, just as it is extremely rare that a dog attacks and kills a person. Non-fatal bites are different; there are billions of interactions between dogs and humans in North America, so in absolute (as opposed to relative) terms there are a lot of dog bites and nips, but that number does not go down when you remove all dogs that might fit the term “pitbull”.
But politicians know that fear is often both irrational, and a good source of votes if the electorate can be convinced that “something is being done” to reduce or eliminate the cause of the fear, often fear that they, themselves, generate.
In the case of bears, the spring bear hunt targets bears that have done no harm whatsoever, presumably on the off chance that one of those bears might someday come into conflict with a human. The fact that such conflict is almost invariably related to human behaviour, intentional or otherwise, is a point many politicians want to avoid, because you don’t win votes, generally, by blaming those responsible or telling them to change their ways. Thus, instead of preventing garbage and other attractants from being accessible to bears, blame the bears (see: http://bearwithus.org/human-bear-coexistence/).
It’s not unlike the situation in Nova Scotia when, after a young woman was attacked and killed by what may have been coyotes, a bounty was placed on coyotes caught by licensed trappers.
Off the record government officials assured me when I talked to them in Halifax that they knew that the bounty, which only added value to the coyotes trappers killed but would not result in a statistically significant increase in the number of coyotes killed, would not actually reduce any risk, already negligible, but would make naïve voters think something was being done. That is how the minds of politicians operate.
If pitbull bans worked, cities where they were tried would see a subsequent decline in dog bites. That does not happen. The problem is not the dogs, the real experts keep trying to tell us, it’s the people, the owners who want an aggressive dog, or who do not know how to prevent dogs from being aggressive. And one way is socialization.
To the degree that pitbulls are bred to attack other dogs while not attacking people, it is important that as puppies they, and this includes all dogs big enough to cause a problem, indeed, all dogs, period, should be trained to accompany and interact with their peers – other dogs. The internet is filled with photos of pitbulls and other large dogs keeping close and safe company with not only with other dogs, but other, smaller and weaker, species, from kittens and ducklings and bunnies, to young humans. But you have to work at it.
Or, you can make them aggressive, either intentionally or otherwise, whether pitbulls or Doberman pinschers or any other large breed or mixture of larger breeds. I would prefer to see the emphasis on preventing that, through both legislation and education.
My concern is not that we see a reduction in pitbulls; as I said at the outset, I’d rather we live in the absence of domestication, but that is not possible. What I don’t want to do is see what attends these bans, which is dogs who have never harmed any other dog, or any person, and never will, killed, or separated from loving human families, as happened in Ontario when, going against all advice, the government placed an outright ban on pitbulls. Montreal has not proposed going quite that far, instead favouring a policy of phase-out, by putting a strict ban on acquiring new pitbulls, preventing breeding and obtaining new ones.
We are told we live in a post-factual society. Facts don’t matter in the development of policy. We make something true by saying it is true even when it is demonstrably false.
One can oppose breed-specific legislation with the usual set of facts, (see, for example: https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/LiteratureReviews/Pages/The-Role-of-Breed-in-Dog-Bite-Risk-and-Prevention.aspx). But scientists who study human thought process have proved that people tend to believe what they want to believe (see: http://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html or https://web.mst.edu/~psyworld/general/dissonance/dissonance.pdf ), and most of us are not, at any rate, trained to accurately assess statistical evidence.
I agree that pitbulls can be dangerous. So can Doberman pinschers, huskies, bull mastiffs, bulldogs, Rottweilers, golden retrievers, and miniature dachshunds, although the last named breed only poses the danger of a nip. I remember Susie, the snuffling, snorting English bulldog who paid us a visit last year. Susie was hyper-affectionate, luxuriating in belly-rubs and cuddles. But we were warned never, ever, let her see a mop or broom handle or anything like it. Never. All went well until she was out on the back deck and suddenly noticed an old rake we had overlooked in putting away everything that resembled a broom handle. In a flash Susie had it in her mouth, crunching down with powerful muscles. We tried everything to get the rake handle out of her mouth, spraying water in her face, grabbing both ends of the rake and lifting her clear off the ground, yelling, trying to pry her jaws open, and nothing worked. It took an hour and the breaking of the handle before getting it out of her mouth and she instantly reverted to her usual self.
It turns out that the first time she displayed this behaviour Susie’s owners thought it was cute and funny, and to their regret, they encouraged it at an age when Susie could have been taught not to do it. Susie was no danger to people, but had she instead been treated in a way that led to aggression toward people, she could be a threat to human life. Would the blame be hers? Or are humans to blame? Is it just plain ignorance?
Pitbulls appeal to a wide demographic, mostly good people who want a loyal and loving companion animal. But there is that other demographic, mostly insecure young men who compensate for various inadequacies with the symbols of toughness and anti-social menace – brass knuckles, Nazi regalia, skull-and-crossbones or coiled snake tattoos; switchblades or firearms; bulging biceps; black leather; foul language; spiked and studded bling; drug and alcohol abuse; swaggering attitudes and, of course, pitbulls. And if not pitbulls, some other powerful dog that can be trained to intimidate, abused to a point of aggressive behaviour, will be substituted. There is nothing wimpish about an attack-trained German shepherd or Doberman pinscher.
We know that certain treatments of dogs will encourage aggressive behaviour. But the problem is the people who do it, and at least some such treatment, such as abandonment and chaining, can be made illegal.
We often read that a human charged and convicted of this or that heinous crime, including murder, seemed to his (mostly) or her (more rarely) peers to be a kind and gentle person. It’s true of dogs, too…the odd individual who appeared to be a kind and gentle dog to his or her human companions has the ability to turn vicious on a dime. But that does not justify denigrating all others of that breed, any more than we should fear each stranger we meet.
Make no mistake, even when, as Montreal is seeking to do, there is an effort to mitigate breed specific legislation by at least allowing the targeted dogs (if they can be identified, which, as I say, they can’t short of DNA analysis) to live out their lives under legislated restraints applied only to them, innocent dogs are killed or abandoned when breed-specific legislation is put in place. And…the problem is not resolved.
We can’t legislate for love and affection but we can legislate against bad treatment of animals. Pitbulls are not the problem unless humans make them a problem and humans are who needs to be held accountable, not only for the treatment of any one breed, but all breeds and all breed mixtures.