Every time there is a dog attack that involves any breed of dog that has any resemblance to a pit bull type dog, the headline reads "Pit bull mauls" victim. The accompanying picture usually depicts a snarling, teeth bared dog that looks like it is ready to kill. The term "pit bull," however, is not a dog breed. It is a catch-all phrase for a dog that has the characteristics of the American Staffordshire Terrier, American Pit Bull Terrier, or Staffordshire Bull Terrier.
Reporters on deadline rely on breed description from witnesses, policemen, and other direct sources and have no time to confirm what type of dog was involved. Usually it is some kind of mixed breed, which by definition, is not a breed at all. The discussion of the inaccuracy of visual breed identification is for another article. Suffice it to say that the science on visual identification shows that its accuracy is less than chance.
What this article addresses is the effect of the media's effort to show both sides of the "pit bull story" in the media has on the general public. Inevitably, the media goes to a well-known pro breed discriminatory website (dogsbite.org), and either publishes their statistics or interviews their founder. They then try to balance that point of view with some quotes from local animal rescue folks or someone local who says that pit bull type dogs are really at the mercy of their human owners in terms of behavior, and breed is not the issue.
The problem is that the average reader, in finishing the article, is left with the idea that it is a fifty-fifty proposition: both sides of the argument have equal support both numerically and scientifically. They don't. If the media is going to discuss the issue of breed discrimination, they should accurately report that the pro breed discriminatory side is in the minority, and by large measure.
False Equivalency: It is an issue of false equivalency. False equivalency is well illustrated in the climate change debate. If there are 100 scientists in that field, and only 10 feel climate change is not happening, in reporting the issue, shouldn't that be disclosed? Should the media in discussing the issue point out that those that don't believe in climate change are in the minority, and by 90%? That is what this article is about. It is fair to get comment from both sides of an issue. But if one side is a minority view, that should be reported too.
Animal Welfare Groups: Dogsbite.org is an outlier among virtually all national animal welfare and professional groups, and the nationwide consensus against Breed Discriminatory Legislation. The list of animal welfare and professional groups that are against Breed Discriminatory Legislation is long, exhaustive and includes the CDC, AKC, UKC, the American Bar Association, National Animal Control Association, The American Veterinarian Medicine Association, The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, The Humane Society of the United States, and Best Friends Animal Society among others.
Scholarly Legal Analysis: Scholarly legal analysis is overwhelmingly against Breed Discriminatory Legislation. Law review articles and legal commentary have found BDL void for vagueness, lacking a rational basis, and ineffective in increasing public safety.
Countries: Eighty five percent of countries do not regulate dogs by breed. Thirty countries have banned pit bulls. The consensus is that there are approximately 192 countries in the world. Thus 85% of the countries in the world do not regulate pit bulls.
State Action: No state has breed discriminatory legislation on the state level. Nineteen have banned breed discriminatory law statewide including Utah, South Dakota, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Nevada, Connecticut, Maine, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Minnesota, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois, Colorado, California and South Carolina. The Maryland legislature has just overturned a court decision that found pit bulls inherently dangerous.
Cities: Only 3% of cities in the US have breed discriminatory laws. A census of the total number of cities in the US varies by its definition and the source. Dogsbite.org does not define the term city. However, the list on the site includes cities of all sizes with no numerical cutoff. The total number of cities listed in a city census ranges from 18,433 to 19,429. Taking the lowest number, 600 cities represents 3% of all American cities. The corollary is that 97% of all American cities do not regulate pit bulls. Hardly a ringing endorsement of BSL.
Veterinarians: Veterinarians don't want to get involved with visual breed identification either. In fact, the JAVMA published an article entitled Rethinking Dog Breed Identification In Veterinarian Practices. The JAVMA recommends that "veterinarians stop attempting to assign breed labels to mixed breed dogs whose origin they do not know." Why? "As far back as the 1960's, there was clear photographic evidence that mixed breed dogs could look nothing like their purebred parents and grandparents. More recently, surveys conducted by university researchers on both coasts have shown that guesses by animal professionals, even veterinarians, as to the breed composition of mixed breed dogs of unknown origin correlate poorly with breed identification obtained from DNA analysis; and that professionals will frequently disagree with each other regarding the breed composition of the same dog."
Public Safety: It is also well settled that BDL does not promote overall public safety. In virtually every case where overall dog bites have been analyzed after BDL has been passed, overall dog bite counts have gone up.
Numerical & Financial Support: The pro breed discriminatory legislation position is neither popular on the web, nor does it receive much financial support. If you look at the numerical following on both sides in terms of numbers, the pro BDL side has relatively few supporters. Likewise, the donations to the BDL website is in the neighborhood of $20,000. Compare that to an organization like BadRap, which receives $300,000. This article has not discussed any misrepresentations or problems in methodology of the non peer reviewed statistics kept by the pro breed discriminatory position. That, again, is for another article.
Conclusion: The press has allowed a small number of vocal people to create a false equivalency of their pro BDL position in the minds of the public. While it is fair to cover both sides of an issue, it is also important to report that the overwhelming scientific, objective, and popular position is against breed discriminatory laws and in favor of breed neutral laws that make communities safe from all problem dogs.
Fred M. Kray, Esq. is a veteran trial attorney and animal law practitioner. His popular blogtalk radio program, Pit Bulletin Legal News, is one of the featured programs in the Animal History Museum's upcoming online media gallery.