Three Thoughts on the Pit Bull Ordinance

I’ve been thinking over some comments from the last time I wrote about the pit bull ordinance. At the tail end of 508 episode 121, Mike mentioned how much he appreciates the comments and suggestions he receives every week. I, too, am always appreciative of feedback, positive and negative, because it helps me refine my thoughts and arguments.  Here are three short thoughts on the topic of pit bulls that I’ve had because of feedback.

1.

Both Jim and Bill recommended better enforcement of the existing leash and licensing ordinances.  Jim specifically felt that “it is not the job of the City or what I ask of the City Council to make the City more ‘friendly’ to dogs.”

I think Jim and I are discussing two different classes of people.  He mentions “young men with pit bulls pretty casually letting the dogs ‘lead’ them and wonder[s] all the time if that owner could control a situation if their dog got out of control.”  I would venture a guess that those young men don’t really want to be dog owners.  They want an accessory to prove their masculinity, and if it isn’t a dog, it’ll be a knife or a gun.  The solution to that problem isn’t going to be unlocked by a pit bull ordinance, or by a knife ordinance, or by a testosterone ordinance.  There are bigger things at play there than a guy who can’t control his dog.

I was in Crompton Park a few Saturdays ago, and there was a young woman there who’d brought her daughter and her (unleashed, and likely unlicensed) husky to play. I have rarely encountered a better-behaved dog (or kid, for that matter). But this young woman was violating the ordinances in every possible way: no dogs are allowed in parks (though we see them there every day), dogs have to be leashed when off private property, and all dogs residing in the city must be licensed.

And yet this woman had accomplished everything contained in the intentions of those ordinances: a dog that wasn’t bothering anyone, a park where no one felt threatened.

Is that young woman in the same class as the “tough” guys?  Would she really be served by having an officer issue her a ticket?

In the (great) book The Last Season, by Eric Blehm, one national park ranger gives another a piece of advice: “The best way to teach the public isn’t with a citation, it’s with communication.” (p. 54)

Wouldn’t that young woman, and many dog owners who are willing to be responsible (but don’t always know how) be better served by education — whether in the media, through a targeted campaign from vets or other public health personnel, or — yes — through the police?  What if they could talk calmly to her for a few minutes about the importance of leashing her dog, the reasons why she should have her dog licensed, and the benefits of spay/neuter?  What if they could direct her to a dog park where she could safely bring her pet?

While some of us don’t feel it’s the City’s job to do this, the City has already said that it’s ok for the Gang Unit to be paid to paint basketball courts.  Why can’t we take the community policing approach with this issue?

One of the results of violent attacks in the Tatnuck Square area was a proposal to create a skatepark on the West Side (see item 10b) by the very councilor who’s proposing such strict rules about pit bull ownership.  So, at-risk youth get positive police attention and improved park facilities; why don’t at-risk dogs (and their owners) get the same consideration?

2.

Kate Toomey wrote on Facebook that “Safety for all in our community is paramount.”  All this ordinance would (ostensibly) address is public safety, yet the example she cites is one of private safety.

All that muzzle will bring is a perception of safety.  It will do nothing to provide safety to the next second-floor neighbor with the unsocialized, unmanageable pit bull on the first floor.  The sign that will need to be posted on the property warning of a pit bull on the premises will only help those outside the property, not those inside.  The additional licensing fee that will need to be paid might go towards dog officers who are charged to help after something has happened, not towards proactively addressing potential issues.

Addressing any issue well requires a great deal of creativity and thoughtfulness, not knee-jerk reactions.  We’ve identified the problem (irresponsible dog owners), and now we’ve got a scapegoat (pit bulls).  This will do everything to make people feel better without helping those who actually need to be safer.

3.

I feel that in this, as with many other cases, Worcester is reactionary instead of visionary.  When considering any decision, we should not just look to the immediate benefit, but also to five, ten, or even twenty years down the road.

We know that Boston is really no different after the ordinance than it was six years before.

If — in ten years’ time — Worcester has magically restricted the ownership of pit bulls so that only responsible people own them, we still will not have addressed irresponsible owners.  So we’ll have uncontrollable labs and greyhounds and chihuahuas on our hands, and we’ll be cursing those breeds, and will be no closer to our ultimate goal.

We need to stop creating pieces of legislation that won’t stop the situations that inspire that legislation.

4.

For those of you who are interested in encouraging responsible dog ownership, I recommend reading Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation & The No Kill Revolution in America by Nathan J. Winograd.  While much of the book is about no-kill shelters, it also calls into question a lot of the rules many communities have (like severely restricting the number of pets per household) that should also be discussed if we really want more responsible dog owners in Worcester.

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