No one doubts that language counts. We’ve been having a thoughtful conversation here and at This One Wild Life about the terms that should be used to discuss killing dogs at shelters, terms that would allow for sensitivity to shelter workers tasked with performing the killing but not minimize the impact of what happens. I’m still not sure how I feel about that issue.
But I have no question about how to describe seizing healthy, happy dogs from good, loving homes and killing them: murder. And they’re getting away with it in so-called enlightened cities like Denver, Colorado.
In the course of researching breed specific legislation (BSL) for a story, I’ve learned that BSL is a blanket term for a hodgepodge of laws that impose a variety of restrictions on ostensibly dangerous breeds, with the goal of preventing serious dog bites.
Some laws that fall under the aegis of BSL mandate special insurance for owners of these breeds. Others require muzzling the dogs in public.
Some — such as those in Denver — impose bans.
Ban is an extremely bland word.
When Boston banned books it was rather quaint. The city just seemed prissy for doing it and the books, available elsewhere, just seemed more desirable.
Dog bans don’t work that way.
When dogs are banned, it usually means that they must be removed from the jurisdiction that is imposing the ban within a specified, sometimes very short, period of time or be killed. Owners might have a week –if they’re lucky, a month — to find a new home for the dog. Sometimes, because of bureaucratic snafus, they are not given the chance to get the pet out of the hands of animal control at all. In brief: Beloved, well-behaved animals, valued members of families, are seized from distraught, caring owners and put to death.
I didn’t grasp all that from hearing the term “BSL” or “ban” and neither do most people.
Here’s how I know. I put out a call on Facebook and Twitter to talk to people affected by BSL for my article. I got a few responses from people with pit bulls whose insurance rates were raised, and from some whose dogs were given a wide berth or got dirty looks on the street. Inconvenient and sad, yes. Dire, no. I finally got a referral from the National Canine Research Council — an excellent resource for information on BSL and data on dog bites, the numbers and extent of which have been vastly exaggerated — to Sonya Dias.
Boy, were my eyes opened. Until she sold her beautiful 1,700-square-foot loft with mountain views in downtown Denver and moved to a small, boxy apartment outside of city limits, Sonya lived in fear that her sweet rescued pit bull, Gryffindor, was going to be taken away and killed. For nearly a year, she walked him at 4:30 in the morning so he wouldn’t be spotted — to cite just one detail of many about the way she was forced to live because of Denver’s anti-pit bull laws. Sonya can rattle off horror stories about people she knows who weren’t able to save their pets. And she has pictures of the results which I will not show.
This was in 2005, when Denver’s breed ban was reinstated after being put on hold for a year. Sonya still hasn’t gotten over the experience of having had to look over her shoulder and worry about Gryffie all the time. And she’s very angry about “these stupid laws.”
As we all should be. According to an article in Denver Westword News, at least 3,497 pitbulls have been killed since the city instituted its ban in 1989. The article also says, “Denver’s ban remains the toughest in the nation, and the city also has a reputation as the country’s toughest enforcer.”
With so many dogs killed because they can’t find homes, it seems inconceivable that a city is willfully destroying family pets.
I’m not going to discuss why, according to all respected animal welfare experts and organizations, breed bans are unscientific and ineffective. There are many good resources, including the ab0ve-mentioned National Canine Research Council, for that. Nor am I going to talk about how pit bulls are no different than other dogs. I’ve touched on that in two posts, Debunking Pit Bull Myths and No, Pit Bulls Aren’t Perfect.
This post is about language.
We need to stop using the phrase breed specific legislation — or, worse, its meaningless abbreviation — to refer to the singling out, banning and killing of certain dogs. It’s vague and boring: put the word “legislation” in any phrase and most people’s eyes glaze over, and “specific” isn’t exactly a crowd rouser either. Moreover, the usage is inaccurate. Some laws that fall under the aegis of BSL are far more benign than others. We shouldn’t lump them all together.
What words should we use? Deadly breed bans? Canine murder mandates? Dog death panels? I’m not sure, but we can do better than BSL.
I regret that I went to a pet blogger’s conference in Denver. I’m sorry it was held there. Now that I know exactly what goes on, I’m not going to spend another cent visiting any city that has a breed ban until it’s entirely* abolished. And, whenever possible, I’m going to tell everyone who will listen why I’m boycotting those places.
Silence = death.
*I don’t care that pitbull service dogs are now allowed in Denver on a case-by-case basis. That’s not close to good enough.