by Barbara Kay
Amid the ongoing controversy about the passage of Montreal ordinance to ban pit bulls, the September 2016 edition of The Montrealer featured a column by family lawyer Linda Hammerschmid, provocatively entitled “Banning dog breeds – knee ‘jerk’ political decisions.”
Without prejudice against Hammerschmid personally, her essay and arguments followed a familiar litany more often recited by advocates for pit bulls than by advocates for children.
Typical was her opening assertion that breed-specific legislation is an impulsive and reactive response to a particular recent dog attack which just happened to have been inflicted by a pit bull.
Impulse, reaction, & reality
In this case the attack was the June 8, 2016 mauling death of Pointe-aux-Trembles resident Christiane Vadnais, 55, by a neighbor’s pit bull which had been registered as a “boxer” to evade an existing local pit bull ban. More than 360 other human fatalities and 3,000 human disfigurements just happen to have been inflicted by pit bulls throughout the U.S. and Canada over the past 34 years, significantly more than the sum inflicted by all the other 95% of dogs combined.
This has afforded pit bull advocates ample opportunity to rehearse their rhetoric, but the realities, including here in Montreal, are rather different.
As a pro-pit bull ban activist, and a writer who has been researching and writing on the subject of pit bulls for more than a decade, I can categorically state that the passage of breed-specific legislation (BSL) never occurs casually or impulsively. Jurisdictions that end up banning dangerous breeds – and that includes all U.S. military bases, 700-plus U.S. communities, plus parts or the whole of 40 other countries – do their homework, going beyond the emotive mantras put forward by the pit bull advocacy movement, basing their decisions on epidemiology, as they do with other public safety issues.
It’s not just about “bites”
Hammerschmid used the word “bite” or “bit” seven times in her first two paragraphs. She apparently misunderstands the purpose of BSL, which is not intended to eradicate dog biting; rather it is intended to end fatal dog attacks and diminish severe dog-related injuries, which have been most closely associated with pit bulls since the first peer-reviewd medical journal studies of such attacks were published more than 40 years ago. The linkage is ever more firmly reinforced.
For example, the landmark 2011 Annals of Surgery study “Mortality, mauling, and maiming by vicious dogs,” by John K. Bini and four colleagues, concluded that “attacks by pit bulls are associated with higher morbidity rates, higher hospital charges, and a higher risk of death than are attacks by other breeds of dogs.”
Only a few days ago the October 2016 Clinical Pediatrics study “Characteristics of 1616 Consecutive Dog Bite Injuries at a Single Institution,” by Michael S. Golinko and two other physicians, reported that “Pit bull bites were implicated in half of all surgeries performed and [were] over 2.5 times as likely to bite in multiple anatomic locations as compared to other breeds.”
“Bites” and “mauling” are distinct phenomena
Had Hammerschmid grasped that “bites” and “mauling” are distinct phenomena, she would not have said, as pit bull advocates often do, that BSL “does not really work” –– a conclusion, by the way, which is opposite to the findings of University of Manitoba epidemiologist Malathi Raghavan in “Effectiveness of breed-specific legislation in decreasing the incidence of dog-bite injury hospitalisations in people in the Canadian province of Manitoba,” published in 2012 by the peer-reviewed journal Injury Prevention.
Pit bull wounds are generally more severe than other dog bites because of the fighting dog’s tendency to bear down and keep biting. In 2004, the last full year before Ontario banned pit bulls, there were 984 pit bulls licensed in Toronto and 168 reported pit bull bites. That was more than double the rate of reported injurious bites by German shepherds, the next most aggressive breed (my stats contradict Hammerschmid’s; my source is Toronto’s Animal Services division). Serious dog-related attacks in Toronto have decreased by 32% (to 329 from 486), almost entirely because of the radical diminution of the pit bull population. And that is why Quebec is eager to adopt the Ontario model.
Hammerschmid thinks Quebec should follow the “Calgary model” of prevention through owner education. She claims it has worked. It has not. Dog attacks there went from 58 in 2009 to 201 in 2014, a disproportionate number of them by pit bulls.
The chief promoter of that model is a pit bull advocate who, during his tenure as animal services director, in a flagrant conflict of interest, sat on the board of an activist group whose mission is to defend pit bulls at any cost to animals and humans – has left Calgary.
“I’m very concerned about pit bulls and Rottweilers,” stated Ryan Jestin, Calgary’s current director of Animal and Bylaw Services, in 2015. “There’s a history, there’s a reason why places like the city of Toronto have banned them outright,” Jestin acknowledged.
Bad owners vs. genetics
Hammerschmid, like many pit bull advocates, is convinced that the source of the problem is bad owners, not pit bull genetics. But the epidemiological realities cannot sustain such a hypothesis. And honest dog behaviorists agree that the problem is genetics. Pit bulls were bred to fight; they like to fight; and they seek opportunities to display their talent for fighting, just as greyhounds seek occasion to run fast, bloodhounds to track, and pointers to point.
Bad owners make pit bulls more dangerous, but even the most conscientious and careful owners cannot make pit bulls safe, as attested by the almost daily incidence of first known attacks by pit bulls whose people kept them under apparently ideal conditions.
Rights & eugenics
The most concerning aspect of Hammerschmid’s argument was her statement that, “Be it our language laws, burkas or niqabs, or dog breeds, the central theme is the same…”
Hammerschmid seems to imply that animal rights are equivalent to human rights. If that were truly the case, we would not be allowed to spay or neuter pets, deny them their own choice of mates, or confine them to crates, or euthanize them without consent.
As a lawyer, Hammerschmid should understand that a consumer product, bred in an assembly line fashion in order to conform to a stereotype, even though alive, sentient, and worthy of protection from suffering, does not have the same rights as an individual human being.
So Hammerschmid is on dangerous rhetorical ground in implying that to discriminate against one breed of dogs is an act of racism. What is the act of “breeding” if not the practice of eugenics, the epitome of racism? Her argument is not tenable.
“If you only love pit bulls, you don’t love dogs”
Before 1970 pit bulls were a rarity in the general population and so were dog attack fatalities. But even then, and for all the nearly 200 years that breed-specific records of fatal dog attacks exist, pit bulls killed more humans than all other breeds of dogs combined. Now the numbers of pit bulls have increased from under 1% of the dog population to nearly 5%, and fatal and disfiguring attacks have increased exponentially.
Public safety is linked to numbers of untoward events, not to who is or is not negligent in precipitating them.
Nobody, contrary to Hammerschmid’s assertion, wants to kill all pit bulls. BSL demands a phase-out of breeding, which is humane and logical. With 400 breeds to choose from, most of which present a fraction of the risk of pit bulls, if you can only love a pit bull, you don’t really love dogs.