11 min read

Putting An End To Breed Discrimination

When done right, effective documentaries have the ability to expose a type of injustice like no other medium can, while delivering a compelling, factual storyline, all the while keeping their spectators wanting more. Groundbreaking films like "Blackfish" and "The Cove" have created outrage among their viewers to the plight of orcas in captivity and the annual dolphin slaughter in Taiji, respectively. These films have been able to impact an audience that has no vested interest in the topic, and demand change on a larger scale, becoming instrumental to the power of their movements.

As an aspiring documentary filmmaker, I embarked on a journey into the world of breed specific legislation (BSL, for short). I use the word journey because back then I never would have guessed I'd still be talking about this film, "Guilty 'Til Proven Innocent", seven years later. Breed specific legislation are laws that single out certain breeds, or types, of dogs and label them behaviorally dangerous to society. There is nothing specific about this law, as it generally groups dogs vicious simply by a subjective identification, typically by someone who is less than qualified to do the job in the first place. Although no breed or type of dog is off limits in this legislation, most often the breed classified and targeted as such are dogs simply known as "pit bulls," and that is where the challenge really begins.

If you ask ten people, you'd probably get ten different answers to the question "what is a pit bull?" Some say "pit bull" is a shortened, slang term for the American Pit Bull Terrier, like retriever is to the Labrador or Golden Retriever. Others say, the term is used to describe the two or three breeds usually found written within the law - the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, and at times the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. And then you have the third category, which packages dogs together who possess some similar physical traits or characteristics in a catch-all, abstract umbrella phrase.

This is where the law really fails, because if you think about it for a fraction of a second, the identification of the dog lacks any logical science. It is nothing more than based on an opinion that can vary from one person to another, typically by someone in law enforcement or animal control, where their only responsibility is to keep the public out of harm's way. Additionally, I can't recall any animal control department that has formal education of breed identification. Let's be real here, the vast majority of dogs entering our shelters or living in our homes labeled "pit bull" are simply mixed breed dogs with unknown parentage. I personally have three of these dogs, all of which were labeled "pit bull" in the shelter system, and all were going to be killed due to that reason and that reason only. Truthfully, it's absurd!

Whether you are for or against these laws, this debate is not only two sided. Much like the dogs themselves, the issue is much more complex than that. It seems at times people don't understand BSL is not only when a breed is banned, but also when they are restricted in some way, whether mandatory spay/neuter or thousands and thousands of dollars in liability insurance. The law has proven to be ineffective and just plain unenforceable. Some might argue that the mandatory spay and neuter aspect is not a completely bad thing, and on the outside looking in, I would tend to agree. But, if that's the case, then why not have it be all dogs, not just the "pit bulls"?

If we really want to level the playing field for all dogs, it's about time we start using that in our messaging. By constantly focusing on "pit bulls," we enable the conversation to continue to be directed solely on them.

We all want to live in communities free of danger where both humans and family pets are judged by their actions, without bias. As "Guilty 'Til Proven Innocent" editor, Bryan Porter, so eloquently stated at the Kansas City FilmFest, "take everything you thought, throw it out the window and start fresh."

When I first started production on the film, I wanted to tackle the issue on a global scope. These laws are not only a threat in the U.S., but have found their way into legislation around the world, too. But, it didn't take long for me to spot a possible story developing right in my backyard of Ohio. I felt it could go one of two ways, but was prepared to let the film take on a life of its own and just start documenting what occurred in Ohio and cities around the state. What happened in Ohio is not an anomaly, and offers much needed hope in the debate. I think it's important to note that we were able to edit the film as unbiased as possible, mostly due to the fair representation of all sides, including interviews with the original lawmakers responsible for Ohio's statewide restriction that passed in 1987, and the inclusion of a local councilman whose bill to ban pit bulls passed in his city of Lakewood.

Since we had our first public screening, "Guilty 'Til Proven Innocent" has been screened a total of 21 times, including two official selections to film festivals, along with its use in at least three law schools, and the support of one of the largest animal welfare organizations in the country who sends them to lawmakers faced with this issue, it's gratifying to say the film is doing what it set out to do. The tide is turning on breed specific legislation, or more appropriately called breed discrimination, but there is still places where they still exist. Our final goal for this film is to inspire the masses so it can help make the type of splash other successful documentary film predecessors made in the past. Join us and let's finally rid the planet of this draconian law once and for all. Finally, even though the reality documentaries capture can be heavy on the heart, we believe Hollywood endings are not only found in fiction.

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