Grieving father amplifies the voices of dog attack survivors
MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin––Five years ago today, on March 6, 2013, two pit bulls raised from puppyhood in a loving home environment killed Daxton James Borchardt, age 14 months, and badly injured his babysitter, Susan Iwicki, whose pit bulls turned on both of them.
“The horrific attack started,” Borchardt recalls, “while Susan was carrying my son at the hip and letting her dogs back in from a potty break. Susan’s well-raised, loved and cared-for pit bulls ripped my son from her arms. A metal gate was ripped from the gatepost during the struggle. This unprovoked, prolonged, and unstoppable attack lasted an entire fifteen minutes according to Susan and police reports.
“Never showed any signs of aggression”
“This was not the first time my son had been at her house,” Borchardt emphasizes. On the contrary, Iwicki was often Daxton’s babysitter.
“The dogs had never shown any signs of aggression before that fateful day,” Borchardt continues. “The first responding officer on the scene pulled out his gun, but the male pit bull did not pose a threat, so he holstered his weapon.
“Our family and friends were blindsided by this attack. These dogs went from full on attack mode and back to normal in a matter of minutes.”
Borchardt often shares three links including Iwicki’s frantic 911 calls from the scene, Report and 911 call released on the deadly pit bull attack in Walworth County; his own intensely emotional retrospective on the attack on Daxton and his struggle with grief afterward, http://www.daxtonsfriends.com/2014/12/hounded/; and an 8,500-word interview he and Iwicki gave to Dogsbite.org founder Colleen Lynn, discussing the attack in greater depth: http://blog.dogsbite.org/2013/07/beyond-the-interview-essay-of-a-fatal-pit-bull-mauling.html.
Borchardt and his wife, Kimberly Sucharski Borchardt, would prefer to focus entirely now on raising their second son, Noah, born about 16 months after Daxton’s death––but they can’t.
They, and Iwicki, feel an ongoing obligation to do whatever they can to warn others about how rapidly and unexpectedly even the most trusted and best-behaved pit bulls can erupt into a deadly rampage––and to help other dog attack victims, especially parents whose own small children have been killed, to get through disabling grief to find their voices in countering the enormously well-funded pit bull-pushing industry.
Currently more than $300 million per year in money donated to humane organizations and tax money obtained through animal control contracts goes into promoting pit bull adoptions and sales, boosting the image of pit bulls, and obstructing or repealing legislation meant to protect the public––and other animals––from pit bull attacks.
Not even $300,000 a year goes into amplifying the voices of victims, adding up the total annual income of all victim advocacy organizations combined.
New purpose in life
But since the numbers of Americans who have lost human and animal family members to pit bulls now exceeds the number of pit bull owners, that could rapidly change. Daxton’s death came near the tipping point, where victim advocacy became a visible cause.
“The savage mauling death of my son has given me a new purpose in life, although reluctantly,” says Jeff Borchardt.
Jeff Borchardt, before March 6, 2013, worked nights and weekends as a disc jockey, and often worked days as well, helping to lay floor coverings. He was just another dad, trying to provide his family with safe, secure lives in the Milwaukee suburbs. He had no political ambitions or background, no experience in advocacy or in directing a nonprofit organization, and no expectation that he would ever be addressing media, meeting politicians, and helping countless others coalesce into a movement.
Three days in shock––and already under attack
After Daxton’s death, Borchardt spent three days in shock, he recalls.
Already, he found, he and his family, and Iwicki, were under vicious public attack from pit bull advocates via social media.
“I was giving pit bulls a bad name just by having my son killed by one. It was even before I started anything in [victim] advocacy work,” Borchardt recounted to Mark Kelley, host of the CBC investigative TV news magazine program The Fifth Estate, in October 2017.
(See Pit Bulls Unleashed: Should They Be Banned? The Fifth Estate with Mark Kelley, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCa-bX3gZC3YnCThlGM5d38Q)
“Almost a religion”
“It’s almost a religion to these people,” Borchardt observed. “They see their own family dog and they just can’t imagine in their wildest dreams that it could turn and kill someone, especially another family member.”
Especially offensive to Borchardt were the fictions that pit bull advocates concocted about his family and Iwicki, to try to blame anyone but the pit bulls for pulling Daxton from Iwicki’s arms, crushing his skull and mauling her when she tried to protect him.
“Six months ago today”
Researching the attacks, and the buzz-words and bogus claims about pit bulls that came with them, Borchardt on August 6, 2013 posted his conclusions to Facebook:
“Six months ago today, the huge well-funded pro-pit bull lobbying organizations, backed with millions of dollars, killed my son.
“Six months ago today, the Best Friends Animal Society that claims pit bulls are ‘just like any other dogs,’ killed my son.
“Six months ago today, the National Canine Research Council, Animal Farm Foundation, BADRAP, and Pit Bulletin Legal News Network, among others, killed my son.
“The ASPCA killed my son”
“Six months ago today, the American SPCA, which admits the dog-aggressive heritage of the breed, but holds to the false claim that pit bulls were once ‘nursemaid’ dogs, killed my son.
“Six months ago today, television shows such as Pit Bosses, Pit Bulls & Parolees, and The Dog Whisperer that keep pushing the lie ‘It’s not the breed, it’s how you raise them,’ killed my son.
“Six months ago today, the people at the Humane Society of the U.S. who tell us that, ‘Responsible ownership is all it takes,’ killed my son.
“Six months ago today, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, which dropped the issue in 1998, made my son the 211th American killed by a pit bull and the 358th in recorded history.
[The total number of U.S. pit bull fatalities preceding the fatal attack on Daxton Borchardt is now known to have been more than 400. Many of the early victims were escaped slaves.]
“The ‘nanny dog’ myth killed my son”
“Six months ago today, the American Veterinary Medical Association message that ‘The owner’s behavior is the underlying causal factor,’ killed my son.
“Six months ago today, the ‘nanny dog’ myth killed my son.
“Six months ago today, ‘All dogs bite’ killed my son.
“Six months ago today, parents who post photos of their pit bulls and children on Facebook killed my son.
[The long list of children shown in photos with the pit bulls who later killed them may have begun with Bert Colby Leadbetter, killed by one of his uncle’s pit bulls on February 2, 1909, and includes most of the child victims of the past dozen years, most of whom were killed by pit bulls belonging to family and friends.]
“Six months ago today, my son was killed by the truth not being told to the American public.
“The truth not being told is what killed my son”
“Six months ago today, myths, misinformation and lies took the life of 14-month-old Daxton James Borchardt.
“All of the people and organizations that I just mentioned,” Borchardt alleged, “are just as responsible for the death of my son as the pit bulls who turned ‘dead game’ on March 6th, 2013, holding and shaking Dax in a sustained 15-minute attack that ripped his face off and crushed his skull.
“The truth not being told is what killed my son six months ago today.”
Toward the end of 2013 the Borchardt family formed Daxton’s Friends for Canine Education & Awareness, whose web site at www.daxtonsfriends.com is “a resource for healthy canine pet ownership,” advocating “for public safety and animal welfare.”
This was not in itself a unique project.
ANIMALS 24-7 had been logging fatal and disfiguring dog attacks by breed since 1982, frequently publishing and distributing the data plus relevant reportage via print media, but the ANIMALS 24-7 web site, including the comprehensive archive of perspective and analysis at The Pit Stop Archive, did not go online until early 2014.
www.Dogsbite.org, the most often cited victim advocacy data resource, debuted in 2007, followed soon by http://cravendesires.blogspot.com/, which describes itself as “dedicated to restoring the image of the American pit bull terror and preserving its true history”; http://sruv-pitbulls.blogspot.com/, whose name is an acronym for “Sudden, Random, Unprovoked & Violent: pit bulls in a humane society”; and http://17barks.blogspot.com/, “Musings on Canidae and alternative views of life,” which may have been the first web site focusing on the loss of pets to pit bulls.
Dozens of web sites and social media pages were by early 2013 documenting the extent to which pit bull proliferation threatens public safety and animal welfare. Dozens more have come online since.
Daxton’s Friends, however, added several dimensions to what previously was almost entirely electronic outreach. Jeff Borchardt and the other Daxton’s Friends volunteers personally call the grieving survivors of fatal and disfiguring dog attacks, especially pit bull attacks, as often as possible, to invite them into a supportive community of fellow victims and victim advocates. Survivors are not blamed or condemned for having believed, as the Borchardt family and Iwicki did, that their pit bulls were somehow different, and safe.
Daxton’s Friends “educates on the importance of understanding dog breeds, and safe care of dogs, with the help of experts in the field,” as Jeff Borchardt himself summarizes, but the most important work it has done has been helping to build a sense of community among people who accepted in good faith the “big lies” of pit bull advocacy, only to discover through tragic circumstance that they had been betrayed.
Won the vote in Aurora, Colorado
Occasionally, as budget and circumstance permit, Daxton’s Friends becomes directly involved in political advocacy, for example in Aurora, Colorado in fall 2014.
Pit bull advocates backed by the Best Friends Animal Society, Humane Society of the U.S., and Animal Farm Foundation sought to repeal the then-25-year-old community ban on pit bulls through a ballot initiative.
Daxton’s Friends responded by publishing informational ads in both the Aurora Sentinel and Denver Post. Recalling the pit bull attacks that prompted passage of the ban, Aurora Sentinel editor Dave Perry resolutely wrote in favor of it.
But the Denver Post took a more mercantile view of the matter.
“A ton of hate mail”
“After the [Daxton’s Friends] ad ran [for the first of three times],” reported Rachel Spain of the Aurora Sentinel, “an employee with the Denver Post’s advertising department asked Borchardt if he could revise the ad to make it ‘not so in your face’ going forward. In email correspondence obtained by the Sentinel, the employee wrote Borchardt that the Post had received ‘a ton of hate mail and complaints’ in response to it. Borchardt said Post advertising officials told him they would refuse the ad unless he modified it because of the complaints from pit-bull proponents.”
Denver Post advertising and sales director Carla Royter eventually agreed to publish the last two ads for which Daxton’s Friends had already paid, “adding language that identified them with political advertising.”
The ads stated “Fact: Pit Bulls Kill More Humans & Animals than All Breeds Combined,” citing the ANIMALS 24-7 data.
The attempt to repeal the Aurora ordinance was crushed by the voters, 65% to 35%. Proponents of the repeal responded with a boycott of ANIMALS 24-7 advertisers that caused the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, California to cancel ads promoting the international Home 4 the Holidays adoption program that it coordinates, at request of the Blue Buffalo pet food company, a major Home 4 the Holidays sponsor.
But Borchardt himself received the most flak, including e-mailed images of Daxton’s photograph made into a dart board and an email saying, “Let play kickball with jeff’s son head. he dead so not like he will need it.”
“Any dog can bite” misses the point
Borchardt has for the most part replied with patience and dignity to those pit bull advocates who share their contact information and appear to be potentially responsive to his message.
“While the Daxton’s Friends team understands that “any dog can bite,” he often responds to one frequently recited pit bull advocacy trope, “we do not consider a torn off face, crushed skull, severed spinal cord, multiple bite wounds, and extensive blood loss to be a ‘bite.’ Daxton suffered a brutal mauling.”
“There is the common misconception that ‘bites’ and ‘maulings’ are the same and that fatalities are caused by single ‘bites.’ If Daxton was bitten that day, he might have seen a doctor for bandages and antibiotics,” instead of being pronounced dead moments after arrival by Flight for Life helicopter at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa.
All too often the recipient of Borchardt’s emails retorts, as did one who called herself Jessica, “Quit being f–ing ignorant. Quit being f–k t-rds. I hope you die from being attacked. You f–ks deserve it.”
Dismissive response from HSUS board chair
Humane Society of the U.S. board chair Rick Bernthal, an attorney, was more restrained in his language but scarcely less dismissive when Borchardt wrote to him on August 3, 2016 in response to some of Bernthal’s statements to other pit bull attack victims.
“Daxton’s Friends was formed to educate the public in hopes of preventing senseless and violent deaths like the death of my son Dax,” Borchardt told Bernthal. “The number of serious and fatal attacks increase every year. We hope to impact this. No family should have to go through what we have gone through.”
As other bereaved parents, survivors of pit bull attacks, and adult children of pit bull victims step forward to be heard, the Borchardts have stepped back somewhat to focus on raising Noah. Noah will soon have been with them twice as long as they had Daxton.
But they will not forget Daxton, and neither will legions of others who never actually knew him.
“Why do pit bulls need lobbying?”
Asked Fifth Estate host Mark Kelley repeatedly of Best Friends Animal Society pit bull lobbyist Ledy Van Kavage during the October 2017 broadcast, “Why do pit bulls need lobbying? Why do they need an organization? Why do they need a network fighting for them?”
Cornered, Van Kavage described the ever-escalating numbers of fatal and disfiguring pit bull attacks as “fake news,” then cackled nervous laughter as Kelley set in front of her print-out after print-out of accounts of very recent pit bull incidents.
Recounted Kelley, “So I asked her about the tragic death of 14-month old Daxton Borchardt, the little boy who was ripped from the arms of his babysitter by her two supposedly family friendly dogs. Was that fake news, too?”
“Was the child crying?”
Replied VanKavage, “It is very, very tragic, but most of the dog related fatalities involve unsupervised children. I don’t know what happened that day.”
Reminded Kelley, “She was holding the child at the time.”
Said VanKavage, “You know, I don’t know if the child was crying. I don’t know the history of the dogs.”
Asked Kelley, “But if the child WAS crying? What kind of dog would attack a child?”
Van Kavage, who has no children, just an obese “American bully” pit bull, could only respond by reciting standard pit bull advocacy rhetoric.
Kelley concluded the Fifth Estate by asking Borchardt, “If this is a fight, victims vs. pit bull advocates, who’s winning?”
Said Borchardt, sadly, “The pit bull advocates are definitely winning. I mean, you just look at some of these laws that are being overturned and stopped. We don’t have that kind of voice, the victims don’t. We don’t have that kind of resources. We don’t have that kind of money. So I would say they’re winning.”
To March 6, 2018, another 25 Americans have been killed by pit bulls since Kelley interviewed Borchardt, bringing the total since Daxton’s death to 128. Hundreds more have been disfigured. Thousands of pets and livestock have been killed.
But thanks to Daxton’s Friends, fewer of the victims and survivors are left to suffer and grieve alone.