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Brian C. Anderson
Scared of Pit Bulls? You’d Better Be!
Bred for violence, these dogs can wreck a neighborhood’s quality of life as surely as prostitutes or drug dealers.
Spring 1999

Pit bulls drove my family from the Bronx. My pregnant wife and I had moved to Bedford Park, off Mosholu Parkway, late in 1997. Though the neighborhood had rough edges, we got used to it, at least for a while. After our son was born, however—and as spring blossomed, and we ventured outside more often—we found ourselves growing ever more frightened of dangerous dogs. Pit-bull owners had converted the little park in front of our apartment building into a dog-training ground, where they goaded their animals into attacking one another or taught them to hang from tree branches to strengthen their jaws and their tenacity. Not surprisingly, when the dogs were running wild, the neighborhood's young mothers gathered up their children and fled. Seniors cowered together on a few benches. Like the mothers, owners of small dogs waited until the park was pit-bull-free before taking them for a walk. The park had been lost as a public space, impoverishing the neighborhood.

The dogs had taken over more than the park. Walking down 204th Street or past the gone- to-seed low-income housing abutting the Metro-North Botanical Garden stop, we regularly ran a gauntlet of thugs flaunting spike-collared pit bulls, bespeaking a world of anarchy and dread. As a friend and I walked home one spring night, we saw three stocking-capped toughs slouched against a chain-link fence, barely restraining a thick- necked, snarling pit bull. My heart raced, until I noticed two young cops walking in our direction, just beyond the bad dudes. My relief was short-lived. "It's a full moon, and dogs go crazy in the fooool moon," one of the thugs howled wildly, as he let the pit bull lunge to the end of his leash at the cops. A confrontation seemed imminent, but the two officers nervously crossed the street to avoid it. "I guess we know who won that battle," my friend glumly noted, and we crossed the street, too.

After a rash of unsettling incidents—including a tornado of eight unleashed pit bulls swirling across the park and the savage mangling of our neighbor's small mutt by another loose pit bull—we decided this was no place for a baby, and we left. We had learned that intimidating dogs can impair a neighborhood's quality of life and give the sense that no one is in charge every bit as much as drug dealing, prostitution, or aggressive panhandling.

Though dog advocates would dispute it, our fear was justified. According to the Centers for Disease Control, dogs bite 4 million to 5 million Americans every year. Few attacks are fatal (25 in 1996), but serious injuries—everything from a gash in the arm requiring a few stitches to severed hands and fractured skulls—continue to rise and now stand at more than 750,000 annually, up nearly 40 percent from 1986. Dog bites are one of the top causes of non-fatal injuries in the nation.

Children are the most frequent victims, accounting for 60 percent of the dog bites and 20 of the 25 dog-bite fatalities in 1996. Dog attacks are now the No. 1 reason that children wind up in hospital emergency rooms. Incredibly, nearly half of all American kids have been bitten by the age of 12. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that more than $100 million gets spent yearly treating dog bites in the nation's emergency rooms, and U.S. insurance companies paid out $250 million in dog-bite liability claims in 1996.

Pit bulls and pit-bull crosses (not always easy to distinguish) have caused more than a third of the nation's dog-bite fatalities since 1979 and a comparable proportion of serious injuries. The rising number of attacks, and the unease pit bulls and other dangerous dogs cause in public spaces, have spurred many municipalities to crack down with legislation ranging from muzzle laws to bans on pit bulls and certain other breeds.

New York City, with a million dogs, conforms to these national trends. In 1997, the Department of Health reported 7,075 dog bites in the city and some 1,000 complaints about frightening dogs. Gotham police and other authorities had to round up 892 biting dogs in 1997, 200 more than the year before. Of these, 294—33 percent—were pit bulls or pit-bull mixes, though they make up only an estimated 15 percent of the city's dogs.

Recent pit-bull attacks in New York City have hit the headlines. In one horrific incident a little over a year ago, four unleashed pit bulls swept, barking and growling, through Richmond Hill, tearing at anyone in their path, as screaming passersby took cover on top of cars or fled indoors. Two of the enraged animals rampaged through a supermarket on 135th Street before police shot them to death. Powerful tranquilizer darts downed the other two dogs. Three people were seriously injured in the frenzy. Other recent attacks were no less violent. In late 1996, three pit bulls mauled an 85-year-old Bronx man to death. In 1997, two pit bulls severely injured a 12-year-old Brooklyn girl, and other attacks left a seven-year-old Queens boy with a bone-deep wound to his leg, and an 11- year-old Queens boy with a shredded arm. Pit bulls can inflict such terrible damage because their massive skulls and powerful jaws give them almost super-canine biting power.

Pit-bull-inflicted injuries in New York City will almost certainly spike up because of a senseless new federal law ending a 60-year official ban on animals in housing projects. The New York City Housing Authority long looked the other way as project residents took in pets. But two years ago, after tenants barraged a newly installed quality-of-life hotline with dog-related complaints, ranging from organized dog fighting to pit-bull attacks on other pets, the authority launched a campaign against vicious animals in public housing. Intimidating dogs had many residents, especially seniors, living in a "state of fear and terror," as authority spokesman Hilly Gross put it. Though ambiguous wording in the federal legislation may allow the authority to retain some restrictions, the new law invites disaster by permitting lots of pit bulls within biting distance of lots of children and old folks.

Pit bulls are also wreaking havoc on the city's public property. As Manhattan Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe observes, "Some pit-bull owners train their animals to fight by having them lock their jaws on rubber swings in children's playgrounds, which very quickly destroys the swings." The cost to taxpayers: $250,000 annually. "Perhaps more ominously," Benepe adds, "these owners have started to use young trees to train the pit bulls."

Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, aware of the property damage and sensitive to complaints from "terrorized" parents, joggers, and senior citizens about roving canines in city parks, now is enforcing the city's leash law, requiring owners to keep their dogs leashed between 9 AM and 9 PM, unless they are using one of the city's dog runs. The new campaign, targeting Central and Riverside Parks, issues $100 fines for first offenders and doubles the penalty, up to $1,000, for each subsequent offense. So far, despite howls from some pet owners, spot checks show the percentage of unleashed dogs down dramatically, as owners have gotten the message. Mail to the Parks Department has run three-to-one in favor of strict enforcement.

Stern's initiative follows closely on the heels of the Giuliani administration's proposed new dangerous-dog legislation, announced earlier this year. The mayor's proposal jacks up fines for owning a vicious dog, makes it easier for the city to label a dog dangerous, and requires pit-bull owners to purchase $100,000 in liability insurance before they can get a dog license. Predictably, the proposal has enraged dog owners.

According to New York City Health Commissioner Neal Cohen, the city needs the new law because of its high number of dog-inflicted injuries. The existing dangerous-dog law, on the books since 1991, has been ineffective in practice, because it requires the Department of Health, which adjudicates dog-bite cases, to prove that a dog wasn't "provoked" before it can label the animal dangerous and require it to be muzzled or impounded. As Cohen observes, "It is almost impossible to define what a particular dog subjectively perceives as a `provocation.' " The law also requires lengthy hearings before the city can take action. As then-Corporation Counsel Paul Crotty complained after a pit- bull attack in 1997 killed a Queens man, "It's a dopey law that puts the emphasis on protection of due-process rights of dogs . . . rather than on the protection of people."

But those priorities are just what dog advocates want. Lisa Weisberg, vice president of government affairs of the ASPCA, testified against the new law, arguing that its "proposed elimination of a hearing process to fairly and adequately determine whether or not a dog is truly dangerous is extremely disturbing and deprives a dog owner of his/her due process." In fact, dog advocates often embrace a strangely askew, doggy-centric view of the world. Gordon Carvill, president of the American Dog Owners Association, is a case in point. When I described to him the fear my wife and other young mothers in our Bronx neighborhood had about using the public park when pit bulls were on the loose, he defended the dogs. "Some people are afraid of any kind of dog—you know that," he admonished. "Dogs know when someone is afraid, and they're apt to be more aggressive." So the mothers are the problem.

Carvill seconds Weisberg's objection that the city's proposal threatens the due-process protections of pet owners. But the law's biggest defect, he says, is that it singles out a specific breed, in its requirement that pit-bull owners buy liability insurance. (The city's desire to regulate pit bulls is in seeming conflict with a 1997 state law, similar to those 11 other states have passed, that bars breed-specific local legislation.) For Carvill, all dogs are created equal; different breeds don't have different hereditary characteristics. "There is no dog born in this world with a predisposition to aggression," he firmly states.

But he's wrong, and dead wrong if we're talking about pit bulls. All men may be created equal, but not all dogs. Says Katherine Houpt, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell and author of Domestic Animal Behavior: "Different breeds have genetic predispositions to certain kinds of behavior, though that can be influenced by how they are raised. The pit bull is an innately aggressive breed, often owned by someone who wants an aggressive dog, so they're going to encourage it."

Pit bulls have been bred specifically to be aggressive. They're descended from the now- extinct old English "bulldogge," a big, tenacious breed used in the brutal early- nineteenth-century sport of bull baiting, in which rowdy spectators watched dogs tear apart an enraged bull. Victorian reformers, concerned about the coarsening effect bull baiting had on its devotees, banned it by the early 1830s, but enterprising bull baiters merely migrated to an equally bloody sport: organized dog fighting.

As Carl Semencic, author of several informative books on guard dogs, and a big pit-bull fan, describes it, the bulldogge owners made a striking discovery: "a cross between the bulldogge and any of the game [i.e., brave and tenacious] and relatively powerful terriers of the day produced a game, powerful, agile, and smaller, more capable opponent in the dog pits." These bull-and-terrier crosses became renowned for fighting prowess and soon were the only dogs used in organized dog fighting in England and later in the United States. To preserve the bull-and-terrier's pugnacious traits, the dogs were bred only to dogs of the same cross. Thus was born the pit-bull terrier, "the most capable fighting dog known to modern man," Semencic enthuses.

Though breeders, realizing the pit bull was an attractive dog when it wasn't scrapping, bred a less feisty version—the American Staffordshire terrier ("Pete" of the old Our Gang comedy series is a well-known representative)—the pit-bull terrier is first and last a fighting dog. Its breeding history separates it from other tough dogs like Doberman pinschers and rottweilers, which have been bred to guard their masters and their property. Pit bulls are genetically wired to kill other dogs.

The pit bull's unusual breeding history has produced some bizarre behavioral traits, de- scribed by The Economist's science editor in an article published a few years ago, at the peak of a heated British controversy over dangerous dogs that saw the pit bull banned in England. First, the pit bull is quicker to anger than most dogs, probably due to the breed's unusually high level of the neurotransmitter L-tyrosine. Second, pit bulls are frighteningly tenacious; their attacks frequently last for 15 minutes or longer, and nothing—hoses, violent blows or kicks—can easily stop them. That's because of the third behavioral anomaly: the breed's remarkable insensitivity to pain. Most dogs beaten in a fight will submit the next time they see the victor. Not a defeated pit bull, who will tear into his onetime vanquisher. This, too, has to do with brain chemistry. The body releases endorphins as a natural painkiller. Pit bulls seem extra-sensitive to endorphins and may generate higher levels of the chemical than other dogs. Endorphins are also addictive: "The dogs may be junkies, seeking pain so they can get the endorphin buzz they crave," The Economist suggests.

Finally, most dogs warn you before they attack, growling or barking to tell you how angry they are—"so they don't have to fight," ASPCA advisor and animal geneticist Stephen Zawistowski stresses. Not the pit bull, which attacks without warning. Most dogs, too, will bow to signal that they want to frolic. Again, not the pit bull, which may follow an apparently playful bow with a lethal assault. In short, contrary to the writings of Vicki Hearne, a well-known essayist on animals who—in a bizarre but emotionally charged confusion—equates breed-specific laws against pit bulls as a kind of "racist propaganda," the pit bull is a breed apart.

Pit-bull expert Semencic makes a more sophisticated argument as to why pit bulls shouldn't be singled out for regulation. Pit bulls, he says, were bred not to be aggressive to people. "A pit bull that attacked humans would have been useless to dog fighters," he contends; "the dogs needed to be handled by strangers in the middle of a fight." Any dog that went after a handler was immediately "culled"—that is, put to death. But Semencic's argument assumes that the culling of man-aggressive dogs is still going on—which it isn't. As Robin Kovary, a New York-based dog breeder and pit-bull fancier, acknowledges, "Once the word got out, 20 years ago or so, to youths who wanted a tough dog to show off with, the breed passed into less than responsible hands—kids who wanted the dogs to be as aggressive as they could be." Geneticist Zawistowski gives the upshot: "Irresponsible breeders have let the dogs' block against being aggressive to people disappear. They've created a kind of pit bull with what I call `undifferentiated aggression.' " A Milwaukee man learned this the hard way in January, when he tried to break up a fight between his two pit bulls and had one forearm ripped off and the other so badly mauled that doctors later had to amputate it.

Yet Kovary is at least partially right when she says, "It's the two-legged beast, not the four-legged one, we have to worry about." One needs nature and nurture to create a truly nasty dog. Raised responsibly, the pit bull's good side can come to the fore. "Pit bulls can be playful, intelligent, athletic, loyal, and useful in sports," Kovary explains. But pit bulls have become enmeshed in the brutality of underclass culture, magnifying the breed's predisposition to aggression. "In the wrong hands," Kovary warns, "pit bulls can be bad news."

Abundant evidence of owner irresponsibility is on display at the Center for Animal Care and Control (CACC), a nonprofit shelter that opened in late 1994 in the heart of Spanish Harlem, to take over New York City animal control from the ASPCA. Pit bulls are its biggest problem. More than 60,000 animals, half of them dogs, entered the shelter last year. According to CACC official Kyle Burkhart, "more than 50 percent of the dogs are pit bulls or pit-bull mixes—a huge percentage." That works out to 40 or so pit bulls a day, most of which have to be put down because of their aggressiveness. Waiting in the CACC's lobby, I got a firsthand look at the pit bull as a standard-issue accessory to underclass life: toughs in baggy pants and stocking caps paraded in and out continuously, negotiating to get their impounded dogs back or to adopt new ones.

Three distinct classes of irresponsible—or, more accurately, abusive—owners are the source of the CACC's flood of pit bulls. First are the drug dealers, who use pit bulls, or pit-bull crosses, as particularly vicious sentinels. New York City cops had to shoot 83 dogs to death in 1997, most of them pit bulls guarding drug stashes. Burkhart showed me a few such sentinels in the center's dangerous-dog ward. Lunging against their metal cages, these pit bulls were the most ferocious animals I'd ever seen: pure animal fury. "This one would bite my head off if he had the chance," Burkhart said of one Schwarzenegger-muscled dog, brought in from a police raid on a crack house. Intimidated, I kept as far from the cages as I could. "Some of the pit bulls coming in will actually have their vocal cords removed in order to surprise someone lurking around a crack house," Burkhart noted.

Dog-fighting rings also fill the CACC with abused animals. "Sometimes a raid on a dog- fighting ring brings us 20 or 30 pit bulls at a time," Burkhart tells me. The rings, moving clandestinely throughout the state, stage battles between pit bulls, sometimes to the death, as cheering spectators wager on the outcome. The dogs the CACC receives from the raids will often be missing ears or will bear deep scars from their battles. Manhattan Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe isn't surprised at the savagery: "We regularly find dead pit bulls in the parks; on one occasion, we found eight pit-bull carcasses dumped in Riverside Park. They'd been killed fighting other dogs."

It's an unsavory crowd that participates, whether as trainer or spectator, in the blood sport, says ASPCA humane-law-enforcement officer George Watford. "The trainers preparing a pit bull for a fight throw a rope over a branch with a bag tied at the end; inside the bag will be a live cat," Watford explains. "You'll see a dog hanging from the bag, and it'll be a cat he's killing inside it, giving the pit bull the taste for blood." The spectators are just as bad, Watford says: "When we raid a ring, not only will there be shotgun-armed lookouts, but we'll search people and find drugs and weapons, and we'll always find people wanted for rape, murder, robbery charges."

Finally, the CACC gets pit bulls owned by teenagers and gang members—"young punks," Watford calls them—who raise the dogs to intimidate. "It's a macho thing," Watford says. "These punks will get into the typical park scenario, a `my dog is tougher than your dog' thing, in which they let the dogs fight." I recalled a Bronx mother screaming at two teen lowlifes fighting pit bulls in the park in front of our apartment building. The teens, sporting military fatigues and shaved heads, ignored her and went on with their barbarous fun. Typically, these teens lose interest in their brutalized—and usually unneutered—dogs and let them loose, swamping the city with stray pit bulls.

What should New York City do about its dangerous dogs? One possibility: ban the pit bull, as England has done. Unfortunately, thanks to the 1997 state law nixing breed- specific legislation, such a ban would entail a difficult battle for state permission. And if the city bans the pit bull, what's to stop thugs from shifting to other breeds that can be made into weapons, such as the Canary dog or the Dogo Argentino? Outlawing them all would be an extremely divisive policy.

What about the city's idea of forcing pit-bull owners to buy pricey insurance policies? It makes little sense. Given that a paltry 10 percent of the city's dogs have licenses, only the law-abiding minority of pit-bull owners—not the louts who terrorize park-goers—are likely to comply with the new requirement, assuming it can get past the state objection to breed- specific laws. Moreover, those who wanted to comply would have a hard time finding an insurer. Though homeowners' policies generally cover dogs, few insurance firms will issue one to someone with a dangerous animal. Much sounder are the city's proposals to eliminate "provocation" as a defense for a dangerous dog's behavior and to pare away legal protections for dangerous dogs. As Cornell's Katherine Houpt underscores, "If a dog has bitten someone, we should consider it dangerous until proven otherwise. Who cares if a child has poked it with a pencil?"

The city's best course would be to require the owners of all dogs weighing more than 40 pounds to keep them muzzled in public, as Germany does with potentially aggressive breeds. A muzzle law is not unduly harsh to the dogs. As for its impact on owners: sure, it might diminish the thrill a tough gets as he parades his pit bull down a crowded sidewalk and nervous pedestrians give him a wide berth. And that would be all to the good.

As Mayor Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton discovered when they prosecuted nuisance crimes like public urination or public drinking and helped restore civic order, Gotham can do a lot of good simply by enforcing laws already on the books, as Parks Commissioner Stern is doing with the leash law. New York makes little effort, for example, to ensure that its dogs are licensed, though the law requires it. The Canadian city of Calgary, which had a problem with dangerous dogs in the eighties, halved aggressive incidents through strict licensing enforcement: it let officials keep computerized records of complaints against individual dogs and impound them or require them to wear a muzzle if they posed a clear threat to the public. Eighty percent of Calgary's 100,000 dogs now have licenses; 90 percent of New York's 1 million dogs don't. The city should step up licensing enforcement.

These measures would strike a prudent balance between the enjoyments of pet owners and the city's responsibility to protect its citizens and keep its public spaces from going to the dogs.

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