July 12, 2016
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Recently, a number of extremely disturbing dog attacks have made headlines. It’s part of my job to be aware of these incidents and to try and understand how they occurred. Professionally, I become absorbed in the details of these terrible cases as I study them to try and gauge what went wrong. But they keep me up at night. Personally, I find them terribly sad and disturbing, and I work hard to block them out.
I know dog attacks are rare. Statistically, my family and I have a much higher chance of being in a car accident than being attacked by a dog. I know most dogs never bite, and the ones who do are mostly family dogs reacting to children who don’t know how to behave appropriately with dogs. Scary headlines do not equal a higher number of incidents, and there is no epidemic of dog attacks in the U.S. We have to maintain a healthy perspective on these cases while also gaining understanding from them, because they are unacceptable and we have to do everything we can to prevent them. I can only imagine what the victims of these attacks go through, let alone the ripples impacting their families, neighbors, friends and community.
I hope and wish for these communities to come together following these traumas, to grieve, process and heal. Sadly, in many cases, the opposite happens. Pain and ideology divide people and turn neighbors against each other. I understand why the immediate reaction to these incidents is often anger, and that in our anger we look for someone to blame. Blame the dogs, the owners, any parents or guardians of children attacked, or whoever else we can. In a small town in Oklahoma last month, vigilantes surrounded the home of a person with a dog accused of being dangerous and made physical threats to try to intimidate the owner into sending the dog to live in another town. In California, after a woman’s dogs killed her young brother for whose custody she was fighting in court, the public accused Child Protective Services of malpractice for allowing the boy to live with her.
The reality is these attacks are a collective fault—from those directly involved, to the systems that govern our communities, to me and all other stakeholders. But we have an incredible opportunity to evaluate this collective wound, and everything we need to fix it and prevent it from happening again. I take very seriously the role The HSUS can play in providing assistance in these situations, and I know all my hard-working, compassionate colleagues out there in the animal care and control field do as well. I’m writing this in hopes we can all come together in support of the victims of these attacks, their families, neighbors, friends and communities, and tell them we are going to do everything we can to keep it from happening again.
In the wake of these tragedies, the question of banning dogs is a commonly raised one, and I understand why the idea appeals to some. When I was a young ACO, I grew frustrated by what I perceived to be happening with pit bull dogs in my community, and I believed a breed ban would solve those problems. Fortunately, that ban was never enacted, and I went on to develop a broader perspective on the matter. Targeting dogs by breed is not only unethical and short-sighted, but also takes us further away from achieving our goal of establishing safe, humane communities. Fortunately, breed-based laws are on the decline and soon to be a thing of the past and most people practicing animal management on the local level agree that breed has nothing to do with the job. The HSUS works hard to fight breed-based strategies and guide officials and lawmakers to ones that we know will serve the community better.
But it is not enough to say no to breed-specific legislation and ignore the problem at hand. We have to stare this problem in the face and solve it head-on. And I’m not gonna sugar coat it—it’s a big one, a wicked problem. We need to accept the fact that sharing our society with dogs involves a minimal degree of calculated risk, and establish rules and expectations around it. This is a fundamental reality based on two species sharing space. So we support reasonable regulations of dogs; it is the bedrock of this human-animal relationship that enriches our lives and our culture.
Community animal management is an entirely underrated and severely under-resourced function. No one reading this needs to be told that—you are living it, budget cut after budget cut. The scant resources devoted to this lifesaving field are disproportionate at best, and it’s extremely frustrating when governments and other decision makers recognize the value of our services only after a tragedy has taken place. Because we are always rushing, playing catch up and responding to complaints with limited staffing, equipment and bandwidth, we end up being in constant, reactive, crisis mode. We are forced to choose reactive efforts over proactive strategies because we cannot afford to do both, and there are constant fires to put out.
We have evidence from within our field and from other, more practiced and data-driven fields telling us that proactive strategy to create long-term social change can prevent the fires in the first place. I want to challenge us to think of how we can be better at both reacting to problems and proactively preventing them. And I want to throw out an idea that may seem crazy-scary (it scares me a little too): If we have to pick between strategies, is it smarter to pick prevention? It seems impossible to find a stopping point between burning fires, I know. I feel it in my work too. But here’s another way to look at it—what if we were starting from scratch? What would we choose? What would it take for us to get to the point of proactive first, reactive when all else has failed? If we could get someone else to put out the fires for a few days, would it give us space to try something new?
The details behind most of these dog attacks tell a story of need, of disparity, of systematic failure in reaching people who need us. These are people and animals that have fallen through the cracks. They tell us something is not working and we need to seriously evaluate our role in that and lead our communities to filling those cracks, one by one, until the global paradigm around building safe, humane communities shifts. As a field, we have accomplished incredible things in a relatively short period of time, and I know if we come together we can address this. We need to balance enforcement and crisis intervention with community support and environmental strategies to reach every person with pets in our community and ensure no one falls through the cracks.
No one should ever have to fear being attacked by dogs again. If your community, agency, family, or neighborhood is doing something positive and proactive to prevent dog bites and attacks, please share it in the comments below so we can all use this as a learning opportunity.