Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Dangerous animals

I own three large dogs - Humphrey the labrador, Ben the English mastiff and Sam, who is probably supposed to be an Old English bulldog. All are rescue dogs.

I first heard about Sam when an email arrived from a dog rescue organisation about three years ago. He was in Portsmouth, and booked in to be put down unless someone said they'd take him. His name was "Warrior". He had never been walked, never trained at all, didn't even recognise his own name.

After an anxious couple of weeks when he was as good as he possibly could be, the reasons for his earlier date with the vet became clearer. Sam was quite dangerous. When he started to get excited the afterburners would suddenly kick in and he'd start jumping up, biting, and getting more and more crazed. He weighs about eight stone and can do a standing jump almost six feet straight up in the air, so that's a lot of dog to be behaving like that.

A month in, I really thought I was not going to be able to bring him round. I can remember one evening pinning him down as he struggled ever more insanely, wondering how on earth I'd ever be able to let go.

But I got there. Nobody who meets him now can believe he was ever a problem. He has been involved in two scraps with other dogs. Once when a beautiful golden retriever attacked him and ripped a three inch tear in his chest, and I grabbed Sam before he could retaliate. The second time when a black labrador that had run a couple of hundred yards from its owner became aggressive towards Ben the mastiff, bit him, bit Sam and then bit me - I still have the scar. Neither of my dogs retaliated until I was bitten.

Golden retrievers and labradors are not controlled by the Dangerous Dogs act, but "pit bull like" breeds are. Is Sam pit bull like? My vet says not, but it's so arbitrary a definition that this might not be a defence. Mastiffs are banned as dangerous dogs in Germany. Ben the mastiff weighs half as much again as my girlfriend and tries to sit on her lap. He has been attacked three times by labradors. Following the killing yesterday of a young girl by a "pit bull like" dog, the subject of dangerous dogs is again in the air. On the discussion pages of the Times we read:

I suggest that dogs above a certain size and weight should not be allowed as household pets.

These killer dogs should be banned from domestic homes where they are kept as pets.

An animal is an animal and no matter what you do or say it has an inherent instinct to kill. The right place for animals is the wild, not captivity for the pleasure of mankind.

My sisters and I have facial scars dating from the 60s and 70s as a result of attacks from dogs kept by our parents as family pets. The dogs were spaniels rather than purposely bred fighting mastiffs.
Spaniels aren't covered by the Act, either.

Mastiffs were bred for fighting, or the defence of property, and a very good thing it was too in the ninth century. A skull of a dog like Ben was uncovered in Anglo Saxon levels in Ely, a few miles away. That puts my mastiff in a line of English dogs that stretches back at least a millenium and a quarter. Bulldogs were bred to be fierce, too. The 18th century English bulldog is extinct, and looked nothing like the modern breed. This is why people are trying to recreate the breed. But not for fighting.

Just as you can breed aggression into a line, you can breed it out, and that's what has happened to bulldogs, bull terriers and mastiffs. To call them "purposely bred fighting dogs" is today straightforwardly untrue. Not so with pit bulls. Dog fighting is still an underground sport and dogs are still bred for "gameness". But, oddly enough, this disposition to fight other dogs does not translate straightforwardly into aggession towards humans:
A Georgia-based group called the American Temperament Test Society has put twenty-five thousand dogs through a ten-part standardized drill designed to assess a dog's stability, shyness, aggressiveness, and friendliness in the company of people. A handler takes a dog on a six-foot lead and judges its reaction to stimuli such as gunshots, an umbrella opening, and a weirdly dressed stranger approaching in a threatening way. Eighty-four per cent of the pit bulls that have been given the test have passed, which ranks pit bulls ahead of beagles, Airedales, bearded collies, and all but one variety of dachshund. "We have tested somewhere around a thousand pit-bull-type dogs," Carl Herkstroeter, the president of the A.T.T.S., says. "I've tested half of them. And of the number I've tested I have disqualified one pit bull because of aggressive tendencies. They have done extremely well. They have a good temperament. They are very good with children." It can even be argued that the same traits that make the pit bull so aggressive toward other dogs are what make it so nice to humans. "There are a lot of pit bulls these days who are licensed therapy dogs," the writer Vicki Hearne points out. "Their stability and resoluteness make them excellent for work with people who might not like a more bouncy, flibbertigibbet sort of dog. When pit bulls set out to provide comfort, they are as resolute as they are when they fight, but what they are resolute about is being gentle. And, because they are fearless, they can be gentle with anybody."

Then which are the pit bulls that get into trouble? "The ones that the legislation is geared toward have aggressive tendencies that are either bred in by the breeder, trained in by the trainer, or reinforced in by the owner," Herkstroeter says. A mean pit bull is a dog that has been turned mean, by selective breeding, by being cross-bred with a bigger, human-aggressive breed like German shepherds or Rottweilers, or by being conditioned in such a way that it begins to express hostility to human beings. A pit bull is dangerous to people, then, not to the extent that it expresses its essential pit bullness but to the extent that it deviates from it. A pit-bull ban is a generalization about a generalization about a trait that is not, in fact, general. That's a category problem.

So mastiffs, spaniels, bulldogs, pit bulls, golden retrievers and - to read the statistics (pdf) for America at least, terriers, collies, sheepdogs and great Danes can all be dangerous. Maybe the commentator was right in the Times (link above) when they said:
The right place for animals is the wild, not captivity for the pleasure of mankind.
There are extremist animal rights activists who'd agree with that, but there's an error of fact in the distinction between animals and humans. We've known conclusively for a century that this is a false distinction. We are an animal. For almost the entirety of human existence we have lived with other species, hunted them, formed companionships with them. The state of living without other species seems to me to be sterile and perverted, but then I am typing with a young cat asleep across my shoulders and a labrador snoring under the table at my feet. I am willing to concede that not everybody feels like this. But I am not willing to concede that anyone, individually or collectively, is entitled to stop me interacting with other species as I do.

I am also not willing to descend to the depth of hypcrisy that would lament the extinction of a subspecies of black rhino and expect Indians and Africans to live with tigers, elephants, lions and thousands of other dangerous animals, yet call for the extermination of a few breeds of dog in parts of the world where the majority of the populations have less well developed suntans. Either we learn to live with animals, or we will eventually exterminate all the large species.

The first thing we need to do is understand that all animals can be dangerous and this puts the onus on us. If, as I hope is the case, we see the continued reintroduction of large mammals like wild boar and wolves to these islands, we need to learn that if we get hurt by one it's our own fault. We can behave sensibly and take precautions as people do everywhere else in the world.

That means taking personal responsibility, which is what we should require of animal owners. A Scottish ghillie once said to me "there's no dogs, just owners". he was right. Owners, including me, should be entirely legally responsible for the actions of their dogs. And they should be able to own any dog they like.

The problem with this is that if we start insisting that people take responsibility for themselves and their actions we start to slip down that slippery slope away froma rights culture towards one of freedom and responsibility.

And that would be terrible. Wouldn't it.

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