Our culture changed dramatically over the years, but Ann remained faithful to her bedrock principles. She became a laughingstock to counter-cultural elites, but her column remained in syndication for 56 years, proof that although social theorists had no use for her allegedly superannuated views, ordinary people appreciated her good sense and civic-minded values.
Revisiting Ann’s work these many years later, it comes as no surprise to find that her opinion on dangerous dogs was consistent with the intelligence and objectivity she brought to bear on other issues.
For example, on October 26, 1987, Ann wrote a column on pit bulls that––statistics apart––shows us how little has changed over the last three decades in the battle between evidence-based opposition to dangerous dogs and irrational pit bull love.
Ann began by referring to a letter she had printed months earlier about a child who nearly died from a pit bull attack. She was then “swamped” with similar stories, some of which she printed.
Facts from the Washington Post
Ann subsequently heard from “hundreds” of pit bull owners and breeders accusing her of being misinformed and “crazy.” But she also heard from a knowledgeable journalist, Neal Pierce, a writer for the Washington Post Writers Group, who provided her with facts that she laid out for her readers. To wit:
• Pit bulls had inflicted “21 of the nation’s 29 fatal canine attacks since 1983” (i.e. over four years; there were 57 fatal attacks in 2017, 40 by pit bull type dogs);
• Fourteen of the victims were children under 6 years of age;
• In Philadelphia, the pit bull count had soared from a mere 25 to 4,000 in five years.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The pit bull advocacy movement today sings from the exact same song sheets as they did in 1987. Ann writes that the dog-owner groups and kennel clubs “argue that pit bulls aren’t the problem.” They say it is “humans who breed and raise the animals improperly.”
“Mark of Cain”
Ann was not impressed, calling such logic “fallacious,” and advancing the obvious truth that however amiable pit bulls can appear, they “have a mark of Cain in their genetic history.” Most significantly, no-nonsense Ann cut through the “rights”-based cant that has become the foundational pillar of the pit bull advocacy movement, writing, “Dogs aren’t entitled to constitutional protection. The owner’s right to have a dangerous dog must stop short of his neighbor’s throat.”
Interestingly, Ann ended her column with the words, “There will be no more about pit bulls in this space, but if my early columns were instrumental in calling attention to this continuing nightmare, I’m delighted.”
Did Ann decide it wasn’t worth fielding the hate mail she knew would continue to plague her if she kept on writing about pit bulls? Was her decision influenced by uneasy editors or concerned sponsors getting flak from pit bull activists? We don’t know. We do know that she did return to the topic of pit bulls at least four times in the next seven years, always amplifying her previous position, including updated facts.
Ann Landers against the “Bunny Bop”
by Merritt Clifton
Esther Pauline “Eppie” Lederer and her identical twin sister Pauline Esther, who became Ann Landers and Dear Abby, were the daughters of Russian Jewish immigrants, born and raised in Sioux City, Iowa. Attending Morningside College in Sioux City together in 1936-1939, they broke into journalism by writing a gossip column for the college newspaper.
Married at a double wedding on July 2, 1939, two days before their 21st birthdays, the two sisters for the next several years abandoned career ambitions to focus on their roles as wives and mothers.
Chicago nurse Ruth Crowley meanwhile wrote an advice column as “Ann Landers” for the Chicago Sun in 1943-1948 as a sideline to another column she wrote on baby care.
After a three-year break, 1948-1951, Crowley put the column into syndication in 1951. It became an immediate hit, but Crowley died at age 48 in 1955.
Having majored in journalism and psychology, Eppie Lederer won a contest to become the new “Ann Landers” by incorporating the advice of outside experts in her responses to readers’ questions. The staff of the Humane Society of the U.S., founded only one year earlier, in 1954, were soon among the experts Lederer most often consulted––and were consulted too by her twin sister, who soon started her successful rival column, “Dear Abby.”
Most of the animal-related problems Eppie Lederer and her sister dealt with were mundane matters involving pet care, including whether dogs should sleep on beds with humans, how to handle chronic barking, when to euthanize ailing pets, and defecation issues. Most of the Lederer sisters’ animal-related advice reflected the conventional wisdom of their time.
But both Lederers promoted dog and cat sterilization long before even most humane societies did, and were well ahead of their time in recognizing the corrosive effects of rationalizing cruelty to animals on human behavior toward fellow humans.
Both wore fur, though less often later in life, but reassured readers that properly balanced vegetarian diets are healthy, including for children. Eppie Lederer’s most popular column ever was a meat loaf recipe, which she invited readers to test on their dogs. Both sisters just barely tolerated sport hunting, acceding to the then-prominence of hunting as a pastime with evident distaste for the whole idea.
Stopping the “Bunny Bop”
In 1967 Eppie Lederer, as Ann Landers, joined fellow syndicated columnist Cleveland Amory in amplifying a national information campaign against the “Bunny Bop” rabbit killing contest then held annually in Harmony, North Carolina.
The “Bunny Bop” had outraged Amory from inception in 1946. American Humane Association president Rutherford T. Phillips had tried to have it banned in 1960.
But, responding to Phillips that they would not be dissuaded by outsiders and “do-gooders,” the “Bunny Bop” organizers instead just prohibited the use of firearms to kill rabbits, restricting participants to using stones, clubs, and dogs.
Enrollment soared. The “Bunny Bop” became much bigger and much more violent than ever before.
Amory, a social commentator on the Today show from 1954 to 1963, in 1961 put his TV career on the line with a segment about the “Bunny Bop,” in which Amory “proposed, on air and during viewers’ breakfast hour, the formation of a hunt club where human hunters would be tracked down and killed for sport, arguing that killing hunters in cold blood would be humane and kind due to their overpopulation,” Wikipedia summarizes. “Viewer response was overwhelmingly negative and Amory was quickly reprimanded by NBC President Julian Goodman,” who fired him two years later for broadcasting a commentary entitled “Science is needlessly cruel to animals.”
Amory went on to found the Fund for Animals in 1968, which he headed until his death in 1998. The Fund for Animals was merged into the Humane Society of the U.S. in 2005.
Ann Landers added her voice to the campaign with a March 13, 1967 column opening, “Have you ever heard of ‘Bop the Bunny’?”
Explained a probably fictitious letter writer identified as “Charleston, S.C.,” “Some local people decided there should be more ‘togetherness’ between fathers and sons, so they organized a hunt game. Since most of the boys were too young for guns (under 10 years of age) the hunters decided to use rocks and sticks as weapons. The idea of the game is to make a human chain across the field and let the dogs loose to flush out the rabbits. As the rabbits run out of the brush to escape the dogs, the fathers and sons hit the defenseless creatures with sticks and rocks. My first reaction was ‘Those poor rabbits!’, but then I began to think ‘Those poor children!’ What a tragedy to be brought up to believe it is fun to beat helpless animals to death.”
Eppie Lederer in her Ann Landers persona then gave a brief history of the efforts to stop the “Bunny Bop,” conceded that “rabbits can pose a threat to a rural economy just as rats can be a problem to urban society,” advised that “When this occurs, the rabbits should be exterminated in a humane manner,” and concluded that “To make a game of beating rabbits to death and to call it ‘fun’ is indefensible.”
The 200 members of the American Legion post in Harmony voted to carry on regardless, but noting how Lederer had succeeded by emphasizing the potential harm to children as well as the cruelty to rabbits, Amory and other humane opponents changed tactics. Instead of engaging in confrontational campaigning, they let a few sympathetic lawyers attack the “Bunny Bop” as a liability risk.
Against the threat of losing the community insurance policy because of the obvious dangers presented by flying stones to the children who participated, the organizers banned the use of stones.
That apparently made the killing too difficult to attract most of the sadists, and all but eliminated participation by children.
Only 20 hunters enrolled for the “Bunny Bop” in April 1967, killing just nine rabbits.
Financial losses quietly ended the “Bunny Bop” a few months later.
Belatedly aware of the bad image that the “Bunny Bop” had created, Harmony civic leaders in 1975 wrote to national media (including Lederer as “Ann Landers”) to emphasize that it was history.
Ironically, Eppie Lederer as “Ann Landers” may be most remembered by animal advocates for her mid-1980s-to-mid-1990s columns in defense of animal experimentation, which at one point caused demonstrators to surround the Chicago Sun-Times building.
But Lederer’s position, which included pointing out the limitations of the non-animal research methods as they existed at the time, was substantially identical to the positions then offered by the Humane Society of the U.S. and the American SPCA.
Eppie Lederer was dismissive of latter-day eugenicists who “suggested that animal experimentation be halted and prisoners, the elderly and mentally retarded be used instead.”
She also vehemently denounced raids on laboratories by entities calling themselves the “Animal Liberation Front” and tactics meant to intimidate researches.
But she supported stricter legislation to ensure good care of animals in laboratories, and the development of humane alternatives to animal use in product safety testing.
On one topic, pit bulls, Eppie Lederer reinforced the then-position of every major national humane association that they are inappropriate choices as pets. She pointed out the inordinately high numbers of deaths and disfigurements resulting from pit bull attacks at least five times between 1987 and her death in 2002.
Only five years after Eppie Lederer died, at age 84, did HSUS reverse course and begin promoting pit bull adoptions and opposing breed-specific legislation.