Photo by Peter DiAntoni
Like most stories about pit bulls, this one starts with a mauling. At about 10:30 on Saturday morning, March 19, Daniel Pettis was sitting on the stairs in Pulaski Park daydreaming when he noticed two dogs approaching. “I was leaning on my elbows, looking up at the sky,” he says. “I thought the dogs hadn’t seen me, so I stood up. That’s when the little one lunged at me.”
Reacting quickly, Pettis swung his lunchbox at her. Then the male dog, which weighed about 100 pounds, according to the police report, lunged at him as well. The hill on which Pettis stood was slick with melted snow. He lost his footing, fell, and the dogs jumped on him. He struggled to his feet. Slipping, sliding and swinging, Pettis fought the dogs for about 15 minutes, ending up at the bottom of the hill covered in lacerations it would take more than 100 stitches to repair. “I had no more fight left in me,” he says. He lay on his stomach and covered the back of his neck with his arms. “I thought it was over. I thought I was going to die.”
At 10:46 a.m., the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department received a call about a “man down” in Pulaski Park.
Once Pettis was still, the big dog that had done most of the damage stopped biting him, but he didn’t know where it was. “I didn’t hear anything. I didn’t know if he was gone or just waiting two feet away.”___While he was wondering, the dog suddenly leaped forward and bit his elbow. This time he didn’t retreat, and Pettis could hear the dog’s raspy breath in his ear and feel it on his face.
Then they seemed to disappear. Pettis heard a woman screaming and lifted his head to let her know he was alive. He saw the two dogs on the top of the hill running toward a man who was shouting, “Go home!” The man was a passerby who Pettis now believes saved his life. When the dogs saw Pettis lift his head, they ran back toward him. The man yelled to Pettis to “play dead” and then managed to chase the dogs away. By the time the deputies arrived, the dogs were locked in the car of their owner, -Tomas Sanchez.
Sanchez’s sister-in-law, Teresa Sanchez, told deputies she let the dogs out into their fenced yard around 10:35 that morning. Someone, she said, must have left the gate open.
In 2002, the Milwaukee Common Council passed into law some restrictions known as breed-specific legislation. Current Council President Willie Hines remembers that the legislation was something his constituents wanted because “it was a particular breed of dog that was causing all this chaos.”
South Milwaukee had actually banned the breed in 1989, but Milwaukee had backed away from a 1999 proposal, including some control of pit bulls, because there was opposition to it. The issue, however, kept popping up, as Milwaukee’s reported dog bites hit a peak of more than 550 in 2000 and almost 650 in 2001. During that period, rarely a month went by without a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story about a deviant pit bull or pit bull owner. A 55-year-old man’s arms were torn up by his own dogs, a Saukville girl lost part of her ear to a pit bull, robbers in Milwaukee were using them as weapons, and two adolescent boys hanged one from a tree after it lost a fight with another dog. In 2002, Milwaukee’s legislation passed, requiring owners of pit bulls and Rottweilers to fence or kennel their dogs, keep the dog on a leash in public, never let it be walked by anyone under 16 and take a class in responsible dog ownership at the Wisconsin Humane Society.
The irony is that the Humane Society didn’t support the ordinance. There is abundant evidence, both locally and nationally, that legislation going after pit bulls or other breeds doesn’t really solve the problem of dog bites and attacks. There may be a general increase in dog bites but not by certain breeds or for reasons often suggested in media accounts. That’s why legislative attempts to solve the problem are so misguided and so likely to fail.
Just off of Miller Parkway, between the carcass of the Archer Daniels Midland grain mill and the old Froedtert Malt buildings in West Milwaukee, sits an unassuming square red and cream brick building with an ominous mission. The Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission (MADACC) is where problem dogs end up. If they’re unwanted, caught running loose, seized during evictions or, like the Sanchez’s dogs, they’ve bitten someone and have to be quarantined, they come here. On a dismal March morning a couple of weeks before the attack in Pulaski Park, a dozen or so dogs are kenneled in one of two rooms reserved for them. These are dogs of the “hard-to-adopt” variety, dogs who will be euthanized unless someone claims them.
A thickly furred, pointy-nosed non-pit bull dog growls as visitors approach his kennel. “He’s not going anywhere,” explains Kent Castelein, one of MADACC’s veterinarians and a member of Milwaukee’s Dangerous Dog Panel. Next to the growler is a shy, red-nosed pit bull who cowers as visitors approach. Unless his owner shows up, he won’t be leaving MADACC either because his timidity means he’s more likely to bite out of fear.
Around the corner from these two, a handsome, athletic American Staffordshire terrier (considered a “pit bull type”) is bouncing against his fence and demanding attention. He rests his paws on the painted cinderblock half-wall, and the corners of his mouth are stretched back to his ears in a characteristic pit bull grin. Len Selkurt, executive director of MADACC, curls his fingers through the chain link and the dog slobbers all over them, mooning up at him, desperate for even this little bit of attention. Selkurt, who oversaw the euthanizing of 994 pit bulls in 2005, 77 percent of the total number of the breed that came into the shelter, leaves his hand there for the dog to press his cheek into. “See?” he shakes his head. “That’s a nice dog.”
The problem with breed-specific legislation, say critics such as The Humane Society of the United States, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Kennel Club, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and just about every organization involved with animal control and welfare, is that by attaching penalties to breeds of dogs rather than to dog owners, the legislation fails to recognize that any breed of dog can be dangerous. One Palm Beach study found that in any given year between 1987 and 1993, German shepherds, cocker spaniels, Labrador retrievers and even poodles outbit pit bulls.
The Milwaukee experience is similar. According to Selkurt, pit bulls are no more likely to be brought into the clinic for a biting problem than other breeds of dog.
A faulty but oft-quoted 1994 study by the CDC has caused some misunderstanding with its conclusion that pit bull bites were more likely to be fatal. “Since these numbers were bare statistics,” noted an opinion by a state appeals court in Ohio, “without ref-erence to the total number of dogs in each breed, the statistics have no relevance or meaning.”
More bites, in short, might simply reflect a larger number of pit bulls; about 9 percent of all dogs in the nation are some form of pit bull. “The problem with pit bulls,” says Selkurt, “is there are too darn many of them.”
Milwaukee’s breed-specific legislation, Ald. Hines explains, was meant to provide “another tool” for police struggling to control a dangerous dog problem. But those who actually work with the law doubt its value. “You’re not deterring the bad element,” says Selkurt. Worse, he notes, good owners of perfectly safe pit bulls get targeted and penalized. But, he adds, communities feel better after the legislation is passed even if it offers little protection.
David Krey, manager of the nuisance and environmental health division of the Department of Neighborhood Services, the agency responsible for enforcing Milwaukee’s ordinance, isn’t sure the legislation has made any impact. “There’s a perception from the public that they feel safer,” he says. “It might be more perception than anything else.”
South Milwaukee Police Chief Ann Wellens says the city has been successful in getting residents to comply with its ban on all pit bulls (except those there before 1989). Yet both Selkurt and Castelein report that the MADACC gets pit bulls from South Milwaukee “all the time.”
Another problem with pit bull restrictions, as Ald. James Bohl noted when opposing Milwaukee’s 2002 ordinance, is that there is no agreed-upon definition of a pit bull. Unlike the American Staffordshire terrier or the bull terrier, which are recognized breeds, pit bull is a term popularly used to describe any dog with a square head and a short, sleek coat. That description could match any dog from a Boston terrier to a bull mastiff, both of whom share their ancestry with all of the pit bull breeds.
Since South Milwaukee police are not in the business of determining dog breeds, Wellens notes, anyone reported as a violator can keep their animal only if they get documentation declaring that the dog isn’t a pit bull. But according to -Sharon Granskog, spokes-woman for the American Veterinary Medical Association, her organization can’t provide directions for “how to classify a pit bull” because it isn’t technically a breed, simply a type of dog. Local vets seeking to protect their canine patients from being surrendered and euthanized often provide paperwork that names a dog by any of a number of common breed mixes: terrier, shepherd, lab. When is a pit bull/golden retriever mix a pit bull? “That’s a good question,” says Wellens.
Defenders of the South Milwaukee ban point to evidence that dog bites in South Milwaukee have dropped since the late 1980s, but it’s impossible to connect that to the legislation since the city didn’t keep breed-specific dog bite statistics until recently and because the definition of what’s a pit bull is so slippery. Meanwhile, there are better determinants than breed to predict if a dog is likely to attack someone.
In February 2002, in tiny Elroy, Wisconsin, 10-year-old Alicia Lynn Clark was mauled to death by six -Rottweilers owned by her best friend’s parents, -Shanda -McCracken and Wayne Hardy. The town of Elroy already had breed-specific legislation banning pit bulls but not Rottweilers. According to George Vukich, who co-chaired the citizens’ committee charged with rewriting the town’s ordinances after the attack, the initial thought was to try banning all vicious dogs. “Then,” he says, “we started talking about vicious dogs.” A dog breeder and show judge, Vukich turned to his professional organization, the American Kennel Club. What he learned was that all of the warnings a fatal dog attack might happen were there to be seen in the Clark case. Had authorities been focusing on those predictors rather than the dogs’ breed, her death could have been prevented.
On the night Clark was killed, she and her friend were alone and unsupervised in a house full of untrained, undisciplined dogs who’d been allowed to take over the premises, including defecating and urinating everywhere. The dogs included a mother and her pups, none of whom were spayed or neutered. Wayne Hardy, a convicted felon, was breeding them to sell even though he had no license or expertise. He had bragged repeatedly to members of the community about how dangerous his dogs were and that only he could handle them. Shanda McCracken told police on the night of Clark’s death that her dogs weren’t vicious, but earlier that year they’d killed the family’s cat and had bitten her own children. -McCracken had been evicted once for keeping so many dogs and had been allowed to return on the condition she move them elsewhere. Once the landlord stopped inspecting the house, she moved them back in. On a memorial Web site for her daughter, Alicia Clark’s mother said she didn’t know about the conditions in the house be-cause her daughter had never told her.
Neighbors had seen Hardy beating one of the dogs and had themselves been chased by one. They reported these events to the po-lice, but tragically, no one ever investigated.
With evidence that a pit bull ban wasn’t the solution, the Elroy committee settled on an approach that has been effective in other communities: stiff and escalating penalties on the owners of dogs who repeatedly demonstrate aggression, limits on the allowable number of dogs and kennel licenses per household and a requirement that yards of dog owners be fenced. Most importantly, the new ordinance clarified that the police are responsible for enforcing it. Brown Deer went through a similar process in the wake of the Clark attacks and settled on similar legislation. “I think the communities that tried breed-specific legislation,” Vukich says, “acted in panic and didn’t get sound legal advice.”
Milwaukee has also passed dangerous dog legislation, which has been “pretty effective at preventing repeat attacks,” according to Castelein. It’s similar to Elroy’s, and though the city’s ban on pit bulls and Rottweilers doesn’t interfere with this other law’s effec-tiveness, it doesn’t increase it either. Like his colleague Len Selkurt, Castelein would like to see additions to the ordinances, includ-ing mandatory spay/neuter for any dog not owned by a licensed breeder, or at the very least, for dogs that have bitten someone. Spayed or neutered dogs are less aggressive and also won’t reproduce, meaning bad owners won’t raise more bad dogs. Castelein would also like to microchip every dog that comes into MADACC, thus giving each a unique identification. It would make the owners of dogs who repeatedly end up at the shelter easier to fine, helping underwrite boarding costs, and would make it easier to keep track of dangerous dogs whose owners move them around to escape detection.
Nationally, the problem of bad dog owners is personified by animal fighting. Some 40,000 people are involved, according to a re-port by the -national Humane Society, generating millions in unreported gambling income. Drug trafficking is also connected to ani-mal fighting in many states. Dog fighting is a felony in every state except Wyoming and Idaho, but there are large loopholes that allow people to breed, train and own fighting dogs and to be “spectators” at a dog fight. Tougher state legislation simply prompts dog fighters to move to states with laxer laws. Wisconsin -Congressman Mark Green, now running for governor, has co-sponsored federal legislation with uniform penalties, including a felony charge for spectators at dog fights, a bill likely to come before the Judi-ciary Committee chaired by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Menomonee Falls).
Such restrictions address dangerous dogs as a public safety issue rather than turning irrational fears of a particular breed of dog into a law. Rationality, however, has been strangely absent when it comes to dangerous dogs.
In the 1975 movie Jaws, Roy Scheider and Murray Hamilton, playing police chief and mayor of scenic Amity Island, argue about whether or not to alert the public to a possible shark attack off their beaches. “I don’t think you understand the gut reaction people have to these things,” the mayor explains. “It’s all psychological. You yell ‘barracuda!’ and everybody says, huh? You yell ‘shark!’ and we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.”
A PR firm hired to create a brand associated with crime, drugs and the inner city, says Carter Luke, formerly of the Dane County Humane Society and now chief executive officer of the Massachusetts SPCA, “could not have done a better job than the media has done with the pit bull.” The pit bull, he adds, has been turned into “the shark of the inner city.”
Former Ald. Terrence Herron -defended his support of Milwaukee’s 2002 legislation by stating that “pit bulls and Rottweilers have become the dogs of choice of drug dealers.” This image is so common that it borders on the cliché. A keyword search of “pit bull” turns up countless examples of where it operates as a synonym for a fierce or potentially dangerous individual, such as an aggressive lawyer, tenacious athlete or nasty CEO.
Until recently, the image of the pit bull was one of admiration. During World War I, Sgt. Stubby the pit bull was America’s most decorated dog. Theodore Roosevelt brought one to the White House. Helen Keller had a pit bull. Buster Brown’s Tige was a pit bull, as was Betty Boop’s Pudgy. Perhaps the most -celebrated member of the breed was Petey of “Little Rascals” fame, known for doing exactly what a dog should never be doing: babysitting unsupervised children. In archival photos, the pit bull sits in front of the pio-neer wagons heading west. In Victorian paintings, he is stationed in front of the hearth, guarding the baby in her cradle. The pit bull was so closely identified with the American character that it was chosen to represent the United States on World War I propaganda posters. “I’m neutral,” a flag-wearing pit bull declares in one of them. “But not afraid of any of them.”
Throughout much of this century, the pit bull has represented those qualities we thought of as American: scrappy, smart, inde-pendent, self-made, from humble, working-class origins. Now, influenced by an uncritical media, that story has been replaced by another familiar one, of pets who suddenly turn on their owners. This tale has been told about German shepherds, Doberman pin-schers, St. Bernards and Newfoundlands, and about bloodhounds until James Thurber’s cartoons redeemed them. But in particular, the story has featured the pit bull.
This stereotype has vastly -exaggerated the danger we face. Dog bites are on the rise, but the number of fatal maulings have stayed steady at around 20 to 30 a year for most of the century, even as the population of dogs and humans has greatly increased. Other public safety issues are far more pressing but have nowhere near the impact on the public’s imagination. In 2001, 29,573 people were accidentally killed by firearms. More than 400 of them were children under 15, and yet we don’t mandate safety locks on fire-arms or require $100,000 liability per weapon (as has been required of owners of dangerous dogs in some localities). SUV rollover accidents killed 2,629 people in 2005, yet there’s little media clamor to ban or even substantially redesign a vehicle that kills far more people than dangerous dogs.
When we talk about guns and cars, we talk about individual responsibility because so many of us own cars and guns and believe we are responsible with them. When we talk about pit bulls, we talk about bans because of who we think the owners of pit bulls are. Late author and International Association of Canine Professionals Hall of Fame inductee Vicki Hearne called the pit bull hype “one of the cleverest pieces of racist propaganda” wherein people “make the leap from socially unacceptable inner city males to pit bulls.” Others have coined the term “canine racism” to describe the popular horror over pit bulls.
The case against pit bulls even comes with a cultural history that is supposed to explain their dangerousness – the dog’s history of having been bred for “gameness.” Pit bulls are a style of dog descended from English bulldogs that were bred to bite and then hold onto the muzzles of bulls to keep them from escaping their herds. Pit bulls were then developed as fighting dogs when England banned bull baiting as a sport in the 1820s. Breeders, notably the coal miners around Staffordshire, crossed the bulldogs with terriers to produce smaller dogs suitable for fighting in a pit. Since they also had to be handled during training and during their matches, any pit bull who showed aggression to humans was characterized as too dangerous to live, much less breed, and was summarily de-stroyed. Richard Stratton, author of This Is the American Pit Bull Terrier, described the pit bulls from these original bloodlines as possessing “an almost ridiculously amiable disposition.”
Yet the breeding of pit bulls created a “seriousness of mind,” as Hearne describes it, that makes them good at many tasks. The U.S. Customs Services uses pit bulls as drug-sniffing dogs. A pit bull named Dakota, who helped recover the astronauts after the space shuttle Columbia disaster, is one of the leading search-and-rescue dogs in the United States. Pit bulls compete in agility and obedi-ence trials and are certified as therapy dogs. “Pits are fantastic,” says Ginny Marchel, who does temperament evaluations for the Humane Animal Welfare Society in Waukesha. “When a dog is dangerous, it’s not because of the breed.” Marchel, in fact, also cer-tifies local dogs, including pit bulls, for the national Therapy Dogs International. The organization is so confident about these certi-fied dogs that each one is provided with up to a million dollars in liability insurance.
On a sunny saturday morning about a week after the attack on Pettis, nine dogs are lined up in the training room of Pawsitively K-9, a dog training school -located in a small industrial park just off of I-94 in Franklin. It’s the last few minutes of a novice obedience class taught by -Tiffany Guttman, and the dogs are belly to the floor and butt to the wall as their owners execute the extended “down” and “stay” commands. Clearly, some of the dogs find this more challenging than others. A spaniel crouches, hovering just above the floor, only the very tip of his belly fur brushing the ground, ready to leap forward the moment he’s released. Truman the Rottweiler sits somewhat diffidently, perhaps embarrassed to be in the company of dogs who find such an easy command so challenging. A pit bull sighs, bored, and rests his nose on his paws, his eyes on his owner. Emma, the other pit bull, struggles and then gives up, sidling over to give handsome Truman a kiss because, as her owner explains, she’s in love with him.
Pit bulls, explains Guttman, are smart, sensitive dogs that, with consistent handling, are easy to train. As she talks, her own pit bull, Mason, crawls across the floor on his belly and slides into a visitor’s lap for some petting. Guttman trains a lot of pit bulls, in-cluding those referred to her because they’ve shown signs of aggression. The problem with pit bulls, Guttman says, is owners who are inconsistent and don’t set boundaries for their animals. Dogs attack not because they’re genetically programmed to, Guttman believes, but because they’ve been encouraged to be aggressive, have been abused or have simply not been trained or socialized. She says dog owners like Teresa Sanchez who claim their dogs had never shown signs of aggression previous to an attack simply don’t know enough about dogs. “They never saw it coming,” Guttman says about the mystified owners. “But we saw it coming.”
Dog trainers like Guttman, her assistant, Deanna Trampe, and student Lisa Mills believe all dog owners should be held to similar standards of responsibility. “I think every dog should be trained,” says Mills, whose pit bull Zooey stares up at her with dizzy adora-tion, clearly one of the “ridiculously amiable” pit bulls described by Richard Stratton. “I wish there was a way that you could legis-late responsibility, but you can’t.”
Some communities are trying to do just that. Illinois Rep. Mike Tryon sponsored breed-specific legislation after two pit bulls put six people in his district in the hospital, including two 10-year-old boys. After doing his research, Tryon wanted to make the legisla-tion more inclusive, to include all dogs that were dangerous. Labrador retrievers, despite their L.L. Bean image, are responsible for more bites than any other dog in the United States, so he wanted to include them. He thought of including all working dogs or all dogs over a certain weight. (This would have excluded his dog, a poodle.) In the end, he opted to sponsor a resolution that evaluates the effectiveness of Illinois’ current dangerous dog laws, which he thinks should attach serious penalties to the owners of dogs who’ve been aggressive. “The best I think you can do,” he says, “is to hold dog owners responsible.”
Ald. Hines, who was distressed by the attacks on Pettis, also wonders if it’s time to reconsider the city’s pit bull ban and “go back to the drawing board and refine the legislation on the books.”
But responsibility, because it requires us to treat our dogs as predators for whom biting is a social behavior, would conflict with an intense relationship we often have with our pets. Jon Katz, author of The New Work of Dogs, argues that we use dogs to fill emo-tional needs that go unmet in an increasingly isolated and technologically advanced world. We have eschewed community involve-ment, with all of its messy entanglements, for television and the Internet. We turn to our dogs to fill those emotional needs because in the absence of their own voices, we can assign to them any emotion we want. Slogans like the Wisconsin Humane Society’s “Come and Meet Your New Best Friend” encourage us to believe that dogs can serve as proxies for the love and affection we cannot express to each other.
Americans spend $30 billion on the care of their pets, yet, according to Katz, fewer than 5 percent of owners will pay for profes-sional training for their dogs. When our dogs fail us, which many are destined to do given the demands we place on them, we turn them over to the shelter. Five million dogs are euthanized every year, many of them abandoned by owners who couldn’t fix their dog’s behavior problems.
If dogs can be proxies for individual emotions, it’s not much of a stretch to see how they can be proxies for societal emotions, like the anger and frustration -created by problems we associate with pit bulls: gangs, drugs, intractable poverty, violence and racism. We can’t ban those problems, but we can ban the dog. As much a myth now as when he was the fighting dog of World War I, the pit bull offers us a way of exorcising some of our most intractable fears.
In the first spring week where daylight has extended past suppertime, Pulaski Park is full. There’s a soccer game going on, the players cheering in Spanish. Teenage boys shoot hoops while a few girls arrange themselves around the perimeter of the court. On the playground, a black and white pit bull puppy is tugging at the end of his leash, playing with the three little girls who’ve brought him to the park. Around him, legs dangle from swings and jungle gyms, bottoms swoosh down the slide and land in the dirt at his feet. Whole bodies swing nimbly overhead on the monkey bars. The girls are showing off their puppy. He rolls onto his back for a belly rub, his cumbersome paws dangling in the air.
But Daniel Pettis isn’t enjoying the park this evening. “I’m scared to go there right now,” he says. He finds himself racing up the stairs to his apartment because he’s afraid the neighbor’s dog will get loose and attack him. The geography of his neighborhood is now marked by all of the dogs he never even noticed before. The irony, Pettis says, is that he’s “been a total animal lover my whole life.” Even now, he doesn’t think pit bulls as a breed are dangerous. “It’s all in the upbringing,” he says.
While Pettis is avoiding the park, the pit bull pup is making the most of it. He’s been introduced to the soccer and basketball play-ers, the teenage girls, the toddlers and their parents. If he continues to be socialized, if no one makes him a fighting dog, if he’s cared for and learns a few rules, he’ll live his life like the majority of pit bulls, as a loving member of the family. But if he doesn’t get proper care, he, and maybe somebody else, will come to a bad end. Right now, frolicking with those giggling girls, he’s everything you could want a puppy to be.
Susan Nusser is a freelance writer and English professor at Carroll College.