It used to be a rarity to hear of a dog being shot by a law enforcement officer. Not any more. Something has happened in our culture and our law enforcement communities that has caused an exponential increase in tragic incidents such as the one that occurred on September 12th at a crowded street festival in Washington DC. On that afternoon, Officer Scott Fike shot and killed Parrot, a Pit Bull/Shar-Pei mix who was attending the event with his foster caretaker.
Other recent cases from the Police-Killing-Dogs Hall of Shame include Bear-Bear, a Siberian Husky who was shot by an off-duty federal police officer for engaging in what was probably rough play between two dogs at a dog park, or at worse a normal, non-serious “scuffle” between two dogs,” and the killing of two Labrador Retrievers in their own home; the home of the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, when police officers served a search warrant at the wrong address.
Dr. Randal Lockwood of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says he sees 250 to 300 incidents per year in media reports, and estimates another 1,000 aren’t reported. That’s more than three per day. Three per day!!! What is wrong with us???
I worked for 20 years at the Marin Humane Society in Novato, California, just north of San Francisco, for much of that time as a humane officer enforcing humane and animal control laws. I can’t recall one single incident of a dog being shot by a police officer in our county during that two-decade span. I also edited and published a quarterly newsletter the (C.H.A.I.N. Letter) for animal protection professionals for 13 years, ending in 1999. Pre-Internet, we compiled and published animal-law-enforcement news from around the country (and the world) and if we came across three or four dog shootings a year it was a lot.
On the rare occasions when a dog shooting did happen there was inevitably a huge uproar with considerable attention from the media. Today, cops shoot and kill dogs around the United States multiple times daily and it hardly causes a ripple. Let me repeat that. Today, cops shoot and kill dogs around the United States multiple times daily and it hardly causes a ripple. Most of the time not much is said about it – it certainly isn’t often picked up by national news. So what has changed? Several things.
- Popularization of the Pit Bull. When I started working at Marin in 1976, we never saw a Pit Bull in a shelter. Ever. In those days the only people who owned Pit Bulls were dogfighters, and they weren’t about to let their dogs end up in shelters. Nor were they foolish enough to breed dogs who would attack people. Heck, they had to be in the pit with dogs who were fighting each other, and they had to separate them when they were fighting. The last thing they wanted was a dog who would bite a human. If one did, he was taken behind the barn and shot. Then, in the 1990s, The Humane Society of the United States launched a campaign to make dogfighting a felony in all 50 states, and in their efforts to educate the public and legislators about the brutally cruel “sport” they glamorized the breed – and people started wanting them; some responsible dog owners, for the right reasons, but a lot of irresponsible ones for all the wrong reasons. Shelters started seeing a trickle, then a downpour, and finally a flood of Bully dogs, until today almost every full-service shelter in the country often finds a preponderance of Pit-type dogs in their kennels. Many other large, strong breeds – like the Rottweiler, the Cane Corso, the Presa Canario, the Boerboel, and the American Bulldog – were also extremely rare in this country until the 1990s and later. Now they are common. Law enforcement officers in general seem to be exceptionally phobic about the Bully breeds, or dogs who appear to have even a remote possible relationship to a Bully breed.
- Sensitization of Our Society to Dog Bites. In the “good old days,” if a dog bit a kid, Mom usually asked Junior what he did to the dog that he shouldn’t have. Today she calls Animal Control first, then her attorney. In the “good old days,” dogs ran loose a lot, everyone accepted that dogs were a part of life, that dogs sometimes bit people, and it was no big deal. Plus, because dogs ran loose a lot, they were better socialized and probably less likely to bite people. Today, with a marked increase in responsible dog ownership, dogs don’t run loose so much, they aren’t as well socialized, and the population of humans as a whole is a lot less comfortable, and a lot less tolerant, of dogs doing what dogs do.
- Dog Mauling and Dog-Related Fatality Statistics. In the mid 1990’s, an average of 20 people per year were killed by dogs in the U.S. In those pre-pit-popularity days, dogs most often implicated in serious dog bites and dog-related fatalities were breeds like Huskies and German Shepherds – medium-to-large dogs who lacked the sheer bulk and determination of many of the Bully types. In 2009, depending on whose numbers you believe, there were 32 dog-related fatalities in this country; fifteen of the deaths were allegedly caused by Pitbulls or Pit mixes and three by Rottweilers or Rottie mixes. (I say “allegedly” because there are people who insist that there is a rampant problem of reed-misidentification in dog-fatality cases – not a point I want to argue here, but I don want to acknowledge the point.) This year so far, with 24 fatalities on the books and three months to go (projecting a total of 32-ish again this year), twelve of the deaths were caused by Pits; four by Rotts; and one by an American Bulldog. That’s 56% in 2009 by what some call “high-risk” breeds, and a staggering 75% so far in 2010. Although 32 deaths is miniscule in a country with a population of more than 310 million, in which an average of 92 people are killed by lightning annually; 15,500 by murder (by our own species) and 42,000 in car accidents, still, people get incensed over dog-related fatalities.
- Lack of Community Outrage. In the end, the police work for us. We the People. If we don’t get outraged over cops shooting dogs, they can reasonably take that as a statement of public support for their actions. I think back to all the aggressive dogs I managed to handle during my animal protection career without ever shooting one – and without ever being badly bitten (one minor bite in 20 years… but that’s another story). I carried a gun for the sole purpose of dispatching badly injured wildlife, and it never even occurred to me to point it at a dog. My trusty control pole was all I ever needed to protect me from the ravages of flashing canine teeth.
So… let’s get outraged. For starters, sign the petition that urges disciplinary action against Officer Scott Fike for his inappropriate use of deadly force against a dog who had reportedly already been subdued prior to his arrival on the scene. But let’s go farther than that. We need a grassroots campaign that insists our law enforcement officers be trained and equipped to appropriately and non-lethally handle situations in which dogs are involved. Call your own police department tomorrow to inquire about their department policies for handling dogs, and to ask if their officers are equipped with and trained in the use of humane canine capture equipment. Then ask three of your friends to call, and have them ask three of their friends. Get it started. Perhaps Parrot’s death can have some meaning after all.
Warm Woofs, Happy Training,
keep your dogs safe…