Sunday, March 15, 2015

To All The Dogs I've Loved.

"What kind of dog?"

I'm asked this question by many curious and friendly strangers on walks downtown, and I'm happy to oblige with an answer. Private Joker, ever the darling despite his odd nature, is equally receptive to unfamiliar hands reaching for his head and giving gentle pats on his rump.

"What kind of dog?"

When asked by a potential landlord, this question is the death knell of my housing dreams.

Normally an eloquent speaker, I find myself reduced to bungled phrases and stiff pauses: "Um, well, he's about 55 pounds...some kind of mix...some sort of bulldog...almost five years old." And then my attempt at a save: "I can provide a reference."

While my fumbling does me no favors, it's not an indication of brewing deceit. Truth is, I don't know what my Private Joker is. I was living in Memphis in 2010 when a friend called, asking if I'd foster a puppy his friend had rescued. A day later, Amanda, the rescuer, arrived at my house with a skinny, scabby, damaged boy she had been calling Jake.

Amanda came at me on my front lawn in an explosion of color: blue eyes against burnt caramel skin surely helped along by a bevy of bulbs or a spray booth and whitest-white teeth flashing each brief second between big smiles and bursts of Southern-drawl-dripped, light-speed syllables.

She was all caffeine to Jake's chamomile.

My boisterous new acquaintance and I walked my meek foster boy through the front door of my rental bungalow in the hip Cooper-Young neighborhood in Midtown Memphis to meet the rest of the family. Kaiser and Phaedra, my two "pit bull types" of a decade, greeted Joker with not too much interest, but not too little. Seamless, I'd call it.

"Jake" wasn't my style, so I christened him Private Joker and didn't do much in the way of getting him adopted. And it was seamless, the relationship between my three quadrupedal kids--that is, until the tumor in Phaedra's neck grew to the size of a grapefruit and rendered her intolerant and defensive. By that time, we'd moved back to my small hometown in West Virginia and were temporarily living with my parents. Unexpectedly, Kaiser beat Phaedra to the grave, in 2012, four months after my first child was born. My big brown love was the victim of cancer that had invaded his lungs and very suddenly erased him from our family portrait. Phaedra continued to fade. Could she have spoken a word, she wouldn't have uttered one in complaint; rather, her way was fierce independence. She fought for life for another year and a half. The death of my dogs, as death will do, branded my soul with an everlasting essence of our time together.

Seven months later, Private Joker, my son Zion, and I found our first home together: a two-bedroom apartment in a four-unit building. Our place was perfectly situated in my dream neighborhood in my second home, Morgantown, WV, only 40 miles from my hometown but light years ahead in culture and opportunity.

Since my college days at WVU,  Morgantown had become sadly inclined toward breed profiling, and my rental search had been long and arduous, littered--tainted is more like it--with that miserable telltale question:


"What kind of dog?"

Surprisingly--and beyond thankfully--I was able to acquire my apartment without much fanfare about Joker. The property manager was a dog person and previous owner of the much-maligned "pit bull." Mind you, the quotation marks aren't to express irony or disdain for the term; they're purely functional, because there is no such breed. "Pit bull" is a blanket term used to describe different breeds, such as American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Bull Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, and American Bulldogs. And these days, due to over-breeding and cross-breeding, it's hard to determine the breed legitimacy of any pit bull-looking dog, unless it comes from a reputable breeder, I suppose. It's my opinion that there are very few reputable breeders out there, so let's just scratch that last part.

Breed discrimination—like its racial- and gender-based counterparts—makes it hard for me to flow like water over a stone, to achieve that general state of transcendence that I desire. Instead, it makes me feel like a tiny volcano, capable of spitting fire and catapulting molten rocks in the direction of breed haters. Of course, like bigots and misogynists, breed discriminators don't see themselves in a negative light. Rather, they fancy themselves pragmatists and protectors. People like me—who are often denigrated as "crazy" animal advocates—know better, not because we believe differently but because we're armed with facts and experience.

While I have an obvious emotional stake in the plight of the pit bull-type dog (from here on called pit bull for brevity's sake), my defense of the dogs isn't limited to the confines of the left-hand side of my chest where my bleeding heart resides. One doesn't become a seasoned debater by making emotionally based arguments, after all. Making a solid case requires objectivity and perspicacity, and—despite that dormant volcano that resides within me—those qualities have permanent residency in my soul.

We crazies want to know this: Do lawmakers and insurance companies exercise provident thinking as they're drafting policy that aims to ban pit bulls? It seems impossible that they could, or else they'd realize the utter mess they're creating in the communities they purportedly want to support and protect.

There are so many layers to the issue. So many possibilities, and none of them good. What happens to these displaced pit bulls? Are they all euthanized? Who foots the bill and who houses them in the meantime? If animal control is the answer, that's laughable. County animal control departments already have their hands full from countless irresponsible, inhumane residents who neglect and drop off their pets. It's unlikely they have extra funds to take on another burden, which could range from a few pit bulls to hundreds. Will they ship the dogs to rescues? Again, laughable. Rescues too are overburdened because of the irresponsibility and inhumanity of humans.

Breed bans are not merely a local issue for individual communities. For one, breed bans aren't isolated occurrences—they're widespread and common—and their very existence indicates a desire for the breed to be eradicated entirely. So let's look at the big picture: There are millions of pit bulls in the United States. Now, lawmakers, insurance companies, and concerned citizens: What shall we do with them all? Millions of living creatures that you've deemed—hysterically, mind you—deserving of displacement, or, more accurately, death.

What, precisely, is pragmatic about disrupting the lives of not simply nameless, faceless dog owners but contributing members of communities in which these dogs are banned? Many owners would sooner move than give up their pets, which creates a host of problems like broken leases, displaced families, and loss of income. Do lawmakers want to lose residents? Do insurance companies want to lose customers? There is and will continue to be backlash, in the form of lawsuits, grassroots movements, and business opportunism—savvy insurance companies will see a gap and lure clients from pit bull-unfriendly providers. It's already happening.

Then there's the core issue with which we crazies are very familiar: the utter disregard for living creatures—both the dogs and the humans involved. We can't appeal to law or policy for leniency on this aspect, but we'll continue to make it known. Because that's what you do for love.

Those who support breed bans should spend some time researching the pit bull, particularly in respect to the sickeningly high number of abuse cases. Humans are harming these dogs far more than they're harming humans. Furthermore, these dogs are remarkably resilient and, to anthropomorphize, forgiving. Unlike humans, who often don't fare well following years of abuse and neglect, these dogs quite often go on to become wonderful pets.

The problem with pit bulls is not that they're innately dangerous. The problem is one created by humans: People have over-bred and cross-bred, abused and abandoned these dogs, leaving a massive population that requires rehab, re-training, and re-homing. People get pit bulls as status symbols instead of family pets, not giving them the attention and socialization due any dog, much less a type of dog that has added pressure to prove itself due to social stigma. In our current climate of pit bull fear mongering, these dogs can't afford to fail. Even so much as a growl from a pit bull is interpreted far differently than a growl from, say, a Golden Retriever.

It took me many years of raising pit bulls to build my understanding of these dogs. For the most part, I was on my own; I had no experienced owners to guide me. I made mistakes along the way, but none of my dogs failed while I learned. After becoming a mother three years ago, I found a new responsibility as a pit bull owner, which was to oversee and guide the relationship between my son and Private Joker. I'm devoted to giving them both a life filled with love and attention and boundaries.

I want this country to re-assess its attitude toward the pit bull. As my go-to pit bull resource, Pit Bull Rescue Central, says: Educate, Don't Legislate. Breed bans are more problem than solution.

I'm presently mid-search for a new rental home, and I fully expect the dreaded question to come up every time I make an inquiry to a potential landlord.

"What kind of dog?"

Next time, maybe I'll answer this way: The kind that makes me smile. The kind I naturally include in my life decisions. The kind I vow to protect. The kind that has been an invaluable companion. The kind that is a member of my family.


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