by Roderick Balt
Despite not being evidently more dangerous than a heavy flu, which can kill tens of thousands of the most vulnerable people without sparking panic, and did as recently as the 2018-2019 flu season, the COVID-19 virus has terrified much of the public worldwide, resulting in disproportionate measures being taken to manage the outbreak.
A very different health hazard that is on the very other side of the spectrum of concern, sparking some anger but very little effective legislative response, is the growing presence of pit bulls and other dangerous dog breeds.
The reason to discuss COVID-19 and pit bulls together is not just to highlight the shrill contrast in societal attention and protective measures that each has provoked. Both are illustrative of a misjudgment of control, loss of visceral experience, and resultant detachment from reality.
In the case of COVID-19, we are paying an enormous cost, not just economically, but in the form of personal stress felt. We don’t reluctantly accept increased stress; rather, we mostly move straight and swiftly into stressed behavior.
Even while wallowing in a false sense of community and righteousness, shaming those who don’t act like it’s the 1918 Spanish flu, millions act selfishly by pillaging grocery stores. The inauthenticity of dramatizing the current situation and disguising this as genuine concern for the old and vulnerable, could only be called mawkish, especially in response to what triggered it.
Great medical and technological advances have paradoxically made the pull of worry and urge to control even more irresistible, serving to legitimize rather than to calm fear.
Again, thousands of people die of flu every year, but most of us never bat an eye over the death toll.
“Believing in a degree of control that we don’t actually have”
On the other hand, most people have great trouble recognizing the danger of pit bulls and other dangerous dog breeds. Despite overwhelming data showing the risks of keeping them and being around them, many of us seem disregard what should be a gut feeling of danger, and instead believe lies about these dogs, such as the myth that pit bulls were ever “nanny dogs,” which demonstrably gets many more children killed and maimed each year than have so far died or been otherwise directly harmed by COVID-19.
One can’t be around pit bulls and relax without believing in having a degree of control over their behavior that we don’t actually have. Many people persist in believing that they have such control over pit bull reactivity, even after their pit bulls have injured themselves and family members, including pets, and have forced lifestyle changes that exact a huge price in their quality of life, for example preventing children from visiting and not keeping other pets.
It may seem that I judge people for very human and reasonable behavior. Both the panic about COVID-19 and believing that pit bulls are harmless seem reasonable at first glance, when we hear of thousands of COVID-19 deaths or see the cheerful and affectionate side of pit bulls.
But leaving either matter at that, not looking any further, is leaving us short of our humanity. We have to hold ourselves to a degree of adult responsibility to not easily give in to either fear or carelessness.
To do this, we must recognize what we are giving up when we either yield to panic or disregard actual danger. More and more, it seems, people are either not aware that they have something to lose, or wage war to keep something not worth keeping.
I don’t see this as an individual issue so much as a societal trend. Although it is the individual who ultimately must behave responsibly, it is society as a whole that condones and rewards irresponsibility.
I believe fear of COVID-19 and indifference toward pit bull attacks are both issues showing how, in order to survive among our peers, we are far too often called upon, from childhood onward, to detach from our visceral experience, our gut feelings.
The resulting split, once established, is not easily repaired, and permits all sorts of painful situations to evolve, especially when dishonest, fearful, aggressive or negligent behavior is ever more rewarded with social acceptance.
Contrasting responses send contradictory messages to our children
If for example you grow up having to rely heavily on your intellect to spot incoming danger on a daily basis, instead of waiting for danger to appear you start seeing it everywhere.
If you grow up with stress, death and destruction all around you, you may convince yourself that this is normal. The danger presented by a pit bull, bred specifically for destruction, no longer concerns you because you closed your eyes to that sort of danger a long time ago.
On the other hand, if you grow up with feelings of comfort and security, the mere mention of a pandemic disease threat may upset your sense of order in the world.
In other words, many people don’t know what they are giving up in their behavior because of how they grew up. Meanwhile, contrasting responses to COVID-19 and allowing pit bulls to roam freely send contradictory messages to our children. At the societal level, the risk of potentially contracting an illness which for more than 80% of those infected will barely be noticed is given more weight than the risk of being dismembered alive, without provocation, by a dog.
Seeking external confirmation of inner state
So are the feelings of panic really about COVID-19? Is love for pit bulls genuinely about the dogs? In each case, are those involved merely looking for external confirmation of their inner emotional state?
Are COVID-19 and pit bulls both fuel for an addiction to destructive patterns of behavior, communicating what we cannot express otherwise, that we are in over our heads and we need a break?
What can we do about these childish and ineffective ways of dealing with our emotions?
A pit bull might be a willing victim for those who project inner feelings of injustice and pain onto a dog, but is that really the most appropriate way to handle these feelings?
Externalizing what can only be dealt with internally all too often, no matter how reasonable and understandable this may seem to be, becomes villainous. We cannot accept this sort of behavior as how normal adults should respond, and just consider all the consequences to be collateral damage.
Generally, things have to get worse before we see the error of our ways. Ours is the kind of culture that moves fast and doesn’t regard the past as having much influence on the present. We don’t see destructive behavioral patterns and the resultant loss of life quality as having much to do with live events and mistake them for personal identity. This fundamental misunderstanding of human nature contributes to the deterioration of public health and safety.
In dealing with either COVID-19 or the pit bull problem, we can’t rely on simplistic standards that divide people into good and bad. Of course there are always those that genuinely mean harm, deliberately spreading fear and risk, but society must open its eyes to how mostly well-meaning people are often taken far beyond their limits.
It is no surprise that many people engage in destructive and even self-destructive behavior, lacking the emotional energy to do better, or to critically discern if their lives could be any better.
At the same time, we cannot, as individuals, allow ourselves to act out in destructive ways just because of whatever incredible injustice we have had to endure.
Too lenient with ourselves
We have become far too lenient with ourselves in not taking responsibility to examine ourselves and our roles in the world around us. This in turn ensures that whatever once kept us down will continue to do so.
If our visceral experience is dominated by stress, worry, and indifference toward real physical threats such as those presented by pit bulls, we will foolishly surrender the quality of life that should belong to us. No matter how painful it may be in the short run, we must confront ourselves by considering what we are giving up when we engage in our favorite and familiar patterns of behavior in response to either a threat perceived out of proportion, or a threat denied.
I have come to these realizations while earning a baccalaureate in social work, pursuing song writing and performing as a singer/songwriter, and working odd jobs including technical service, all unsuccessfully, or at least not to my personal satisfaction.
Having not been able to settle into any one field, which I had long suspected had something to do with more than just personal failings, I decided or rather was forced to look into what was causing my life to be so difficult.
A turning point
At that point I had been depressed and had suffered from crippling panic attacks since childhood. After researching my biography, and reading many books on trauma, I realized that much I had taken for normal really was not: not knowing who my father was, and having a mother who was always stressed and very sick with cancer for a decade, finally dying when I was 18, leaving me without any other support.
This brought a turning point in my life. Recognizing that some things just shouldn’t happen to children gave me a weapon that helped me to fight off the personal demons that accompany the adulthood of a traumatized child like myself.
Today I have two dogs and a young child. When we encounter pit bulls off leash, we now avoid them at all cost, but this was not always our response. Much as ANIMALS 24-7 co-editor Beth Clifton narrates in her memoir “Why pit bills will break your heart,” describing her experience as a pit bull rescuer, I have not had anything terrible happen, but I have become aware that I have taken my dogs and my child into the exact same situations in which other people lost their dogs or child.
“The pit bull fit perfectly into the atmosphere of frustration & rage”
For example, I visited an old acquaintance and her new boyfriend, who had a very large pit bull mix. I took my boy because my old acquaintance has birds and he loves birds. But I realized there was an atmosphere of tension and anger in the household. After that, I realized that the pit bull was not just a random element in the household. Rather, the pit bull fit perfectly into the atmosphere of frustration and rage I sensed in that home, and made clear to me that I had taken a risk with my child’s life.
Yes, I indeed see it this way; that I took the risk and it was me that didn’t have to accept such a situation. However, I also felt incredible anger that I was burdened by this guy not taking precautions himself and lying about the dog not being a pit bull. Also I had a hunch this guy enjoyed putting others in situations of powerlessness.
Because my girlfriend has always had the common sense to fear pit bulls, even before I was fully aware of the danger, I personally have always asked pit bull owners to please leash their dogs.
After the visit to my acquaintance’s home, I understood that far too often there is a hidden agenda to owning these dogs, often unrealized––and that this is why, politely asking or not, my request that pit bulls be leashed always ends in battle.
(Roderick Balt lives in Den Hague, The Netherlands.)