Seattle Met magazine article creates false pit bull controversy

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The February 2013 edition of Seattle Met magazine features an article written by James Ross Gardener about pit bulls entitled, "Consider the Pit bull." Under the article's title was the line "Seattle loves its dogs. But one group of breeds—lethal to some, adored by others—divides us."

Given that pit bulls are usually demonized in the media, I usually brace myself before I read/watch any stories about them, but while I didn't expect the article to say pit bulls are the greatest dogs ever, I hoped that the article would at least be unbiased, balanced, and fair.

In my opinion, it wasn't.

UNBALANCED COVERAGE, UNRELIABLE SOURCES

The first two-thirds of the article described a horrible attack in 2008 by 2 pit bulls on a 71-year-old SeaTac woman named Huong Le and interviews with 2 anti-pit bull advocates whose claims about pit bulls have been discredited by animal behavior experts for years.

I don't have a problem with the description of the attack on the Ms. Le - it happened, and the facts are public. However, the article gives free reign to 2 Seattle women, Ellen Taft and Colleen Lynn, who have made it their mission to ban pit bulls and legislate them out of existence in the US.

The article also creaEllen Taft has crusaded against animals in Seattle for 20+ yearstes the impression that the attack on Ms. Le "helped spark a countywide pit bull debate, the reverberations of which can still be felt today," but the article fails to provide any specific evidence of a "pit bull debate" anywhere other than in the minds of Ms. Taft and Ms. Lynn.

PIT BULL OPPONENTS UNENCUMBERED BY FACTS

Let's start with Ms. Taft. Her campaign against dogs began after she was bitten by 2 of them (not pit bulls) when she lived in Minnesota.

Since living in Seattle for 20+ years, she has:
In a Seattle Weekly article which called her the "Pet Gestapo", Taft said "The U.S. Constitution does not grant dogs, pigs, or animals any rights whatsoever, nor does it guarantee dog ownership as a right of the people."

I think it's safe to say Ms. Taft isn't an animal lover.

Ms. Lynn hasn't been in the media as much Ms. Taft, but she is equally obsessed with getting rid of all pit bulls. Her work against the breed began on 2007 when a pit bull bit her while she wasColleen Lynn. Credit: KC Dog Blog jogging on Beacon Hill. While no one disputes she was bitten, she gave more than one account of the circumstances and severity of the attack.

As part of their crusade, Ms. Lynn and Ms. Taft have both started websites unencumbered by facts that are renowned for the misinformation they provide about dog behavior in general and pit bulls in particular.

Ms. Lynn's site is Dogbites.org. Ms. Taft's site is Families and Dogs Against Fighting Breeds.

KC Dog Blog has this opinion about the reliability of the information on Ms. Lynn's website - "dogsbite.org is simply a website run almost entirely by an individual person who has an expertise in web design, access to google, and a desire to seek revenge on an attack that happened to her several years ago."

EXPERTS DEBUNK CLAIMS OF ARTICLE'S MAIN SOURCES

Neither woman has any canine behavioral credentials or professional experience that make them experts on dog behavior.


Seattle pit bull owners gather last year to protest a proposed ban on 'fighting breeds'. Credit: Seattle PI.Mr. Gardener did interview a real animal behaviorist, Dr. James Ha from the University of Washington who said, "Many years ago German shepherds were the 'bad' dogs, because people kept them for protection, and criminals held them for protecting property. Then it was Dobermans, then Rottweilers, now pit bulls. All of these breeds have equally high aggression drives and can be trained, or mistreated, into becoming dangerous animals."

He went on to say that, "pit bulls have no different threshold for aggression than those other breeds."

The article also quoted one Seattle pit bull owner, Heather van Helvoort. Ironically, she said that "it wasn't until (she and her husband) moved to Seattle in early 2012 that they found a community open to their two-person, one–pit bull family. In Ballard no one blinks at the sight of Amber. Pit bulls are everywhere."

Her statement directly contradicts the whole premise of the article, which is that pit bulls "divide us."

Despite Dr. Ha's scientific background regarding dog behavior and Ms. van Halvoort's experience with owning a pit bull in Seattle, they only appear in about 20% of the article.

Danette Johnston is the owner of Dog's Day Out, a local dog daycare where we take one of our dogs, and is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer. She's also the NW Coordinator and presenter for Doggone Safe, a group that teaches bite prevention to school age children. She and her husband have a young son, 2 cats, and a pit bull rescue they adopted last year.

Here's what she said when I asked her what she thought of the Seattle Met article:

"Besides the obvious statistical fallacies that have been disproven many times over now, my main problem is the amount of page space dedicated to Ellen Taft and attacks. There should have been much more page space dedicated to scientists and veterinarians (such as Dr. Ha noted briefly in the article) who have studied (and have advances degrees in!) canine behavior and work with dogs extensively as well as professionals (Seattle Animal Shelter staff, trainers) who work with dogs on a daily basis and have hands-on, 1st person experience with thousands of dogs (of ALL breeds) in a professional setting.
"

MISLEADING "FACTS"

Only one piece of actual data was used in the article to back up the claims of the women who want to get rid of them - "Of the 251 dog-bite related human deaths since 2005 in the UnitedCertified Dog Trainer Danette Johnston and her pit bull Rufus. States, 151 were caused by pit bulls, according to dogbites.org."

But Mr. Gardener correctly refutes it when he wrote, "Even the numbers that Taft, Lynn, and other proponents of breed-specific legislation (or BSL) recite are problematic. Because "pit bull" isn't a breed but rather a catchall phrase to describe multiple breeds, when one notes that "pit bulls" killed, say, 18 people in 2006, that isn't entirely fair. Rottweilers killed eight people that same year, but the 18 deaths attributed to "pit bulls" could have been executed by as many as three different breeds."

ARTICLE CREATES CONTROVERSY THAT DOESN'T EXIST

While the public's acceptance of pit bulls has improved, articles like this make further progress more difficult. Saying Seattle is divided over pit bulls is  simply wrong.

Just because an extremely small minority of people want to get rid of all pit bulls in Seattle doesn't mean a controversy exists.

Like Ms. van Halvoort, I see pit bulls all over the city, and I have yet to see any negative reactions to them. One particular breed of pit bull, the American Pit Bull Terrier, is the 5th most popular dog in Washington.

And when Ms. Taft tried to get support last year for this petition asking the Seattle City Council to ban "fighting breeds" (which included pit bulls and several other breeds), she could only muster 323 signatures. On the other hand, 2049 people signed my petition asking the Mayor and City Council to oppose any attempts to "ban pit bull breeds in Seattle."

If a politician won an election by almost 7 to 1 it would be considered a landslide.

Seattleites are NOT divided over pit bulls.


Furthermore, how could anyone think this article provided an objective look at pit bulls in Seattle when it gave three times more space to pit bull haters who use fuzzy math and hyperbole to paint all pit bulls as monsters than a dog behavioral expert and an actual pit bull owner?

I welcome any reasonable debate over pit bulls
as long as it gives equal time to people on both sides who can back their claims up with facts and scientific data.

I don't think this article would pass that test.


Check out these articles if you're interested in reading science-based facts about pit bull behavior:


The Problem with Dog Bite Studies - National Canine Research Council

The REAL Dog Bite Statistics - BSLNews.com
The Truth Behind DogBite.org - KC Dog Blog
The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths, and Politics of Canine Aggression - Karen Delise


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