Saturday, August 28, 1999

Pit bulls as pets? That's sick

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Not long ago, an SPCA mobile unit pulled into a Westwood grocery store parking lot and opened shop. It's a program to take pets to people, hoping to find stray animals a home.

        On board were the most appealing of canines who could cock their heads, wag their tails and win children's hearts.

        Soon a match seemed about to be made. Three young boys — roughly 10, just the right Opie Griffith-size for a puppy — bounded up the stairs and through the trailer. But the beagles, cockers and terrier mixes were of no interest to them.

        They stopped before the cage of a powerfully built, full-grown dog. “This a pit bull?” one boy asked, a smile creeping across his face. “I want a pit bull.” Behind him, his friends joined in enthusiastically.

        In a weary voice, the society worker assured them it was not, and the boys departed grumbling loudly.

        “That's all they want now,” she said sadly. “Pit bulls.”

Dog as image thing
        Next week, Cincinnati City Council is expected to debate restrictions on the controversial breed of dog known for its iron bite.

        Critics say the dogs are a public menace. Others say they are a loyal breed, safe to humans unless trained to be vicious. But, transmuted as adult matters become in the hands of children, somewhere along the line the dogs have become a status symbol for kids.

        “It's a macho man thing,” says Harold Dates, general manager of the SPCA. “If you want to represent yourself a little bit tougher than you are, a little more aggressive, you want a car that's fast, a firearm and you don't want a poodle, you want a pit bull.” SPCA workers say more and more children — as young as age 6 — come in asking for the dogs.

        In some neighborhoods, to have a pit bull is to have power. You own the dog, you own the street. Even a very small pit, walked on a great length of thick chain actually too taxing for the young animal, is sure to win attention. The fear sparked in onlookers' eyes has become, pervertedly, part of the dog's charm.

Perverse turn of affairs
        That this should be the state of affairs between pet and owner is a sorry thing, but between a child and his dog it is a travesty.

        Pets — dogs in particular — were once the companions with whom children could be their most tenderhearted and vulnerable. No child owned a dog for status, much less for threat. A kid wanted a dog for acceptance and unchanging devotion.

        But today is today, and the world is such as it is. For many children, the time for tenderness is past.

        Violence taints everything. In some schools, teachers say young students now forego the flowers, houses and dogs they once drew and now simply sketch guns.

        Guns on desks, guns in the margins of homework, guns doodled on the backs of tests. Guns are on their minds. Guns are in their homes, and sometimes in their pockets.

        Technically, these are adults-only issues. Proponents of looser controls on firearms, violent entertainment, dangerous animals and damaging substances are quick to assure lawmakers these matters have nothing to do with children. And children can be excluded from legal access. But real-life access and exposure are different.

        We cannot fill our homes with dangerous things and think our children will be safe. We cannot covertly value weapons, law-bending and violence with no effect on our kids. They always know our secrets, and our true values.

        It's not just the gunshot, the dog bite, the accidental overdose that can harm them. Childhood is lost to things that never show up on crime reports — the culture of fear, the symbols of intimidation, the glamorization of physical force.

        Our children pay the price for these things every day, in the currency of innocence.

        Pit bulls as pets, an idea that should sicken us all.

        Krista Ramsey's column appears on Saturdays. Write her at 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati 45202.