I was discussing the pit bull question a bit with Jeff today. (I mention this because anything decent that may follow might have been completely stolen from him.)
Councilor Eddy has mentioned that 2% of city dogs are pit bulls, and that they cause 25% of the dog bites in the city. It’s been estimated that there are 10,000 dogs in the city. That would mean there are 200 pit bulls in the city. Raise your hand if that sounds really low to you. (A brief look at the WARL dog list on Petfinder today shows 17 pit bulls. To put it another way, that would mean WARL is in possession of 10% of all the pit bulls in the city.)
And, of course, Councilor Eddy hasn’t told us how many dog bites actually occur in the city. I’ve asked Councilor Haller, and she’s told me that she still has not received any dog bite statistics. Now, the cynics among us might feel that Eddy’s stats don’t pass the smell test — if Haller, the chair of Public Safety, doesn’t have reliable figures, where is Eddy getting his?
We know that the ordinance won’t prevent dog bites on the owner’s property, because dogs won’t need to be muzzled. We know that the ordinance won’t protect police from situations where they may enter a home with hostile dogs because — again — in a home, a dog doesn’t need to be leashed or muzzled. We know that the dog officers get reports of 5-10 loose dogs a week, and that the vast majority of residents obey the leash law.
We know all this, and the councilors know this, and yet our sympathies go one way, and their votes go the other way, time and again.
I’m inclined to appeal to reason, and — while I am not a fan of canned testimony — I do like to give people tools to be able to appeal to reason. And Jeff pointed out to me, as others have, that that’s just not how this Council works.
Here’s how things work:
A citizen complains about something. In this case, a perceived threat from pit bulls. A councilor latches onto it because it gives the government the opportunity to address an issue which isn’t really a problem, but which makes everyone feel good.
Those citizens who would be adversely affected speak up. They believe in what my philosophy professors called good faith; that is, that they can contact their representatives in the government, that those representatives will listen to all constituents, weigh the facts, and vote accordingly.
Those citizens attend a meeting. They give testimony. They see those councilors they sent emails to, those councilors they spoke to before the meeting, and they hope against hope that their words will be listened to, that they will be shown respect.
The Council, of course, has already made up their mind, long before testimony. The Council’s mind was made up when the item was first brought up, when it was obvious how this would play to all those people sitting at home on their couches. You see, it’s the people on the couches they really listen to, not the people sitting right in front of them.
Those are the kinds of people who want a pit bull ban, though they’ll settle for the muzzle law. And, unfortunately, those are the kind of people who vote in this city.
So we end up with 11-0 votes, or 10-1 votes, or 9-2 votes. Occasionally a Councilor will throw the rational citizens a bone (no pun intended) and vote their way. But, in this city, in this Council, collegiality is big. And — in their dictionary — collegiality equals consensus.
We keep asking the wrong questions about the right issues. We keep wondering why college students don’t stay here, we keep wondering why nothing goes right in the downtown, we pine for passenger flights out of the airport. We know what the issues are, but we aren’t willing to have a conversation whose direction isn’t predetermined.
In the case of the pit bulls, we are bypassing the questions we need to be asking in exchange for a temporary feel-good measure. We prefer to fool ourselves into thinking that this will prevent horrible situations. Goodness knows we shouldn’t see how well this is working in other cities, or ask the WARL whether this will cause an uptick in pit bulls at an already-overtaxed shelter. We only care about the now.
What if we decided to encourage instead of discourage? What if we decided we wanted to encourage people to be responsible dog owners? What if we decided to waive a lifetime’s worth of dog license fees for those dogs who are altered and have completed a program like Canine Good Citizen? What if we decided to open a dog park, to encourage responsible dog owners to live in Worcester? What if we worked with veterinarians to identify dog owners who might be the perfect fit for a pit bull in need of a home?
What if we looked at pit bulls not as a problem to be tackled but an opportunity to distinguish ourselves from other communities? What if we decided that, instead of punishing behavior that’s already against the rules, we decided to make it a rule to incentivize good behavior? What if we decided to be the community for dog owners in Massachusetts?
What if we decided to be informed and act accordingly? What if we dared to act differently — by doing so thoughtfully and creatively? How about we stop being hung up on how we compare to Providence, but instead concentrate on how we can become the best Worcester we can be? Knee-jerk ordinances don’t get us there — let’s educate ourselves, listen to those in Animal Control and rescue agencies, and craft a set of animal control laws that combine common sense and creativity. And then let’s make sure that Animal Control has the staffing to enforce what we enact, since there’s no point to having laws in place that we’re unwilling to adequately enforce.