This is a must read! The article is written by WAMU blogger Anna John.
On Friday, I mentioned that I had interviewed Lisa LaFontaine, the President and CEO of the Washington Humane Society (WHS). We discussed several topics, most notably the stigmatization of Pit Bulls, which is a compelling and divisive issue. If I were a gambler, I’d wager that the reason why my “teaser” of a post was shared 20 times on Facebook (not typical for DCentric, no matter how many eyelashes or shooting stars I wish on) has more to do with America’s scariest dog than humane education or your kind support of my dream job writing for WAMU.
Lisa was so generous, she spent twice the allotted time speaking with me and for that I am grateful. Because we covered so much information, I’m splitting the interview in to two posts; part two will be up Wednesday morning.
Some of you may be wondering, what do dogs have to do with race and class; interestingly enough, this weekend and earlier today, whenever I was speaking with people involved with animals, their immediate response was, “Everything”. A colleague added, “Unfortunately, the stereotype is that the only people who own Pit Bulls are either white rednecks or Black drug dealers.” After speaking to Lisa LaFontaine, I know that such assumptions are inaccurate– and dangerous for a breed which was once affectionately referred to as a “Nanny dog”.
Does WHS do any outreach to communities in D.C. about humane practices?
We do. We have a variety of people in the organization who specialize in that, including a full-time humane educator who goes to schools and works with community groups about humane care, training and noticing cruelty. We focus on young people and because we only have one educator, we track where cruelty or neglect calls are coming from and we send her to those neighborhoods. It’s amazing what happens when you start talking to kids about animals. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve received phone calls from a young person who says, “Mrs. Brown told me to call if I saw this.”, so we know our humane education touched that child. By bringing animals in the classroom, they learn how to treat animals. We also have two groups of officers out, all the time. They are invited to ANC meetings, community meetings and they go to dog parks, so we have a lot of programs for reaching out to the community.
That’s amazing that children are empowered to help animals. You mentioned other community programs…do any of them focus on dog fighting?
We’re very much on the front lines on the dog fighting issue. We have humane law enforcement officers who respond to every call. If people see something that doesn’t look right–like a dog with wounds–they get the phone call, whether it is organized or a casual fight in the street. Our officers have been very present, not only in talking about the issue but apprehending people involved in dog fights. We worked on a bill in 2007, it passed in 2008…it makes it illegal to be a spectator. In D.C. it’s a felony to be a spectator. And dog fights thrive on spectators. For fighting to flourish, it needs to be a spectator sport, so if you target people who own and watch you are addressing the whole, dysfunctional system.
I had no idea that it’s a felony to watch a fight, but it makes sense, now that you mention it.
When people know they will get arrested for it, it’s a whole other level of deterrence. We actually see more casual street fights, the “My dog is tougher than yours.”-situations. If there’s a dog fight happening, we act. We have the authority to take a dog out of that situation. it’s difficult though; illegal dog fighting is secretive, and that’s why we need people’s help in reporting that crime.
Hence the educational efforts, sure. Now how often do you get dog fighting calls? Do they come from certain areas?
The Washington Humane Society has had the power of law enforcement since 1870, so we’ve been dealing with all manifestations of cruelty for a long time. Dog fighting was much more of an issue in the 80s or 90s. The majority of calls we get now are for cruelty, neglect, leaving dogs out in bad weather or animals being abandoned. While dog fights still happen, they are not, by any means the majority of our calls anymore. There’s still a lot of animals left out on days like this, who are chained, without enough food, who are abandoned or running at large…those are issues we see, that we are working actively on.
When little Ivan, the pit bull, was puppy-napped, people feared the worst about his fate and made assumptions about motive based on the surveillance photos. Have Washington Humane society policies been changed in light of that incident? And were the public’s fears grounded in reality?
We were afraid because stealing a dog is a crime and dog fighting tends to go with other crimes, but it was more because if you want to adopt a dog and you have integrity around that, then it’s easy enough to do it right. The fact that they would steal him in broad daylight…we were worried about it for that reason. People’s hearts were really in their throats. It was sharing the video on Facebook and every media outlet in D.C. that allowed us to get him back the next day. So many people saw it and felt that panic. Everybody knew that these guys were taking him, stealing him…you can’t ascribe any good motive to that.
As for our policies, we have secured additional cameras. We talked long and hard about this; we want to protect our animals and be safe but we also want to assume that most people are coming to us with good intentions. We don’t want to be a bunker…we need to make sure our facility is secure, and that’s why more surveillance in place, but in terms of how we treat the public? We want people to feel welcome. I think 99 out of 100 people who come to us do so because they want to do the right thing.
Are certain breeds overrepresented at WHS or D.C. shelters, in general? When I adopted my puppy, most of the dogs at Georgia Ave were either Pits or mixes.
Right now, “pit bull-type” dogs are the most commonly represented dogs in our shelters, but it’s misleading. We tend to identify dogs based on what they look like. This summer, I had a litter of foster puppies; the mother was a pit-type dog, she had all the classic physical characteristics of one…but her puppies all looked like little hounds or beagles. We really try and look at appearance and behavior when identifying breeds, so we say “pit bull”-type dogs because they’re usually mixed. Dogs that have those physical characteristics are commonly seen in our shelters, but they are seen in many urban areas across the country. I was in Baltimore the other day, they see a preponderance, too. In Worcester, MA…all across the country…these types of dogs are the ones that are being bred indiscriminately.
On Monday, I published the first part of a conversation I had with Lisa LaFontaine, the President and CEO of the Washington Humane Society (WHS). That post explored dog fighting in D.C., the high-profile theft of a puppy named Ivan and WHS’ efforts to educate the city about animal cruelty.
Today’s installment answers some of the questions I posed last week– my conversation with Lisa covered everything from breed confusion to whether there’s a “class” element to Pit bull ownership. We even discussed the history of pariah breeds in this country; a century ago, the “violent dog” du jour was not a Pit or even a terrier. After listening to Lisa and doing research for this piece, I’ll never look at Newfoundlands the same way, again.
All of that and more, after the jump.
My puppy is a Cocker Spaniel mix and people constantly ask if she’s a Pit, which makes me wonder– are Pit/Bull/Terrier/mixes the victims of breed confusion?
Absolutely. And the worst kind of breed confusion leads to breed discrimination. In the three years that I’ve been at the Washington Humane Society, there have been a handful of very serious dog attacks against a person that hit the media. There are four particular cases I can think of where the dog was described in the media as a “Pit bull”, but we had the dog quarantined and it was not a Pit…it was a Boxer or a Mastiff or something else. Unfortunately, when the media picks these stories up, it causes discrimination and fear to spiral. There are dangerous dogs of all breeds. Labs. Springer Spaniels. Golden Retrievers. German Shepherds…you name it. Aggression isn’t isolated to one breed, and that’s why we do temperament tests on every pet, regardless of what they are, because we know we need to look at each dog individually.
I once saw a website which asked people to find the Pit bull in a group of 20 or so purebred dogs…it’s very, very hard to do.
We have several versions of that poster hanging up around our offices to make that point. There is nothing that underscores it more effectively than those pictures. You can give that test to laymen or seasoned professionals and it is hard to pick out the Pit bull. That’s why we use the phrase, “Pit bull-type…”.
I read that Pit bulls were once considered “America’s dog“. How did they become a symbol for crime or violence and associated with certain demographics?
That’s a great question. I want to direct you to a fantastic book, The Pit Bull Placebo, its tag line is “Media, Myths and the Politics of Canine Aggression”. It was written by Karen Delise, who is with a group that tracks dog bites. If you take a historical look at the breeds involved in dog attacks, it is the dogs that had been trained by certain elements of society to be aggressive– those were the pariah breeds of their era.
Go back to slavery and”Uncle Tom’s Cabin”…attacks by Bloodhounds were common because Bloodhounds were used to track runaway slaves. They were used to doing something violent. Fast forward to the 1880s and New York City, where Newfoundlands were being used to guard markets, so a preponderance of bites came from Newfoundlands. After World War 2, Dobermans were associated with Nazis and were seen as dangerous.
It was really when gangs adopted Pit bulls that they became the latest pariah. In the past, Pit bulls had starred in ads, on the TV show “Little Rascals”…in fact, the most decorated dog in World War 2 was a Pit. These happy, healthy, well-adjusted dogs became a symbol of drug culture and violence because unfortunately, you can take all of a Pit’s positive traits and turn them negative.
Part of their willingness to fight is because they want approval, right?
Yes, they will do anything to please their owners. And yet, again, if you turn the clock back 100 or so years, people would have been afraid of Newfoundlands, not Pits. I’m not a Pollyanna. Some dogs are aggressive dogs. But they cut across breeds. It’s a combination of indiscriminate breeding as well as how a dog was raised.
Does the stigma affect your efforts to find dogs forever homes, and if so, how do you work around that?
It definitely gives us more to think about and more to work on. Our strategy is to assess every animal that comes to our shelter, whether they are dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs…because the most important thing for us is that the next home they go to be their last home and a loving fit for them. We pay attention to each dog’s characteristics, why they got surrendered and we assess what they will need in a home environment. We also consider the people who are coming in, what are they looking for? Matchmaking is a huge part of our efforts. We welcome every potential adopter to have conversations like the one I’m having with you today, to get people to see things a little differently, to see animals differently. Fortunately, we have lots of wonderful, beautiful Pit bull-type dogs who have been adopted by our patrons, who speak for us and proudly wear their status as our ambassadors.
It’s easy for us to advocate for them because many of us have them. Several of our staffers have one or two of these dogs because they’ve fallen in love with them. There are poor representatives of every breed, and we are trying our best to make sure dogs are safe. For those of us who are privileged to spend time with a nice Pit, there’s nothing like it.
Are we more likely to see Pits with certain people or in certain parts of D.C.?
The imagery around Pits had to do with drug culture and gangs, so they became known as an “urban dog”. There was an infamous Sports Illustrated cover…and that imagery was planted. Yet if you walk through Washington, a multicultural city, you see these dogs with every age, race, class and neighborhood. I’ve thought about this and it’s striking…certainly race discrimination is based on what people look like and discrimination against pits comes from that, too.
The truth is, these dogs are woven throughout this community. The first time that really struck me was when I came to the Washington Humane Society. The very first event I went to was our Walk for Animals. It’s a fantastic event, which is usually attended by people who adopted from our shelter. Those people came from every race, level of education and part of this city. I got on stage, looked out and I saw Pit bulls everywhere. It was a powerful image. There were 700 people on the mall, at a grassroots event. Every demographic you could imagine…and no one group had a lock on Pit bulls. They were with everybody.
At the Washington Humane Society, dogs that look like them are in our shelters very frequently and it’s because of a number of things. They are sterilized less frequently and over time, that is what the “D.C. dog” has come to look like, because that is the dog getting bred frequently. Over time, that will change. There will be another dog that has the “D.C. dog look”.
So there are Pits everywhere, from Georgetown to Congress Heights?
Yes, there are “Pitbull-type” dogs in Georgetown and everywhere else. If you look, you’re going to see them, just like I saw them at our Walk for Animals. A lot of these stereotypes about the kind of person who owns these dogs are propagated by people who are invested in a certain belief, who are not paying attention to the world around them.