Stepford Wives and Gargoyle Pits

August 23, 2011  

Where banning dogs isn’t really about the dogs


(Photo by Melody McFarland)

By Molly Tamulevich

As I sat in the folding chair, surrounded by my co-workers and friends, I could only see the back of our opposition’s heads. The council room was packed: representatives from the humane society, neighborhood associations and the press squeezed into the small space, quietly conversing. Most of us sat defensively, our arms crossed, glancing suspiciously at other cliques.

At the front of the room, a rank of women sat stiffly. Some of them carried infants, attending to the demands of children who sat dwarfed next to them. From where I was sitting at the back, they shared certain characteristics: they were all white, their clothing tended towards the pastel, collared shirts crisply creased over their slim shoulders. Their sons and daughters were dressed expensively.

According to the women, we were here to eliminate a threat to the town’s children. According to my colleagues and me, we were here to protect animals who were at risk of unfair persecution.

How it all started

Plymouth, Michigan, is a wealthy outlying suburb of Detroit, one of several predominantly white, upper middle-class small towns where family values and Ralph Lauren walk wrapped up in each other through pedestrian friendly streets. It’s home to a number of yearly festivals, one Starbucks, some upscale boutiques and charming homes with big front porches.

The downtown area is particularly dog-friendly, and people often walk their animal companions through the center square, pausing to let them drink at the many water bowls scattered along the sidewalks.

Like many Detroit suburbs, this town’s history is wrapped up in the transportation industry and white flight. The average family income is over $75,000 a year, and more than 95 percent of the residents are Caucasian.

After seeing the dog loose on more than one occasion, he spoke to the city council and proposed banning pit bulls within the city limits.

It was 2008, and there had been a conflict between a homeowner and his neighbor. The neighbor’s dog, a large, un-neutered red pit bull, had run up to the homeowner’s door in what was perceived to be a threatening manner. The dog’s guardian, who was new to the area, apologized, but continued to restrain the dog haphazardly. The dog never bit anyone, but the situation made the homeowner extremely upset. After seeing the dog loose on more than one occasion, he spoke to the city council and proposed banning pit bulls within the city limits.

It sounded like a classic case of fear-based breed specific legislation: a pit bull misbehaves, a neighbor gets upset, the town attempts to ban the breed, but nothing is accomplished because it’s not the dog but the guardian who’s the problem.

However, it struck me that there were some additional factors that made this more than a simple case of knee-jerk reactions and a poor understanding of the issues.

It was never really about the dog

The guardian of the dog in question did not own the home he lived in; he was renting. He and his girlfriend were unmarried and had two children. They were both Latino and had moved to the town from another state. He bragged to his neighbors that he’d purchased his dog from a breeder online called Gargoylepits.com. The dog was not neutered and the man had told people he wanted to breed him.

The stereotype of a young man bragging about his huge, unfixed dog makes my eyes roll. But so, too, does the unfounded fear of the community.

All of this made him the odd man out in a neighborhood of married, white, homeowners, whose dogs (none of them pit bulls) come either from private breeders or one of two local humane societies. The animals that promenade through the square are more likely to be Shi-Tzus, golden retrievers or designer dogs. The large head, enormous muscles and intact genitalia of the pit bull were not in line with the image of the community any more than an unmarried family of color was.

I’m a pit bull advocate, so the stereotype of a young man bragging about his huge, unfixed dog makes my eyes roll. But so, too, does the unfounded fear of the community. With these ingredients simmering, the meeting seemed to me to be about more than just banning the dog. The dog was a symbol for latent prejudices against people who did not fit the town’s majority.

The debate

At the council meeting, the women in the front row spoke first. They described the fear they felt for their children if pit bulls were allowed to run loose. Their husbands, who had visited gargoylepits.com, argued that everything about the breed is marketed to be intimidating and that the dogs are a risk to any community.

The man who had initiated the ordinance described the fear he felt when he had been “charged” by the dog in his front yard.

In response, the people from animal protection and rescue groups presented well-researched arguments. They asked the council to enforce leash laws, ban tethering and create a dangerous dog ordinance that did not mention a particular breed. Attorneys, animal control officers and other residents told stories of wonderful pit bulls they had known, a few even revealing that their own dogs were part pit bull. They voiced their concern that they would lose their companions if the breed was banned. The “at-risk children” watched us all, little sponges soaking up the rhetoric.

The polarization was tangible. We were not speaking to each other; we were tattling on each other to a higher authority.

Finally, the dog’s guardian spoke. The news cameras focused on him as he defended himself and his dog. He was a young man, clearly nervous. There was obvious bitterness between him and the neighbors. He said that his dog does not “charge” people, that the dog plays with his two small children and only runs up to people because he is friendly. He went through every allegation and did his best to explain his side of the story. Everyone in the room watched him, rapt.

After stating his case, he sat down and the crowd began to buzz again with anticipation of the council’s decision. This case had drawn more people to a city council meeting than average, and as we packed in together, the polarization was tangible. We were not speaking to each other; we were tattling on each other to a higher authority.

The result: not as simple as it seemed

The council did not ban pit bulls. Thanks to a policy paper from the Animals & Society Institute and some excellent testimony regarding the ineffectiveness of breed bans, they decided to create a vicious dog ordinance that punished aggressive animals and their owners, regardless of breed.

The animal advocates were thrilled, and the humane society where I worked offered to pay for the dog’s neutering. It was regarded as a success by the animal welfare community, and we saw it as a clear cut case of tolerance trumping ignorance.

The conclusion, however, is not as simple as it appears.

To the dog’s guardian, the town must have seemed unwelcoming, unaccepting and prejudiced.
To the town, he was doing what they feared the most: bringing a “dangerous” dog into the community.

Four months after the council decided to forgo a breed ban, an attorney friend of mine who had been heavily involved in the debate ran into the pit bull’s guardian downtown. Now he was walking two pit bulls: the original male and a nearly identical red female. A quick glance confirmed that he had not taken the humane society up on their free neuter offer. His intentions were clear. The puppies from this pair would be registered, have papers, and be in demand. He was becoming a backyard breeder.

I doubt that the anti-pit bull coalition would classify themselves as xenophobic, but the vehemence with which they attempted to ban the breed spoke to a level of mistrust that was not simply about dogs.

And I doubt that the dog’s guardian realized that his decision to breed his dog was a slap in the face to those of us who had gone out on a limb to defend a misunderstood animal.

But the two stakeholders in this case played into unfortunate stereotypes. To the dog’s guardian, the town must have seemed unwelcoming, unaccepting and prejudiced. To the town, he was doing what they feared the most: bringing a “dangerous” dog into the community.

Cases like this remind me not to think in absolutes. There will always be dangerous dogs and irresponsible guardians. There will always be people who simplify community problems and try to enact legislation that punishes people and animals who are already at a disadvantage.

Effective advocacy requires flexibility. The anti-pit bull groups that we vilify often have valid concerns, and the animals we protect may, on occasion, be aggressive. With this in mind, we can only do our best to be voices of reason.

Perhaps if homeowner and dog owner had been able to communicate more clearly with each other, there would have been understanding instead of intolerance. Perhaps communication is the most effective tool in advancing our understanding of our dogs and our communities.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Molly Tamulevich received her B.A in anthropology with a minor in biology from Bryn Mawr College in 2007. She is pursuing her Master’s degree in Community, Agriculture, Recreation & Resource Studies where she is studying the social status that people receive from their companion animals and how purchasing or adopting an animal based on perceived social value can lead to pet overpopulation and violence.

Her interests include pit bull welfare, vegan cooking, volunteering for a variety of animal welfare organizations and spending time with her guinea pigs, Jambi and Paul.

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Comments

20 Responses to “Stepford Wives and Gargoyle Pits”
  1. Chris1181 says:

    Instead of a breed ban, maybe there should be a breeding ban. If the number of breeders in an area were limited and required a license to do so, it would eliminate problems with all irresponsible animal owners…not just single out pitbull owners.

  2. 2Tu says:

    @Chris1181 I’ve been saying this for years, and I totally agree. It’s hard to tell which is more harmful to pitbulls- the stereotypes or breeders.

  3. Lois50 says:

    What a great story I’m so glad it turned out so well. I’ve had APBT’s for around 28 years. Never have I seen a breed change so much in such a short period of time. I looked up that web site that was where that fellow got his dog. Have you looked at how many dogs they have and the number of puppies they appear to be bringing into over crowed world? With so many APBT’s being euthanized everyday because there’s not enough homes. It’s just really sad.

  4. Heather'sPitbulls says:

    ok i couldnt read this entire article i am upset that they are blaming “whites” for the problem. why couldn’t the article just say high income communities? im so tired of racism.

  5. LauraProwicz says:

    I came to the realization very recently (i.e. in the past three weeks) that BSL is really about a demographic and not really about the dogs. it’s not really politically correct to go after a bunch of people because of how they dress, or talk, or live but it’s just fine to go after their dogs. the pit bulls are red herrings.

    If you think about it though, the bad component of “those people” will get just as nailed by strong, enforced anti-cruelty and vicious dog ordinances as they will by BSL. the bad component of “those people” tend to be the ones that neglect, abuse and encourage their dogs to be vicious. that the bad component of “those people” predominantly choose pit bulls is no accident.

    to me, getting dogs, pit bulls, cats, hamsters and maybe even kids out of the hands of the bad component of “those people” is a good thing.

    the guy in your story should lose the right to own his dog. by letting him get out of his house and by not having him fixed, he is the problem. he is the guy that causes us to lose the right to have OUR dogs!! if I was the police in that town, I’d wait till he broke any one of my anti cruelty or vicious dog ordinances and I’d snatch that dog away in a heartbeat. sorry but that’s how I feel.

  6. LauraProwicz says:

    @Chris1181

    Yes, it’s time. There is just no reason for any dummy to make puppies just because there’s an empty uterus around. If you’re preserving a bloodline or have a proven dog (something besides conformation) and you’re willing to pay for a breeding license and keep adequate facilities for keeping the results of those breedings then great. Otherwise you can line up for the mandatory spay/neuter clinic right down the street.

  7. Lois50 says:

    I hate recism as bad as anybody and it’s hard sometimes to not put people in catagories. For instance and I’m quoting a fellow on You Tube “I have 5 pits and mexicans are the only people who should be allowed to own them”. I read this and then I’m thinking okay….I’ve known this breed for going on 29 years. I’ve become a student of this breed. I’m not saying I’m an expert but I have learned a wealth of knoewledge about this breed. Then I start thinking how much things have changed and it’s been for the worse. Then as my mind is racing I have the thought “is it hispanics doing this to our breed?: Of course I know it’s not but that is where my mind went for a few seconds. Seriously, according to a segment I saw on TV the other day one of the big cities in Colorado (can’t remember if it’s Denver or not)the man reason they have a ban on the bully breeds is because of “gangs”. That just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

  8. Lois50 says:

    @LauraProwicz@Chris1181

    I hate the thought on another law and it’s terrible that some people HAVE to be made to the right things. But I do agree 110% with you. Years ago I did help bring around 4 litters of APBT’s into this world. I have to say the stupidity of youth was one reason. But I did do a lot of research when choosing my bloodlines. I felt like I was contributing something positve to the breed. But it has been a while especially after I’d seen so many in shelters being put to sleep. That was the heart breaker.

  9. LauraProwicz says:

    It is high time that we, as responsible pit bull owners, raise the bar of entry in order to save our breed.

    Certain people can’t get gun licenses and so (generally) don’t own guns but those same people are strutting around the neighborhood with a huge pit bull that has pendulous balls. Is that dog a cherished pet? Is that dog and owner representative of the dog and owner that we are representing to the cites and counties and states when we oppose BSL?

    There is a segment of the population that should not own pit bulls. The simplest way to eliminate them and the problems they cause the rest of us is to:

    1. Work with cities, counties and states to strengthen and enforce anti cruelty and vicious dog ordinances (breed inspecific)

    2. Require rigorous standards and facilities for anyone planning to breed and house large numbers of pit bulls

    3. Require licensing and mandatory spay/neuter for all non-breeders

    Initially this could be a painful adjustment. But long term, the dogs and their owners will benefit.

    IMO there is no other way.

  10. MercedesSonnierMoore says:

    love this article. I went to the gargoyle pitbulls website… im sorry but those are NOT american pitbull terriers. those are mixed breed bully dogs (what some are now calling american bullies) that are pretty worthless dogs (to me anyway, they cant even walk around the block) they shouldnt be called a pitbull! they are just another designer breed .

  11. Chris1181 says:

    Mercedes , you are a snob!! I bet you are a designer mutt too. I find it impossible to say that one life is worth more than another. Your attitude makes me sad.

  12. MercedesSonnierMoore says:

    there are enough dogs breeds out there! there is no purpose in creating more “pets”. you want a pet get one from a shelter. APBT were bred to WORK and when you go way out of the standard and call it something its not makes the breed you are impersonating look bad. sure “pitbulls” are consider to be slang term for several breeds. but a “breeder” should not be calling it a pitbull unless it is an APBT. when a dog its breed purely for looks the dog dosent have “purpose”. if your breeding a dog for ability to do somthing (agility, herding, police work, weight pull, schutzhund ETC) (or to uphold the standard of the breed) then breed your dogs! but otherwise spay and neuter them. and i never said ther lives were worth any less… they simply should not be called APBT and they serve no purpose besides to look “scary” and to see who has the biggest “pitbull” on block. if you want a pet… get one from a shelter!

  13. Chris1181 says:

    Mercedes, I have been fostering and adopting out “useless” pit mixes for years and have 7 of my own. I am adamantly against ANY breeding since most of my kids are “glorious mistakes.” I think we spend way too much time worrying about what breed a dog is and not enough enjoying the pleasure and meaning they bring to our lives.

  14. Lois50 says:

    @Chris1181

    Chris,

    I think what Mercedes is trying to say is APBT’s as a breed has been ruined. By people trying to make it bigger and better. Not saying they have but that’s what they appear to be trying to do. I have to agree with her about how much the breed has changed. They do not look like the same dog. You know as well as I do anytime you change anything genetically you change more than just looks. I have adopted many dogs from shelters. I currently have a 1800 lbs horse from a rescue but if I do choose to get a purebred I look for dogs that look like what I call the old timey dogs. I personally think they’re more genetically like the dogs were back many eyars ago. That was the breed I fell in love with not this ” over muscled, looks like it’s on steroids, can’t hardly walk” dog.Back in early 1983 when I got my first APBT’s around my area ranged in the weight catagory of 25 lbs to 55 lbs dogs. I’ve actually seen on You tube some that weigh 130 lbs.

  15. Lois50 says:

    @MercedesSonnierMoore

    You’re correct they do call them “American Bully’s”. I think they’re runing the breed myself. I’ve seen a few that couldn’t hardly walk. I guess they want them to be attention getters. It’s really sad.

  16. Lois50 says:

    I meant to say “ruining” not runing…sorry about that ;(

  17. DanielAudet says:

    The +90 lb dogs are not really Pit Bulls. They are often Pit Bulls mixed with Mastiffs. These dogs are known as Bandogs. I too am a fan of the athletic Pit Bull where the male is 60 lbs and a female maybe 50 lbs. These old style dogs typically have health. Oversized dogs often come loads of health issues. I am not against all breeders. I am definitely 100% against the backyard breeder in this story. He is a massive part of the problem. In this case where are a lot of those dogs going to end up? They will probably end up with the wrong sort of people. He certainly doesn’t sound like the type to be familiar with due diligence.

    In the case of Pit Bulls there are certainly tons of good healthy ones to go around. As far as breeding goes, I think that the AKC has ruined many breeds by trying to create a Barbie type dog where they have thrown health, intelligence, drive and ability thrown to the wind. As a result I have become a huge fan of the working breeds. I have done obedience training with a great number of Pit Bulls. If you would like to know more about my training please join me at “Modern Canine” on Facebook. In the case of Pit Bulls, if you are deemed a responsible owner, I probably can provide you with an obedience trained dog at the rescue’s regular adoption fee. I always strive to improve the image of this wonderful breed.–Daniel [email protected]

  18. Lois50 says:

    @DanielAudet

    You’re right….they are called “Ban dogs” but some are still being registered as “American Pit Bull Terriers” with the ADBA. And some are called “American Bullys” Really they’re no different than a “designer dog” If you stop and look at most of these back yard breeders it only takes a second to have them figured out. They’re all about looks and the size of the dogs. I too wish there were laws to stop all of these backyard breeders ( I think we have too many laws.) It’s sad that people have to be made do the right thing. I have a nice female that I have obedienced trained myself. She’s a great dog. (She weighs 66 lbs). She comes from some of the old bloodlines that I have traced back to my first dogs. So I am satisfied with her. My first dog was full of champions. Anyway thank you for your offer. I too have worked since 1983 to show people just how great these dogs are. I have bred a few litters back years ago. I don’t do that anymore. The shelters are full of pet quality dogs that are being euthanized everyday. I just wish that I could find someone around me locally that breeds for the old standards. I’m not even sure at this point it can be done.

  19. JeneenBurns says:

    If all dogs were 1. humanely cared for 2. well trained 3. socialized 4.on a leash or in a fenced yard when outside 5. and always supervised with children, how many dangerous dogs would there be? Persons of any background, from any neighborhood can do this. It is harder for the poor but not impossible. Good owners = good dogs.

  20. CourtneyCrayton says:

    I don’t even have the energy to seriously comment on this story again. It’s ridiculous and in this day and age, people shouldn’t be so closed-minded and ignorant. Hivemind isn’t the word I was going to use, but it’s the first thing that came to me.