Last Night’s City Council

Posted on July 14, 2010

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I can’t say that I’m happy with last night’s city council. I know I spoke in favor of the pitbull ordinance, but I had some serious reservations about it that should have caused me to think twice about getting up to that podium. Mine was a half-hearted endorsement. I, and others I know, have been on both sides of this argument: feeling so frustrated by dog attacks and irresponsible owners on one hand that we think banning the breed is the solution, but realizing that this solution is preferred because it’s easier than any alternatives, not necessarily better or desirable.

It is now impossible for me think that these councillors do not get together before certain votes and say, “OK, this is how it’s going to go down.” Amendment after amendment was put forward to make the law more palatable or effective in a show that lasted over an hour. There was no way this ordinance was not going to pass. It was clear that not one councillor questioned the premise of the law, that singling out a single breed of dog would be effective in curbing dog attacks. Pitbull owners realized this as they filed out disgusted during Phelan’s closing speech.

Tim Phelan is a powerful orator, and he used his position as president to ensure that he got the last word. He cited questionable CDC dog bite statistics that were challenged because they were gleaned from media reports, which tend to unquestioningly label the dogs as “pitbulls.” He also told a story of a dog that “just suddenly turned on its owners.” but everyone had a story to support their view. A dog does not just attack for no reason at all. There is always some trigger.

Unfortunately, the breed popularly known as pitbull has a propensity to give no warning of an impending attack, at least according to Malcolm Gladwell in his excellent essay, “What Pitbulls can Teach us About Profiling.” Gladwell shows us how profiling leads us astray when we do not focus on the right characteristics. In this case, we shouldn’t be looking at breed, but at other features that do not change over time depending on what dog breed is most popular. In the 70’s it was Dobermans. Gladwell goes on to write that profiling may be effective if the right qualities are isolated, but more often than not it’s just easier to say “ban the breed” or go by outward appearance.

With or without this ordinance, I predict nothing will change unless city leaders and residents find the wherewithal to promote enforcement of already existing leash laws and education of all dog owners. On the positive side, the council did recommend that the mayor find funds to increase manpower in the animal control department. Currently this city of over 80,000 has just one dog officer.

I have a lot more to say about this and didn’t articulate it very well at the council. As our former president said, you’re either for us or against us. I feel like I don’t completely fit into either category, but lean more toward against. By the way, correct me if I’m wrong, but this is not a “muzzle law” as so many have characterized it, unless something changed in the time since I last read it. I believe it said, “…pitbulls must be leashed or muzzled,” which makes me wonder why we need this ordinance in the first place. There’s already a leash law. Besides, the people who this ordinance is aimed at will certainly not take it seriously.

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Posted in: local government