Thursday, April 23, 2009

A View of Councillor Speedy's letter on Breed-Specific Legislation

Councilman Mike Speedy has sent an open letter in response to protests of his breed-specific “at-risk dogs” proposal. I thank him for this, because it is perhaps the clearest indication yet offered of his motivations and thoughts in this process. Here are my observations on his excerpted letter; the letter in its entirety can be read below.

Dear Colleagues and Community Leaders,

Note that this letter does not address veterinarians, behavior professionals, nor even the animal shelter executives who wrote to oppose his proposal (whose quoted letter was still attached to Speedy's response). Councilman Speedy is apparently not only disinterested in expert opinion, but disinterested in even conversing with those who work daily in this field.

That’s a rather harsh statement from me; I don’t usually dismiss people so quickly. But we’ll look at Councilman Speedy’s "public discussion" in a moment, which will explain my assumption.

We are now living in a city where one of its citizens could be severely mauled or killed at any moment by a dog, someone’s pet. This due to continued abusive conditions & overpopulation surrounding one small group of breeds.

At any moment, eh? Shall we look at the statistics?

The old line about “lies, damned lies, and statistics” has even more relevance in an arena with such obvious emotional connections; it seems everyone has an opinion on dog bite numbers. The Center for Disease Control tracked dog bites and breeds for a time but abandoned the process, concluding that the numbers accumulated were not an accurate indicator of risk (due to both incomplete data and inaccurate breed reporting).

It is both significant and disgusting that while the CDC itself warns their incomplete statistics are not to be used in policy decisions, many still do cite these statistics in their efforts to limit certain breeds or types of dog. Yet the CDC itself recommends a non-breed-specific approach to controlling bite risk in communities. Funny how Speedy and his sources missed that in their research, though it’s on the very same page as the statistics they would like to quote.

But, to the numbers. The CDC reports an average of 16 dog-bite fatalities a year. This includes what may be called human-induced attacks, such as the abandonment of an infant in a dog yard or where the owner was convicted of murder using the dog as a weapon. It seems to me that sixteen deaths a year, in a country of well over 300 million people and over 70 million dogs, is the kind of “at any moment” risk I can comfortably live with.

In fact, a quick browse of the CDC site shows that an average of 15 children a year die on playground equipment. Yes, the risk of playground-related death is approximately that of dog-related death; where are the proposals to limit playgrounds and publicly vilify homeowners with swings (the most dangerous piece of home equipment, statistically speaking) in their yard? And over 15,000 older adults die each year from falling; what about them? That seems much nearer a risk of “at any moment” than a dog attack.

But wait, Speedy or another may protest. There are more to dog bites than just fatalities; in all, about 386,000 bites a year require emergency treatment.

Yes, in fact, 20% of reported dog bites require medical attention. But again, let’s keep things in perspective – about 45% of reported playground injuries are considered “severe” (fractures, internal injuries, concussions, dislocations, and amputations).

I’m not belittling the problem. About 31,000 people a year do require plastic surgery after a dog bite. I was one of them, after receiving a bite to the face and throat. While that's hardly a risk of "at any moment," I do consider dog bites a serious issue, and as a canine behavior professional I do work to minimize that risk to others. But as a behavior professional, I know that bite risk is not a breed issue.

It seems to many there is an institutional rationalization of inhumane treatment toward pit bulls from the animal welfare community. Pit bull advocates have been giving their all for the last 10 years to pit bull specific spay/neuter, adoption, outreach and training programs with little progress. It is time that we admit as a community they need our legislative help. They are unable to achieve the needed results solely by voluntary programs. And as I have come to learn, pit bull type dogs warrant and deserve laws that provide them with extra protection.

Aw, how sweet – this is for the dogs! We want to protect the dogs!

But wait a minute. How would this law possibly protect a pit bull? Under this law, these dogs would be publicly labeled a risk, possibly limiting proper training and socialization opportunities. How will requiring a posted warning to passersby that the government considers this dog genetically vicious (without scientific support) possibly protect a dog from abuse? How would mandatory spay/neuter keep a dog from being abused, exactly?

It’s much easier to justify the abuse of a “bad dog.”

Imagine, just for a moment, that Councilman Speedy’s proposal addressed not dogs, but demographics. These particular young people, say, face many challenges –- broken homes, pressures from gangs, temptations of drugs and alcohol –- and many of them fall into crime. Because of these challenging circumstances, it is suggested that they wear badges indicating they are “at-risk youth.” Imagine the outcry! There would be shrieks of Nazism and witchhunt and more, all with good reason –- such an action would further splinter those youth, making it nearly impossible for them to integrate with mainstream society. Discrimination would be easily justified as the government condoned mistrust and segregation. How could holding these subjects apart possibly help them to be treated normally and with respect?

In the same way, I predict more trouble for labeled dogs. I see this as an opportunity for those who already abuse the pit bull to strengthen their position – “See, even the city fears our dogs, so now we’re really tough! Now I can post the government sign as an even more obvious status symbol!” And so the city, under the guise of protecting these under-socialized, untrained, fear-aggressive dogs, in fact furthers their inhumane treatment.

What a splendid way for our children to learn to judge appearance, not character.

Note, too, that there is no provision in this “dog-protecting” proposal for responsible owners with dogs for the right reasons. I snapped this photo of a pit bull service dog at one of my costume conventions, working quietly among 15,000 strangers. Councilman Speedy wants this dog to be advertised a risk to the public, wants this handicapped owner to warn the public away from and to pay for extra insurance coverage for what is legally her medical equipment. This Staffordshire Bull Terrier, a local certified therapy dog who lives with a handicapped individual, would also be posted as a risk to the public. Anyone competing in dog shows with any “pit bull type” breeds is simply out of luck – there are no exceptions for dogs which should not be spayed or neutered for competition or responsible breeding.

(Note: the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, while specifically listed by name in Speedy’s proposal, has NOT ONE documented fatal bite incident recorded in published statistics. Not one. Stellar research, guys, showing just how factually-based this proposal is.)

Here’s what this proposal does NOT include for the dogs’ protection –- prosecution for animal cruelty, prosecution for illegal dog fighting, prosecution for the use of dogs as weapons, prosecution for animal neglect. “The pit bull is the most abused breed in America and in Indianapolis” –- Speedy admits that pit bulls face a horrific chance of abuse due to the breed’s macho image, and yet his response is to attack responsible owners who are already doing the right thing.

Speedy’s showcase event, the tragic attack on Brenda Hill resulting in the loss of her leg, would not likely have been much different if these restrictions had been in effect. The owner of those dogs did not have adequate fencing, did not have medical care for the dogs, did not regard the existing animal laws. The dogs had previously bitten, without change in the way the dogs were handled or trained. Why would we expect him to behave differently for this law?

I agree that it’s tough to get at the root of the problem – drug rings using dogs to guard labs and drug houses, dogfight gambling for profit and money laundering, gang wars – but that’s the real root of the problem. I often ask, if these people are already committing felonies, why do we think they’ll change their behavior for a little dog law? Really?

Also, the tactics used to portray unified opposition have been unbecoming. They have pressured, arm-twisted and where needed, resorted to character attacks.... They do not want a public discussion offering alternative, effective solutions.

Let’s talk about reasonable public discussion, shall we? (For those keeping track, this is where I finally decided that Councilman Speedy was simply not interested in education or discussion, no matter what he claims.)

Councilman Speedy claims that, “Opponents to the At Risk Dog proposal agree ... that a breed specific solution is needed.” This is wholly untrue, ignoring the many voices which claim that any dog can bite, that citizens deserve to be protected from dangerous dogs of any breed, and that the existing dangerous dog laws should be more stringently enforced. In fact, what prompted Councilman Speedy’s open letter was a plea for the council to put aside this breed-specific proposal while animal welfare groups drafted an alternate plan which would address dangerous dogs of any breed and welfare for every breed.

Perhaps Councilman Speedy misunderstood the letter? Let's look:

"The Humane Society of Indianapolis and the entire animal welfare community cited by name on our attached position statement is completely opposed to ANY BSL ordinance and will adamantly work to defeat any such ordinance."


That bold print is original. No, I don't think he could have been mistaken. This letter was still attached to Councilman Mike Speedy's reply-all response -- why would he pretend there is unanimous support for breed-specific legislation? Does he think his constituents are really that stupid?

Next, let’s examine the “public discussion” which Councilman Speedy wants. His only public citation for his pit bull data is dogsbite.org, whose “study” is admittedly merely a survey of media stories -– not data from behaviorists, animal control officers, medical personnel, trainers, veterinarians, or experts of any kind.

Why aren't news stories accepted as reliable data? Because they’re not reliable. Media inaccuracy is one reason the CDC gave up collecting statistics; news reporters are not trained to identify breeds and:

“attacks by one breed are more newsworthy than attacks by other breeds.... [incidents] may be differentially ascribed to breeds with a reputation for aggression” (http://www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/images/dogbreeds-a.pdf).
The National Canine Research Council has preserved just a few inaccurate reports with photos.

Anyone familiar with the psychology experiment in which witnesses reported a knife stabbing (while the “weapon” was actually a banana) knows how preconceptions can color perceptions. We expect to see a knife instead of a fruit because we’ve heard of stabbings; we expect to see a pit bull instead of a Labrador because that’s the popular image of a vicious dog. (Have you noticed how most media-reported dog bites cite purebreds -– almost never mixed breeds or unidentified types?)

So dogsbite.org uses news stories, a source deemed unreliable by the CDC due to bias, as their sole data source for their report to support more media bias. This would be laughable were it not so serious. With the validity of this false study already in question, now let’s look at the “public discussion” available at dogsbite.org, Councilman Speedy’s preferred source. Here are just a few of the many “Acts that Evoke Being Banned” (italics are mine):

– The DogsBite.org Forum is Not Intended for Pit Bull Advocates. (The forum is for promotion of anti-pit bull material only; discussion not permitted.)
--Denying the genetic heritage of the pit bull breed will not be tolerated. (Disagreeing that pit bulls are inherently and genetically vicious will result in banning. Scientific discussion of genotype versus phenotype is not permitted.)
--Falsely representing yourself as a supporter of DogsBite.org will not be tolerated (Forum members must toe the party line –- dissension will result in banning.)
–New users should participate immediately upon joining. If one has not posted a message with a few days or week upon joining, you will automatically be banned. This activity is called "trolling." We must ban all new members that appear to be trollers to protect our active member discussion. (Aside from the inaccurate language –- “troll” means something else entirely –- this tidies the forum nicely for the promotion of anti-pit bull material only. You must post to be a member, and you may post only the site's views or be banned. Why exactly does merely reading endanger active member discussion? No, I couldn't think of a reason, either.)

"Pressuring and arm-twisting," indeed.

So to review –- Councilman Speedy’s only cited data comes from a pseudo-study consisting of non-expert accounts collected by those with a stated bias –- not admitted under any academic standard. The CDC and other reputable organizations specifically urge that dangerous dog legislation exclude breed-specific language. Why, then, are we wasting time and money in drafting a new law instead of enforcing the laws on the books –- laws which could have prevented several of the high-profile attacks in recent years, had they been enforced?

I am committed to moving forward with the attached proposal. I’m sure it can be improved with the thoughtful insight of reasonable people. I welcome that.

Given that Speedy has endorsed dogsbite.org, which has a certain reputation among animal professionals and whose bias and unreliability have been reviewed above, and given that he very specifically lied regarding unanimous agreement on breed-specific measures, I rather doubt that he is open to insight from reasonable people. He has already chosen suspect data over expert observations and recommendations from the Center for Disease Control, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Humane Society of the United States, and more. I wish I believed he would welcome open discussion; I want to reduce bite risk as much as anyone.

But here’s a serious suggestion -– let’s enforce the laws on the books. We already have leash laws, animal cruelty laws, vicious dog laws. Quite a few of these horrific attacks came from dogs previously cited for dangerous behavior or owners with a history of dangerous dog behavior. Let’s be fair in our approach –- if the city plans to vilify the owner of a show dog or therapy dog or service dog, will they also knock on the door of the gang with the pit bulls chained out front? Why not just deal with the gang directly and leave the good owners alone?

I continue to learn about this crucial, public safety issue and the plight of the Indy pit bull. It is unacceptable in this great city for people to live in fear or at risk of being killed or seriously mauled at any moment by a dog, or to continue to institutionally rationalize inhumane treatment of pit bulls.

I agree entirely, Councilman Speedy. I really do. Dog bite risk should be minimized, and it is utterly unacceptable for animals to be abused. I would very much support the enforcement of existing laws and the empowerment of Animal Control officers and police to crack down on dog fight rings, etc. No dog, not even a pit bull, should have to live on a chain or in a tiny pen, in hunger, without social comfort, in pain from fight wounds, in fear of abuse, without hope. No reasonable person should blame an animal for a human’s cruelty.

Can we really expect that by removing pit bulls, these abusive owners will give up their abusive ways? That they will not flaunt the law and keep their abused pit bulls anyway, or that they won’t simply select another breed and do the same? Shouldn’t we address the real issues?

If you are interested in working with me, please let me know. What we accomplish together for At Risk Dogs could easily augment and empower the Animal Welfare Summit in full stride.

This grammar point is telling. After his suggestion that all pit bull types be automatically labeled “Dangerous Dogs” drew such protest, Councilman Speedy amended his proposal to call them “At Risk Dogs.” This is truer than he meant; pit bulls are the dogs most at risk here. Councilman Speedy admits that pit bulls face unimaginable abuse and his response is to blame the breed and label them. There is no mention anywhere of holding abusive owners responsible for their inhumane actions.

I want to include this except from the book Fatal Dog Attacks, a study of both statistics and the stories behind them. It is the author’s conclusion after researching the data behind fatal pit bull attacks that the breed is no more inherently dangerous than another, but that the human factor is the real issue.

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” – Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948)

If we, as a society, are to be judged by our treatment of Pit Bulls, we will all surely be damned.

...The phrase “the Pit Bull problem” is used here not as an indication that we as a society have a problem with Pit Bulls; it is meant as a reference to the problem Pit Bulls have with our society. And the problem is shocking. For the past 20 years, Pit Bulls have been subjected to cruelty, abuse and mistreatment to a degree and on a scale that no other breed in recent history has ever had to endure.

The stories are brutal and sickeningly common. Dogs are tortured, teased and abused in hopes of making them mean. Dogs are pitted against each other in fights. Those refusing to fight or who lose are horribly killed or left to die in alleyways. Dogs carry huge chains and padlocks around their necks and live in squalor. Inexorably intermingled in these cruel pursuits are drugs, guns, and theft. People from the worse segments of our society seek these animals out to guard drug houses, intimidate other gang members, thwart police action and enhance their vacuous self-esteem. Any real or imagined viciousness on the part of the Pit Bull breeds pales in comparison to the brutality, callous disrespect for life, and inhumanity of many of their owners.

The commonality and level of cruelty of so many of these cases is what should be shocking to us as a society. But we do not become outraged until a Pit Bull kills a child; then our outrage and shock at the “viciousness” of this breed is loud and clear. How much easier it is to dismiss this as a breed problem! Addressing the real issues of crime, poverty, animal abuse, ignorance, greed, and man’s lust for violence is far too daunting a task for most people and so we blame the dogs for our societal ills.

[Stories, examples, statistics cut] ...The treatment, behavior and condition of the Pit Bull in today’s society is a reflection of the cruel innernature and inhumanity of our species; it has almost nothing to do with dogs.


And so, please, Councilman Speedy –- your goals are worthy and your assessment of the abuse of pit bull types is accurate. But the answer is not to blame the dogs; they are but a tool. I urge you to please increase enforcement of existing animal cruelty laws and dangerous dog laws, and to crack down on those crimes which rely upon the use and abuse of pit bulls to flourish. The problem is not in the look of a dog; it’s not that simple.

Denver, Colorado enacted draconian breed-specific legislation after a highly-publicized attack, seizing hundreds of pet pit bulls for destruction and driving many owners outside of city limits with their pets. Oddly enough, however, Denver has three times per capita the bite incidents of nearby Boulder, which has no breed restrictions. The Denver laws affected responsible owners, not the abusers, and the resulting false sense of security belied the fact that the problem remained, even after the punishment of citizens and dogs who had done no wrong.

An often-asked question is what breed or breeds of dogs are most “dangerous”? This inquiry can be prompted by a serious attack by a specific dog, or it may be the result of media-driven portrayals of a specific breed as “dangerous.” Although this is a common concern, singling out 1 or 2 breeds for control can result in a false sense of accomplishment. Doing so ignores the true scope of the problem and will not result in a responsible approach to protecting a community’s citizens. (A community approach to dog bite prevention, American Veterinary Medical Association Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions)


Please, let’s not fall back on the unscientific premise that looks define behavior. Let’s deal with the real causes of the problem, not the symptoms, and let’s enforce the neglected laws already on the books.




Original letter:

Dear Colleagues and Community Leaders,

With all due respect to Mr. Aleshire and select members of the animal welfare community, this is first and foremost a public safety issue and a specific dog issue. I applaud the effort to form the Animal Welfare Summit, but human welfare views need to be included and proactive legislative tools adopted & implemented in concert therewith. We are now living in a city where one of its citizens could be severely mauled or killed at any moment by a dog, someone’s pet. This due to continued abusive conditions & overpopulation surrounding one small group of breeds.

Keep in mind, no other “bad rap” breeds such as the Rottweiler, Doberman or German Shepherd ever endured more than 20+ years of abuse, torture, neglect, dog fighting, and less desire to adopt from the public. It seems to many there is an institutional rationalization of inhumane treatment toward pit bulls from the animal welfare community. Pit bull advocates have been giving their all for the last 10 years to pit bull specific spay/neuter, adoption, outreach and training programs with little progress. It is time that we admit as a community they need our legislative help. They are unable to achieve the needed results solely by voluntary programs. And as I have come to learn, pit bull type dogs warrant and deserve laws that provide them with extra protection.

Also, the tactics used to portray unified opposition have been unbecoming. They have pressured, arm-twisted and where needed, resorted to character attacks. They have degraded, silenced and shoved aside many in the animal welfare community who have differing opinions or have given their professional lives to pit bulls and elected officials who see it as their number one duty to protect people. They do not want a public discussion offering alternative, effective solutions.

I am committed to moving forward with the attached proposal. I’m sure it can be improved with the thoughtful insight of reasonable people. I welcome that. I continue to learn about this crucial, public safety issue and the plight of the Indy pit bull. It is unacceptable in this great city for people to live in fear or at risk of being killed or seriously mauled at any moment by a dog, or to continue to institutionally rationalize inhumane treatment of pit bulls.

If you are interested in working with me, please let me know. What we accomplish together for At Risk Dogs could easily augment and empower the Animal Welfare Summit in full stride.

Thank you for your time in reading this email.

Mike Speedy
Councilman, District 24
City County Council
City of Indianapolis, Marion County
4733 Moss Creek Terrace
Indianapolis, IN 46237
T: 317-786-6689
E: m.speedy@sbcglobal.net
Community Affairs, Public Works & Parks & Recreation

1 comment:

Nichole said...

Love this post. Wish I'd seen it earlier.

Found it especially ironic that less than a week later, the Best Friends study on BSL came out indicating absolutely NO benefit to public safety.

Indy Pit Crew works tirelessly (with the help of others such as the Hoosier Rottweiler Club) to stop any form of BSL. I'm really pleased to say that most of the City County Counselors have shown a real willingness to listen and be educated.