Forgive me. Force of habit. Earlier this week, I wandered slow-wittedly into what I foolishly mistook for an ancient and easy standby in the newspaper business, a story known by a newsroom shorthand as “Dog Bites Kid.” I see my error. The real story was “Dog Is Kid.”
I thought it was simple. A city vet appraised a dog that bit a kid, found it dangerous and said it needed to be put down. I said no kidding.
But I missed the lead. The story wasn’t about what happens when a dog bites a kid. That’s old. The story was about who’s more important, a dog or a kid. That’s news.
It took a few sharp slaps to wake me up, for which I am sincerely grateful to my attentive readers. Beth Knuth wrote, “You are a disgusting old geezer.” Meagan Watson said, “This article is trash and so are you, Schutze!”
Ah! I needed that! Thank you!
Some messages I’m still a bit muddy about. Rachel Rendish said, “Gosh, you mean to tell me that none of you have had an incident where you might have been bitten by your own dog...??? That is like not getting bitten by your child... Put it down.”
Mmm. Just not going there, I think. Fun, but a distraction.
The real story concerns a dog named Lamb of God. I thought the dog was named for Jesus. A thoughtful reader corrected me and pointed out the more likely namesake, a heavy metal band from Richmond, Virginia. Perils of being a preacher’s kid, not to mention a disgusting geezer.
Last week, Lamb of God bit a child’s face on the streets of the Deep Ellum entertainment district. The wound required multiple stitches below the child’s cheek. The city wants to kill the dog. (Sorry, “euthanasia” is still too euphemistic for me.) A passionate movement has bloomed to see the dog’s life spared, and at this writing, the dog still had not been euphemized, its fate balancing in the hands of the courts.
The heart of the real story of Lamb of God, I see now, is who and what the dog is. Many of the people who want to see the dog spared are eager to assign rights to the dog that are almost equal to or at least in the same moral realm with the rights of the child. And wait! Let’s not immediately do the “You’re stupid!”/“No, you’re stupid!” thing. We can see that stuff whenever we want to on CNN.
Let’s wonder first what the question means. I’ll tell you what I think it means. I think the Lamb of God story is a bellwether giving us clues to a larger movement on the question of our moral and psychological relationship with animals. Why should we be surprised to learn that the movement is uphill, up out of the swamps of backyard tethering, ruthless puppy factories and roaming packs of dingoes in our alleyways? Isn’t uphill where we’ve been headed for some years now?
The question is how far uphill. How far can or should we take our growing reverence for animals? Dogs really are not children. So where does our empathy for the one have to end in order to make room for our responsibility to the other? Or does it?
It’s a scientific and social question, as well as a moral one. Harrison’s Fund, a medical research nonprofit, conducted research two years ago to see which appeal would draw larger donations — one for a child beaten with a baseball bat by an unknown assailant or one for a dog beaten with a bat by an unknown assailant. The dog won. The experiment took place, however, in England. So.
It’s not just pets. Last year, Science News reported on a controversy involving the live-streaming of an osprey’s nest at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. Viewers became enraged by what they saw unfolding in the nest, first when the mother osprey attacked her young and later when the owners of the camera failed to intervene.
One viewer wrote to the scientists at Woods Hole: “It is absolutely disgusting that you will not take those chicks away from that demented witch of a parent!!!!! Instead you let them be constantly abused and go without food. Yes this is nature, but you have a choice to help or not. This is totally unacceptable. She should be done away with so not to abuse again.”
The scientists finally felt so threatened by the expressions of outrage that they decided to shut down the osprey-cam. “People were saying, ‘We’re gonna come help them if you don’t,’” they told Science News.
An affidavit filed by a Dallas animal control officer in the Lamb of God matter said the bite occurred when the child leaned in close to the dog’s face. The dog’s owner, Sean Baugh, a homeless man well known on the streets of Deep Ellum, commonly displays the dog wearing hats and sunglasses and constrained in a plastic milk carton on the handlebars of his bicycle. He uses the animal as a prop for begging.
Lee Jamison, one of the lead activists lobbying to save the life of the dog, disputed that the bite was opportunistic. “The kid kept getting in the dog's face, dangling a dollar bill,” she wrote. “Sean repeatedly asked the kid to stop. Parents did nothing.”
I wrote that the dog needed to be put down, based in part on the report of a Dallas Animal Services veterinarian who examined the dog. The vet’s report called the dog “extremely dangerous” and said, “The dog should not be released back into society.”
Many of the people fighting to save the dog work or frequent the streets where the owner used the dog as beggar bait. Some of them sought unsuccessfully to free the dog from his control.
In the remarks of the people who got mad at me for my original column about this, I saw two clear themes. One was that the kid who got bit brought it on himself by taunting the dog. The form of taunting seemed to be the dangling of a dollar bill close to the dog’s muzzle. The other theme was that the dog never had a chance to become “normal” or well-behaved because of the abuse it suffered from its owner.
Both of these themes are premised on an assumption of moral innocence for the dog. A child was bitten. That’s bad. So the bad thing that happened has to be someone’s fault. Someone has to be in the wrong.
If the dog is an innocent victim of the owner’s abuse, and if the dog was taunted by the child, then, by this construction, the dog is innocent. Therefore, either the child, the child’s parents or the owner of the dog is morally at fault.
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I could agree to some of the above. Not the guilt of the child. That’s a heinously irresponsible idea for any adult to suggest. Nor can I agree to the innocence of the dog.
As for the adults involved, I can assure you, speaking from my own experience as a parent, that no one will ever punish the parents of that little boy as cruelly or for as long as they will punish themselves. As for the owner of the dog, yes, sure, I wish we had the money and the jail space to lock up every son of a bitch in the world who treats an animal that way.
But the dog is not innocent. Nor is it guilty. It’s a dog. It is a hapless and helpless victim of the abuse it has suffered, but the fact is that it bites children in the face. Maybe it could be cured of it. Maybe not. The experiment is not even remotely worth trying. The dog needs to be killed.
In the longest view, however, in the grand shape of things and in terms of that larger moral change, the people whose hearts go out to this dog are on the side of right. They are on the side of mercy and the improvement of the human heart. They’re wrong about Deep Ellum, but they’re right about the universe.