The City Council of Elgin, a suburb of Chicago, is considering several new restrictions on pit bulls and other dogs deemed dangerous by animal control. The proposal narrowly won preliminary approval last week, and faces a final vote on March 10th. If approved, the new measures would take effect on July 1st.

The American Pit Bull Terrier is a medium sized breed of dog. It has short hair which is relatively smooth to the touch. Pit Bulls come in all colors and patterns. —APBT Registry

While not technically an outright ban of the breed, whose loose definition alone presents a serious obstacle to fair enforcement, the new restrictions would be onerous to the point of making pit bull ownership (at least presuming compliance with the law) unbearably burdensome for many residents.

Under the new law, pit bulls would automatically be classified as dangerous, thus meriting the following restrictions:

  • Their owners would have to register with the city for a three-year, $100 license.
  • They would have to be microchipped, and would have to wear registration and rabies tags at all times, along with proof of spaying or neutering.
  • They could not be released into any yard without of a 6-foot locked fence.
  • When on public property, they would need to be muzzled and controlled by adults only with non-retractable leashes no longer than 6 feet.
  • Their owners would have to carry liability insurance of at least $100,000.

Now, let me state point-blank that I happen to really like pit bulls. I like the way they look, I like the way they think, I like training them and hanging out with them. I oppose breed specific legislation, both on principle and out of practical concern over its predictable ramifications. I hate political grandstanding of all sorts. And I visibly bristle at the sort of sloppy reasoning that suggests such measures are either necessary or useful.

That said, I am also tired of some of the arguments trotted out in opposition to such madness. So for the moment I intend to play devil’s advocate.

To begin with, I could probably get by with fewer shouts of “But my pit bull is an angel!!” A because that halo didn’t come out of a box of Cracker Jacks and B because I am far from alone in not being persuaded by that as an argument.

As a rule, politicians are not kept up at night by the prospect of injustice. They are fully capable of living with the fact that your peace-loving pit bull will be unfairly put upon in the name of serving the greater good, or at least in the name of appearing to serve the greater good.

According to Elgin City Attorney William Cogley,

[Pit bulls] can present a danger distinct from other breeds [and for every story about a loving, gentle pit bull, he could] recite an anecdote of a sudden attack on a child resulting in horrific results.

Fact is I bet he couldn’t, but that’s not the point. Very few people, even among our own elected representatives, are unsophisticated enough to believe that every pit bull in the universe poses an urgent and individual threat to public safety. A few do, I suppose, and if one such number currently sits on Elgin’s City Council, then it may yet be worth trotting out that boa-bedecked therapy pit after all, but I’m kinda dubious.

Petey of "Our Gang"

Understand, I’m not saying it isn’t worth a shot, just that being recognized as exceptional is a very different ball of wax from being recognized as representative. Then, of course, there’s the problem that your pit bull being so darn exceptional, just reminds us that he or she is an exception.

Exception probat regulam [Lat.], the exception proves the rule. A legal maxim of which the complete text is: exceptio probat [or (con)firmat] regulam in casibus non exceptis–‘the fact that certain exceptions are made (in a legal document) confirms that the rule is valid in all other cases.’ –Alan Bliss, A Dictionary of Words and Phrases in Current English

In other words, the fact that Petey from Our Gang was a pit bull doesn’t negate the fact that there are legions of quite nasty ones as well.  And in fact, spotlighting the admirably affable temperaments of a few, may inadvertently throw the rest into starker relief. And no, I’m not saying the majority of pit bulls have poor or dangerous temperaments, only that the exaltation of a handful cannot in and of itself undermine the widespread prejudice that exists. We need to argue for the breed as a whole, lest the exception only serve to prove the rule.

Second, I could do without the racial profiling analogies, and not because I’m for racial profiling. Or because racism itself isn’t a very real factor in the promotion of BSL and related legislation. It is frequently a certain human demographic that is the real target, dogs being merely the mechanism by which law enforcement hopes to train its scope.

BSL empowers police to profile in those cases, using pit bull ownership as a proxy for race. But breed discrimination is not the same as racial profiling for the same reason that crating your new puppy is not the same as crating your kid: because dogs aren’t people. It may be tempting to exploit such a metaphor for short term gain, but I for one am not interested in equating dogs and humans, even metaphorically, in any political or legislative context.

Convenient or not, breed does make a difference, even if it is ultimately not the defining difference in most cases. Owning a pit bull, or any number of other formidable breeds, represents a higher level of responsibility than, say, owning a Shih Tzu. It’s easy to agree that pit fighting and criminally negligent ownership is the real scourge; that nearly every dog, no matter its heritage, has the capacity to be a safe and reliable companion with proper guidance. But good intentions are never enough and have in fact been many a dog’s undoing.

If you own a pit bull, congratulations. It’s a wonderful breed. But don’t forget that he’s a pit, don’t walk him on a retractable leash, and don’t assume that because you are a good person, he will be a good dog; appreciate him for what he is and for God’s sake train him.

In the meantime, let’s promote and actively lobby for real solutions: enforcement of existing laws, public education, and reasonable incentives to voluntarily spay or neuter, and train. Not just in response to bogus breed specific legislation, but all the time.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.