Animal Welfare

If Pit Bulls Are Not to Blame, Then We Are. So What Do We Do About That?

Ed Jamison, director of Dallas Animal Services.
Ed Jamison, director of Dallas Animal Services. Dallas Animal Services
Another story this week of a Dallas resident viciously mauled by pit bull dogs: This latest victim, a 35-year-old woman, was attacked early Sunday morning by four dogs but saved by good Samaritans on Hamilton Avenue just southeast of the Cotton Bowl.

It’s really hard to see something like this, especially because of what we’ve been through so many times before in Dallas, and not go totally over the top emotionally about it, but I’m trying. I just have to remember where to direct my anger.

This new victim is in stable condition, according to family members. Of course her case brings it all to mind — Antoinette Brown, mortally wounded by dogs in South Dallas in 2016 while screaming for help; the dog called Lamb of God, used by a homeless man as a begging prop, that severely bit a child in the face last year; a pit bull that mauled another child last year at a pet adoption event sponsored by an anti-euthanasia group Dallas Pets Alive (which subsequently took the side of the dog against the toddler).

“When I am bringing charges or putting a case together, the breed has got zero to do with it." — Ed Jamison

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By the way, I know exactly where to direct my anger on that one — Dallas Pets Alive — so you would think that might have served me as a road map. But no, left to my own devices, I get mad at the dogs. I tell myself I know dogs. Maybe the one I need to get to know better is myself.

I had a good long chat Monday with Ed Jamison, who came here last August from Cleveland, where he was head of animal services, to take over as chief of Dallas Animal Services.

On his watch, pet adoptions from the Dallas pound have increased from somewhere in the 70 percent range of all dogs taken in to 84 percent, for which Jamison modestly takes little credit, observing that adoptions were rising already before he came. He gives praise to community and volunteer groups he says have helped enormously to raise the number of adoptions, thereby decreasing the number of dogs killed.

Jamison says Texas law clearly prescribes euthanasia for dogs that have caused serious bodily injury. A Dallas municipal judge, Michael Acuna, initially ordered the begging-prop dog to be destroyed last year under that law. But Acuna, bowing to pressure brought by prominent local lawyers, rescinded his order and sent the dog instead to doggie rehab in Austin.

Jamison is not on board with that decision.

“In the state of Texas, the serious bodily injury law was put in place to say that the dog is euthanized and not returned back to the public," he said. "It does say a judge may order euthanasia, but I have been looking at numbers everywhere, and I am not finding anywhere else in the state of Texas that, if there is a bodily injury ruling, that dog is being ordered to go somewhere else.”

Like doggie rehab in Austin.

But all of that, frankly, is a bit above and beyond where I was starting out when I called him. I wanted to talk to him about pit bulls, the breed.

The quickest Google search shows that communities all over the United States are dealing with calls for that particular breed to be outlawed because of its association with vicious attacks on human beings. I get information sent to me all the time from anti-pit-bull groups that have amassed overwhelming documentation — and it checks out — of an anomalously high correlation of the breed with attacks.

Jamison kind of talked me down from my soap box on that. First, he went straight to legal evidence, what you can take to court with you.

“I am a realist,” he said. “When I am bringing charges or putting a case together, the breed has got zero to do with it. If it was a small dog that caused major injury, you are looking at [a charge of] serious bodily injury no matter what the breed was.”

Then he went to science.

“Part of the reason I am vehemently against breed bans is that you can’t even prove what they are. We all think we know what a dog is when we look it, but that’s a visual identification," Jamison said. "People way smarter than me, like ridiculously smarter than me, have done studies on this. They are wrong over 50 percent of the time when they actually do the DNA testing.”

Finally, Jamison talked about two of my favorite subjects as long as they’re not about me: history and journalism. He pointed out — and I remembered when he said it because I am just that old — that pit bulls have not always been the flavor of the day in terms of the popular concept of a really scary dog.

After World War II, the scariest dogs in the world were German shepherds. I do remember that. I’m sure it was because they have a German name (never worked for me). After that, Jamison observed, the scariest breed for a while was the Doberman pinscher.

The media, he said, exert an influence on all of that by focusing on stories that affirm popular stereotypes. He said shortly after leaving Cleveland, he learned of an attack there in which a German shepherd, a house pet, had attacked and killed a child in the same home.

“The dog killed a child in the house,” he said. “It didn’t make the news at all. But every time a pit bull bites, the media jumps on board.”

Jamison described a certain self-fulfilling prophecy. We in the media focus on pit bull stories. The scary reputation of the breed grows. More people who want a scary dog adopt pit bulls. Breeders produce more pit bulls for that market, and so the number of pit bull incidents increases.

“There is a numbers games and a question of how the dogs have been used,” he said. “In urban areas now, the numbers [of pit bulls] are so great. If there are more Toyotas driving in any area, percentage-wise, they most likely will have the most amount of accidents.”

He says pit bull attacks do tend to be terrible in outcome because the typical pit bull is a big, powerful animal. Keeping a dangerous dog is not against the law in Texas, Jamison points out. In fact, people buy dogs as a form of security. That means many pit bulls are being kept and even trained to be aggressive.

But where does all of that take us? Where do we wind up with this? Clearly, we wind up in front of the mirror, staring at ourselves.

If the phenomenon of pit bull attacks does not spring automatically and irresistibly from some genetically transmitted nature of the breed itself, then, as Jamison strongly but tactfully suggests, it comes from us. By overbreeding and overselling the dogs, by using them as guard dogs, by rewarding them for aggression but failing to keep them contained, we are the bad guys here, not the dogs, really.

That, in turn, brings us right back to where Jamison began — the law. He concedes that Texas animal law is what he diplomatically describes as “very complicated.”

Yeah, I was polite like that, too, when I first got here from the Midwest. Now I would describe Texas animal law as screwed up as a junk pile.

click to enlarge Luca Romero was attacked by a pit bull at a dog adoption event in Klyde Warren Park last year. - ALAN ROMERO
Luca Romero was attacked by a pit bull at a dog adoption event in Klyde Warren Park last year.
Alan Romero
State law provides for a criminal negligence prosecution of a person who stupidly allows a vicious dog to get loose and attack someone. Local laws are snarled more around the question of destroying the dog, as if that somehow is the ultimate sanction.

"We all think we know what a dog is when we look it, but that’s a visual identification. People way smarter than me, like ridiculously smarter than me, have done studies on this. They are wrong over 50 percent of the time." — Ed Jamison

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We have learned this one the hard way in Dallas. A person stupid enough to expose the public to his vicious dog the first time will react to having the dog destroyed by going out and getting himself a new vicious dog. Then he will let the new one escape.

Since this column first appeared, I have received many urgent communications from people who have devoted time, effort and intelligence to resolving the problem of mauling by pit bulls. Some seem to have the impression from what I have written that Jamison is a big defender of the pit bull breed. I didn’t get that at all from anything he said to me.

Jamison defended state law calling for vicious dogs to be euthanized, but he said his own practical experience had taught him that a breed-based strategy won’t hold up in court, won’t square with science and really won’t solve anything on the street. If we get rid of every single dog that anyone might possibly identify as a pit bull, the people who want to own and keep vicious dogs will just switch to Weimaraners or standard poodles or some other breed or mixed breed, which they will then condition to be vicious.

People have sent me statistical studies nailing pit bulls as a breed identified with vicious attacks. I don’t think there is any way to deny that connection or diminish its importance. But the numbers have to be controlled against other variables to see if they identify a cause or an artifact.

I sure don’t think it’s a waste of time or morally wrong somehow for society to actively identify vicious dogs and get rid of them. It’s kind of like that gun thing. No, guns don’t kill people, because guns can’t walk around on their own. But if people who kill people didn’t have guns to walk around with, killing people would be harder for them to do.

By the same token, vicious dogs may be the fault of stupid, vicious or feckless owners. But it’s a lot easier to get rid of dogs than people, so that’s at least a good start on the problem.

What I heard Jamison saying is that you’re not going to get very far, however, if you start with a thesis that won’t hold water scientifically or statistically. He was not defending a breed. He was not attacking a breed. He was saying the concept of breed itself is just not scientifically rigorous or consistent enough to form the basis for a legal strategy.

If the problem is really people — and Jamison has me sold on that — then the focus of the law needs to be people, not dog breeds. Keeping a killer dog in your yard and then stupidly letting it escape is like setting up a shotgun on a tripwire so it shoots the Girl Scout who came to the door to sell you cookies. The law needs to go more directly and sternly to the responsibility of human beings.

If we were to have that debate, I can guess what position would be taken by many of today’s irresponsible pit bull owners. Their position will be seated on a bar stool watching a Cowboys game. They won’t know there was a debate until they’re sitting in jail.

But where will the extreme animal rights advocates come down? I’m thinking of the reprehensible people who attacked and crowd-shamed the parents of the little boy mauled last year in Klyde Warren Park. That very dangerous dog was placed in the park at a public event by Dallas Pets Alive. I never saw the slightest tendency in any of those people to consider that they, themselves, might share some responsibility.

Who knows? Change the terms of the debate, maybe a better side of all of us will emerge. I’m doing my part by trying to get smarter. We all know one thing: Something must be done, something effective. This can’t just go on.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze