I’ve received a LOT of emails and Facebook messages/posts about my first My View column for the News & Observer’s community edition “Fighting pet prejudice,” which dealt with breed-specific discrimination against American Pit Bull Terriers. As I expected, there were strong reactions, pro and con, mostly positive.  I knew that 650 words would not be nearly enough give in-depth discussion of this controversial topic, so I put up supplementary post on the Blend on the morning the column was published (click here), along with the initial emails that came in.

I actually received a missive from one of the folks at Best Friends, that rehabbed some of the Michael Vick dogs and are the subjects of the NatGeo show Dogtown. Best Friends is in Utah, so the article sure traveled a long way!

I thought it might be interesting for you to read and react to some of the feedback that poured in later; it was hard to keep up. The editor, Mark Schultz, also received quite a few and he forwarded them to me.

I engaged in lengthy followup exchanges with one emailer who really didn’t like the column and I obviously took issue with some of his assertions. That exchange is below the fold.His initial email:

From: Jason

Date: March 11, 2009 11:39:12 PM EDT

To: EDITOR@NANDO.COM

Subject: Fighting Pet Prejudice: A Response

Palm Spaulding’s column, ‘Fighting Pet Prejudice’ both minimizes the suffering of pit bull attack victims and relies on an offensive, disingenuous metaphor to argue a dangerous and irresponsible point.

First, to compare the discrimination and suffering faced by hundreds of thousands of victims of racial discrimination at the hands of bigots and racists to the responsible caution of a watchful mother when faced with a pit bull, is an insult to all those victims of discrimination and hate over the last several centuries. Stretching the metaphor this far diminishes the true effects of racism and pays insult to all those who have fought so hard to reduce the role of discrimination in public and political life.

In using metaphor as argument, it’s important to keep metaphors honest and clarifying. Instead, Spaulding used metaphor to obscure. A pit bull is a dangerous animal, governed by instinct and lacking in volitional control of behavior. A simple thought experiment suffices here: substitute the use of pit bull with grizzly bear, or wolf, or bengal tiger. Now imagine urging a concerned parent or pedestrian to put aside their fears and caution and to engage the animal on its own terms, or as an individual. It becomes clear how absurd the metaphor truly is.

Furthermore, a few minutes of research indicates just how dangerous these breeds are and how many fatalities they account for throughout the United States each year (pit bulls account for the vast majority of dog attack fatalities). The empirical evidence on the danger of this breed is abundant and overwhelming. Dismissing empirical evidence as prejudice and employing intentionally divisive metaphors fails to address the evidence and diminishes the victims of these violent breeds, as well as the thousands of victims of racial discrimination.

Lastly, with all of the economic woes facing the nation, the state, and the Triangle, with all of the dangers we now face on the national and world stage, it seems odd that Spaulding’s first column would address such trivial minutiae. Given the high unemployment rate throughout NC – and the recent cuts at McClatchy – it seems likely that a far more talented pool is now available. Surely a writer with a more engaging and thoughtful (and relevant) outlook is available. Please reconsider your Wednesday column.

As I said, I corresponded with Jason, since I strongly disagreed with him, and he raised valid concerns. My response is below the fold.

Thank you for reading my column in the Durham News, Jason.

I respect your right to disagree with my premise. As a person of color who has experienced the same sort of discrimination (based on appearance alone), I in no way equated the suffering due to slavery or institutionalized racism. I merely stated that the narrow point in question — appearance-based discrimination was similar.

Furthermore, a few minutes of research indicates just how dangerous these breeds are and how many fatalities they account for throughout the United States each year (pit bulls account for the vast majority of dog attack fatalities).



Which breeds — American Pit Bull Terriers, Staffordshire Terriers, Bull Terriers? Rottweilers? Dobermans? Pit mixes? How do you determine?

I will point you to a couple of articles:

Legislator Drops Pit Bull Ban

http://www.kptv.com/politics/1…

The realization is that it is the owner that is the problem, as are packs of dogs running loose, which has always been the case. Banning a breed won’t stop loose dogs, or vicious dogs of any kind running loose and wreaking havoc.

Two, look at this headline:

Barking Pit Bull Warns Family, Neighbors of Fire

http://gothamist.com/2009/03/0…

It happens to be a pit-positive story, but if you actually read the article, it’s inaccurate — the dog in question is a pit mix. You’ll see many negative headlines that suggest that an attack is by a “pit bull.” Many dogs you see in shelters are pit mixes, so how do you determine what to ban? Appearance alone? That isn’t a good arbiter of temperament, nor is any given pit bull on a leash with its owner a guaranteed danger. I might add that it’s not a given that ANY dog on a leash is safe either, since there are way too many owners ill-prepared and unwilling to ensure their dog has basic obedience skills. Therein lies the problem.

Lastly, with all of the economic woes facing the nation, the state, and the Triangle, with all of the dangers we now face on the national and world stage, it seems odd that Spaulding’s first column would address such trivial minutiae. Given the high unemployment rate throughout NC – and the recent cuts at McClatchy – it seems likely that a far more talented pool is now available. Surely a writer with a more engaging and thoughtful (and relevant) outlook is available. Please reconsider your Wednesday column.

You’re entitled to your opinion. I believe that your desire to read about the economic woes in the state can be more than satisfied by reading the rest of the newspaper — including McClatchy papers — and other sources of information widely available on the Internet.

This was a just one opinion column, and in my opinon it’s of no small relevance in the lives and work of the selfless people in the Triangle who deal with the abused, neglected animals in our state — and many them are now being abandoned by the many unemployed people who can no longer take care of their pets. Our state animal control agencies are overwhelmed. It’s not a trivial matter to:

* Animal Protection Society of Durham

http://www.apsofdurham.org

* SPCA of Wake County

http://www.spcawake.org

* Paws4Ever (formerly the APS of Orange County)

http://www.paws4ever.org

* Independent Animal Rescue

http://www.animalrescue.net/

Are these organizations and their work trivial to you?

Also, in regards to your statement about the danger of pit bulls as a breed and dangers presented by any dog that is not under an owner’s proper control, you might find these reference materials a worthy read:

The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression:

Hundreds of animal shelters throughout the country kill all unclaimed Pit bull-looking dogs, as they are deemed “unadoptable” solely on their physical appearance. This has occurred because the human/dog bond, the most complex and profound inter-species relationship in the history of mankind, has been reduced to a simple axiom: Breed of dog = degree of dangerousness. We have come to accept that hanging entire breeds of dogs in effigy for the sins of their owners is an acceptable solution to canine aggression because we have been placated by a Pit Bull Placebo. Like the pharmacologically inactive sugar pill dispensed to pacify a patient who supposes it to be medicine, eradication of the Pit bull is the placebo administered to ease the public’s anxiety about dog attacks.

Author Karen Delise compiled statistics of dog attacks and…

Extensive research and investigation using 40 years of data has conclusively identified the ownership/management practices that can cause a dog to behave dangerously:

Function of Dog –

Owners obtaining dogs, and maintaining them as resident dogs outside of the household for purposes other than as family pets (i.e. guarding/ protection, fighting, intimidation/status, irresponsible and negligent breeding).

Owner Management & Control of Dogs –

Owners failing to humanely contain, control and maintain their dogs (chained dogs, loose roaming dogs, cases of abuse/neglect); owners failing to knowledgably supervise interaction between children and dogs.

Reproductive Status of Dog –

Owners failing to spay or neuter animals not used for competition, show, or in a responsible breeding program.

91% of all fatal dog attacks from 2005-2007 were due to one or more of these critical factors.

Tabulations of fatal dog attacks by breed yield no understanding of human/canine interaction and offer no remedies to enhance community safety. Forty years ago, Pit bulls and Rottweilers combined were involved in less than 2% of all fatal attacks. Nevertheless, one or more of these same critical factors was evident in 90% of all fatal dog attacks during that time.

Again, thank you for taking the time to share your viewpoint.

–Pam Spaulding

His reply:

Ms. Spaulding,

Thanks for your response. I commend your argument. I have to admit that had the article relied more on the evidence you presented below, I likely would not have been compelled to write.

I fully understand that you were not saying that people who are fearful of pit bulls are racists. My concern with your column revolves around two primary issues: First, whether you meant to compare prejudice against pit bulls to the racial discrimination that victimizes many races, or simply to make a strong point, the net effect was to find equivalence between the sort of attitudes that give rise to racist views and discriminatory behavior and those that urge cautious vigilance when faced with a possibly dangerous animal and a potentially life-threatening situation. But that’s not an argument. People of good will can disagree over whether pit bulls represent a danger to the community, whether community standards should dictate certain restrictions on the animals, whether law enforcement should respond differently when faced with particular breeds, but to short-circuit the debate by comparing the reasoned arguments of those who stand on the opposite side of the issue from you to the same sort of attitudes that give rise to discrimination is not a debate at all – it’s a conversation stopper. After all, a successful analogy must rely on more than partial similarity. Charles Manson and I may both believe that the sky is blue and that the sun is shining, but it would be disingenuous to claim that we are ‘similar’. While analogy is often helpful and clarifying, I believe that, in this case, it was not. Instead, your column quickly ratcheted up the rhetorical language in an attempt to demonize and tar those who have reached conclusions different from yours.

My second issue with your column revolved around your failure to take seriously the concerns of those who believe pit bulls (as well as the many other variants they’re now called) are a danger to the community and their owners. As with any controversial issue, there are arguments for both sides. And there is evidence that can be cherry-picked for whatever side you wish to represent. But a review of available data shows a preponderance of evidence against pit bull as safe, domesticated animals. For example, pit bull attacks count for the majority of dog attack fatalities, the majority of dog attacks are committed by pit bulls, many law enforcement departments consider pit bulls as weapons and have standing order to shoot to kill in cases of aggression as the animals rarely respond to tasers. Given the overwhelming amount of evidence, my issue with your column was its failure to take the vast number of people, stats, communities, policies, and law enforcement officers seriously. There are good reasons to be fearful of pit bulls. And I feel the burden is with you to show that most of that evidence has been misinterpreted, misconstrued, or manufactured. I didn’t feel your article took that effort seriously.

As to the last section of your response on animal cruelty. I am a proud dog-owner and find cruelty to animals appalling. My beliefs on the fitness of pit bulls as pets and social animals do not mean that I’m callous to the suffering of animals, nor does it mean that I fall easily into stereotyping and discrimination. It simply means that I’ve reviewed the evidence and come to very different conclusions.

Thanks again, and good luck with your column.

And my response:

You’re correct that had the information been presented in the column, it would have greatly increased the factual information that is so often not cited in the hysteria to ban specific breeds around the country (and it’s not just APBTs – Akitas, Dobermans and Rottweilers are on the hit lists as well).

Unfortunately, The Durham News only gave me 650 words worth of space for the piece, and what I submitted was almost twice that (and I had to pare a lot down to get there), and included links and additional information/statistics. It didn’t make the cut. My email response to you alone was 950 words, and, given the topic, I was concerned that the limited space would result, particularly for those who fear all pit bulls reflexively, in reactions such as yours, particularly because of inaccurate reporting and negative publicity (a la Michael Vick and DMX) out there. I had to create a piece that was personal in nature, not just a statistical recitation pro and con.

By the way, in preparation I also wrote a follow-up post over at my blog with additional information that ran on the same day, but unfortunately there wasn’t a link to it in the column to point readers there. As emails came in, Mr. Schultz forwarded the ones that went to him, I posted those comments and ones I received about the article via (positive and negative, though far more were positive, and they are still coming in via email and Facebook). I also responded to some email queries by supplying the link to the post so that people could continue commenting about the opinion piece to discuss their experiences, fears about the breed, whatever issues they might have had. The Durham News doesn’t have a comments section for the My View column; I have asked about it and do hope that this feature will be considered by the N&O.

And I do consider relevant and serious the beliefs and misconceptions of those who do fear pit bulls; again given the limited space, I decided to focus on presenting my case for broadening thinking based on personal experience. There is certainly much, much more negative discussion out there from the other point of view, my short column was hardly enough to balance out those efforts.

On the analogy to race, I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on the effectiveness of the argument presented, because I was not implying those who fear pits are racist, that simply isn’t there, nor was it my intent. It was simply a thought piece because of my personal experience of bias based on appearance, and how similar the irrationality of generalization based on media coverage and stereotyping. After all, stereotypes are based on some slice of reality in order for people to make blanket assumptions about an entire group. And that is true of any reflexive reaction of this type. I know full well that any discussion that references race becomes a third rail topic in this country.

It’s a much larger issue that is worthy of discussion, and I have covered race relations and issues in depth, again, on my blog (that has been up and running since 2004), where I haven’t any space limitations. Regular readers of my blog know that I supply an open and safe environment to challenge each other’s assumptions in public space, in order to gain more understanding. It was particularly instructive on all sides during the coverage of this historic election. In that context, the column clearly falls far short, but it isn’t because I haven’t presented and addressed issues of race and bias from a variety of perspectives. I welcome you to join the PHB community, read through the archives. and share your viewpoint.

Take care,

–Pam

***

Some of the other reader reactions:


From: “Mike”

Date: March 11, 2009 9:32:50 AM EDT

To: “editor@nando.com”

Subject: Pam Spaulding article 3/11/09

Just wanted to let you know that I found Pam’s article about pit bulls great. Just goes to show you that in today’s world discrimination can be about anything. Just wanted to let you know I found her article informative and great.

From: Rama

Date: March 11, 2009 7:31:41 AM EDT

To: “editor@nando.com”

Subject: Pam Spaulding

I enjoyed Pam’s column! I look forward to more of them. Thanks.

From: greenriverband

Date: March 11, 2009 9:10:01 AM EDT

To: mark.schultz@newsobserver.com

Mark- The Wed. Durham News is off to a great start. Re: the Spaulding column, my daughter, who lives in the changing yet still-troubled Cleveland-Holloway neighborhood of Durham, has a pit bull who gets cautious reactions by people who don’t know the breed.

this one came via Facebook (I responded to her and engaged in an extended dialog that ended positively):

“Pam

You have obviously never been on the other end of a pit bull attack. I recently had the experiance. Im a serious dog lover. Just moved to a new home. Was out in MY YARD scoping out gardening possiilities. Turned around to see a pit bull, teeth barred, growling and making serious “Im about to eat you” noises. Having always had dogs, I very slowly sat down on a nearby stump and waited the 15 minutes till he decided i wasnt worth the trouble. This dog was completely unprovoked. I imediately called animal control. It took them 1/2 hour to get close enough to use the pole to catch this beast. It made several lunges at the officer and had it gotten hold I suspect there would have been a bad end. Point here is, the question has to be, why would a person want to own a breed of dog KNOWN and Documented to be vicious? It says something about the owner. It also says something about the owner that they would own such a creature at the expense of others saftey.”

Subject: Thank you!

Date: Wed, 11 Mar 2009 14:07:57 -0400

From: Lynn

To: pam@phblend.com

…for your column in today’s Durham News. I am involved with a Pit Bull rescue in Raleigh and we always appreciate positive Pit Bull press. It’s also good to see people pointing out how unfounded and ignorant breed prejudice is.

If I may ask, what was the facility with the breed-specific restrictions?

Best regards,

Lynn Russell

Fugee’s Pit Bull Rescue

www.fugeesrescue.org

Another Facebook message:

“According to the Louisiana SPCA, there were 431 lethal dog attacks in the 37 years between 1965 and 2001. (By contrast, according to CDC, there are 4.5 million dog bite a year.) Pits and pit mixes accounted for 21% of those attacks. By my math, pits kill two people a year, and other breeds kill nine. (See http://www.facebook.com/l.php?…

I think the Humane Society’s statement on breed-specific legislation is well reasoned: http://www.facebook.com/l.php?…

Subject: “Fighting pet prejudice”

Date: Wed, 11 Mar 2009 18:55:01 -0400

From: South Carolina Pit Bull Rescue

To: PAM@PHBLEND.COM

Loved your column!!!!!

Melissa D. Sanders

South Carolina Pit Bull Rescue

Charleston, SC

http://www.scpitrescue.org

From: Peter

Date: March 11, 2009 11:31:50 PM EDT

To: editor@nando.com

Subject: Pam Spaulding

I’m a straight man, married, living in Durham county.I think it’s wonderful that Pam Spaulding adds her voice to The Durham News. The more diversity and wide-ranging opinion in the N&O, the more informed I’ll be as a participating citizen of our community. Kudos to the N&O for expanding our perspective.

Subject:  read your article

Date: Fri, 13 Mar 2009

From: Josh

To: pam@phblend.com

I read your article in the Durham News and wanted to share that I feel the same sentiments as you.  Pit’s are often discriminated against (even when trying to lease an apartment where I live in California), just because of their bad rep.  A friend introduced me to the breed when he rescued one off the street, and she was absolutely the most serene, non-violent, ready-to-please dog I had ever met.  They found her a wonderful home with an active young couple, which is fantastic.  I value the intelligent few who would rather understand and rehabilitate the general public’s view, then continue the constant spin of a bad reputation for the breed.

Keep up the good work, you’re a saint!

–Josh

Subject: Pit bull article

Date: Thu, 12 Mar 2009 15:02:49 -0400

From: Jodi and Charlie Marcus

To: PAM@PHBLEND.COM

Hi Pam,

I own another breed who has a bad rap..Akitas. There are many insurance companies who will not cover them with home owner’s insurance, or if they do give you insurance, there will a clause excluding any dog bite issues.

I was just thinking earlier today how Breed specific legislation is akin to racism, ie, condemning a whole breed for the actions of a few, and someone sent me the link to your article saying I woud echo your sentiments, and I do !!

Thanks for a good column!!

Jodi Marcus

Adoptions Coordinator

ARMAC

http://armac.rescuegroups.com

I wrote her back and she responded:

Well, many gang bangers found out that Akitas are not like the pitties…they really don’t care if they please you or not. So, they may not bite someone you want them to and vice versa. I am hearing about Presas and Dogos becoming more popular with that crowd..sigh..

Subject:  Your article

Date: Mon, 16 Mar 2009 08:30:45 -0400

From: Kathy

To: pam

Dear Pam,

Thank you for writing the article regarding pit bulls.  Just two years ago my husband adopted one from a local shelter and now have 2 living with us in our home. I knew nothing about pits and initially I was scared to find he had adopted one. Up until then, we were always lab people.

I share your thoughts on how people react when I tell them I have 2 pit bulls in our family. As a professional couple mostly I get the “why would you get one of those?” question. Some people are simply shocked and I am finding (pleasantly) that many people have owned pits and love them.  I do from time to time hear the horror story of how one ate the neighbors dog.

The thing I was so happy to hear you say is the “painting an entire group with a broad brush” comment because that is exactly what it is and we don’t hear about it with other breeds as much as with pits.The media is quick to jump on a story of an aggressive pit but often doesn’t give much if any info about how the dog was raised or treated.  We recently had a long article printed about a pit bull who sadly killed a young child.  About one line was about the dog and his conditions.  Only people who looked into the story found out that the dog had been locked in a dark bathroom for days and the sitter had left the child alone in the house with the dog.

What angers me so much is that animals really have no rights. Our laws are slack on animal cruelty charges, dogfighting charges, etc. Why doesn’t each state have a dog fighting task force? Why don’t we see articles with statistics about temperament testing and how pit bulls soar above many, many other breeds? For the past 2 years I have been saying that pit bulls are subjected to (what I consider as) breed profiling.  In fact I saw somewhere a t-shirt printed with an Asian man, and African American man, a woman and a pit bull and it stated, “Racial Profiling is wrong.” and it clicked with me that this is exactly what I meant.

I just wanted to share my feeling with you and say “thank-you” for getting it too!  Now I know there is someone who understands and has the power to write and educate on a larger scale than me.  I appreciate your article and will keep an eye out for future articles. Oh, and by the way…the only dog that I’ve ever been bitten by was a golden retriever.

Best regards,

Kathy Y. Evans

Volunteer, The South Carolina Pit Bull Rescue

www.scpitrescue.org

Related:



* And the rest of the story…my Durham News column is online

* A happy day – Casey’s first day home

* Training day with the doggies

* The “vicious” Casey:

Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding

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