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Why Time magazine article about pit bulls got it wrong

A magazine article on pit bulls has sert off a furor.
A magazine article on pit bulls has sert off a furor.
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A COMMENTARY

In 2010, the gridlock between political parties in Washington seemed tame compared to the headache I was about to take on when I decided to find out why pit bull owners were mad at me.

A story I wrote for a Denver newspaper seemed innocent enough. It had concluded that the Denver metro area was a "heavenly place for pets" because of the number and quality of animal welfare organizations that actually worked together.

That's when the emails started. "Its not such a heavenly place for pit bulls unless you mean pit bulls are sent to heaven," one person wrote. The emails rapidly went downhill from there.

I had always been a dog person and this hurt. I decided that I had better look into it. Thus began my education about breed-specific legislation.

Denver had a law banning the three breeds commonly known as pit bulls (Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier). So did Aurora. In fact, so did a number of other cities across the country.

For weeks, I talked to people with a range of opinions. The woman who had walked her pit bull late at night to avoid detection. The city council member who originally voted for BSL in Denver. The shelter director who had to enforce it. The pit bull supporter who went into the cage of a pit bull that had been kept there for many months - and was licked.

I read incessently - pro- and anti-pit bull articles, histories, behavioral treatises, personal observations. A book about what happened to the fighting dogs in the Michael Vick case. It seemed like every argument had a counter-argument, every statistic a counter-stastic.

I decided to explore anti-media sentiment by looking at five years worth of dog bite stories in my own newspaper I found that virtually the only time a biting dog's breed was specified was if it was a pit bull. (More recently, editorials in that same paper have stated bluntly that everybody knows pit bulls are bred to be vicious.)

I bring this all up today because of the latest national furor: On June 20, Time magazine published an article titled "The Problem with Pit Bulls" (http://time.com/2891180/kfc-and-the-pit-bull-attack-of-a-little-girl/) in which author Charlotte Alter states flatly: "Pit bulls were bred to be violent."

She continued by saying: "Pit bulls make up only 6 per cent of the dog population, but they’re responsible for 68 percent of dog attacks and 52 percent of dog-related deaths since 1982, according to research compiled by Merritt Clifton, editor of Animals 24-7, an animal-news organization that focuses on humane work and animal-cruelty prevention." ( On the other hand, a Denver study several years ago found that Labrador Retrievers were the biggest biters here,)

Alter added that "violence is in a pit bull's DNA".

Pit bull supporters blasted the article in a torrent of emails. Time ran a response from Sara Enos, founder of the American Pit Bull Foundation (see link in Alter's article).

My purpose today is to offer my observations on the issue after reporting about it for several years. Call it food for thought.

* All dogs will bite under the right set of circumstances, usually involving pain or fear. Children are often the victims of bites because they don't understand that live dogs are not plush toys you just run up to and hug. Parents need to teach their children how and when to approach dogs or leave them alone.

* Pit bulls are strong, athletic dogs that may therefore inflict serious damage when they bite. Owners need to understand this and take necessary steps to keep their dogs under control. Owners also need to spay or neuter their dogs - both to control pet overpopulation and curb aggressive behavior.

* Pit bulls have a reputation for loving humans. They originally were bred as working dogs and family companions. They are rated very high by the American Temperament Test Society as friendly dogs.

* Because of their athleticism and dermination, pit bulls began to be used to bait bulls and then to fight. But what gives humans the right to use animals for blood sport? And more broadly, how did we come to view animals as throwaway property instead of sentient beings who deserve to go about their lives? We humans placed these dogs in peril. We are responsible.

*As I was to learn, if pit bulls were found in the Mile High City they were seized - sometimes being whisked past family members crying and pleading for their pet's life, yet often put to death. Bodies piled up by the hundreds. Some were simply born the wrong breed and had done nothing wrong. Where was the public outrage?

* People bear responsibility for the behavior of their pit bulls. Are they well-trained, socialized? Or are they chained and ignored?

* A study group called the Coalition for Living Safely with Dogs came up with a model agressive dog ordinance. It was widely adopted by cities in Jefferson County, where we don't hear of many pit bull attacks. If a dog attacks there, it faces penalties. Otherwise not. Does it not violate the spirit of American justice to penalize animals (or people) for what they are, not what they do?

* Animal control officers identify dogs by visual clues. But in this era of designer dogs, many animals are mixed breed. Dogs can easily be misidentified. (Lawrence Gerson V.M.D, www.post-gazette.com/life/pet-stories/2014/06/14/Pet-Points)

*The American Kennel Club, the American Veterinary Medical Association, Humane Society of the United States and the ASPCA all oppose breed-specific legislation. That's something we should pay attention to.

* The media - and popular culture in general - contributes to fear and misunderstanding when it spouts stereotypes and doesn't bother to dig below the surface. Isn't that supposed to be their job?

In fact, haven't most of us failed these animals?

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