This article is reprinted with permission of the author, Barbara Kay, and the editor of Animals 24-7, where it first appeared.1
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Now for the story that didn’t make national news (it did make local news). It concerns an art exhibit whose meaning transcended art, certain attendees whose motivation had nothing to do with art, and the fine line between freedom of speech and public-institution integrity.
ArtPrize is an outdoor, international art competition, in continuous progress from September 24 to October 12, 2014. It occupies three square miles of downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan and invites the public to its epicenter, Calder Plaza, to enter into a “conversation” about what art is and why it matters.
This year a three-dimensional entry called “Out of the Blue,” 15 feet wide by 150 feet long, by Joan Marie Kowal, features thirty individual crosses decorated with flowers in the nation’s first physical memorial for victims of dog bite-related fatalities (the installation’s name epitomizes the nature of the attacks). Many involve pit bulls. Visitors are encouraged to express empathy for the victims by leaving flowers and other tokens in a designated memorial space. Information is provided at the site on bite prevention and responsible dog ownership.
Predictably, given the ferocious tensions between anti-pit bull crusaders and pit bull advocates, many of whom attack survivors themselves or loved ones of victims, the memorial became what is known in academic jargon as a “contested site.” While victims and their supporters came to mourn and comfort each other, some pit bull advocates could not resist the temptation to violate the solemnity of the occasion. They congregated, wearing t-shirts identifying them as activists, with their pit bulls, alongside the memorial, a visual challenge and a willful disruption of the healing atmosphere the memorial was meant to encourage. As Ms Kowal, the artist, stated in emails to MLive and the Grand Rapids Press, “visitors can’t even see the art and many have told me the bully breed owners, sitting on the ledges blocking the view of the victims’ biographies and refusing to move, makes them unable to enjoy the piece.”
Although unseemly and cruel, their presence was not illegal.
ArtPrize & the ACO
Pit bull advocates protest in front of Joan Kowal’s memorial to dog attack victims.
But the presence of one attendee at Calder Plaza, Rachel Jensen, is particularly discomfiting. Ms Jensen is an animal control officer with Grand Rapids’s Kent County health Department. A photo of Ms Jensen with her friend Emily Sanders, on a Facebook page, taken at the event, both cuddling large pit bulls, is followed by comments indicating that both were present at the exhibit for advocacy reasons (“we put the Make Michigan Next fliers with pro-pibble stats and bite info in her info box” and ”You guys rock. Thanks for getting on that so fast and bringing your pups out to raise awareness.”)
Responding to my media query around the propriety of Ms Jensen’s presence at ArtPrize with her pit bull, the Kent County Health Dept Communications manager, Lisa Laplante, addressed only the legal aspects of the matter, noting that Ms Jensen (she did not name her; I am naming her) was “on her own personal time” and there had been “no violation of employee policy.” Stonewalling, in short.
I wonder if we would see the same reaction if, say, a police officer “on his own personal time” were to attend a memorial for the Sandy Hook massacre of children, and have himself photographed there, grinning triumphantly while holding his hobby assault rifle aloft, inviting congratulatory comments on his pro-active support for the right to bear arms, within view of victims’ parents and friends. I think in such a case, the public outcry would be instantaneous and virulent. I daresay that if no employee policy existed before the incident, one would be hastily implemented, forbidding all law enforcement personnel from publicizing their support for the NRA on occasions dedicated to gun victims.
However legal Ms Jensen’s behavior was, it was also psychological abuse of her own, so to speak, clients. I therefore deplore in the strongest possible terms the evasive bureaucratise employed to deflect attention from this irreducible fact. Ms Jensen is not just another member of the public. She represents a government department supported on public monies. Her job requires her to maintain scrupulous objectivity in canine-related crises. Realistically it is common knowledge that pit bull advocates gravitate to jobs in the control and shelter industry, and they see no ethical bright line between their official job and their passion for pit bull advocacy. There is nothing we can do about that. At the very least, though, there should be limits placed by wiser heads on their freedom to advertise their bias, in particular when their activism causes psychological harm to members of the public.
I hope that this incident will lead to self-interrogation on the part of authority figures in the Kent County Health Department, leading to new protocols for employees designed to protect its badly-stained image. I hope such an initiative will encourage other such departments around the nation to follow suit – in their own interest and as a symbol of respect for those survivors of pit bull attacks who wanted to visit “Out of the Blue,” but whose traumatized psyches could not bear the thought of sharing space with clones of the dogs who ruined their lives.
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1 This post is excerpted from Three pit bull stories to chew on by Barbara Kay, which first appeared in Animals 24-7 (October 7, 2014).
County defends animal control officer who protested ArtPrize memorial to dog-attack victims
MLive; October 3, 2014
SRUV uses the definition of "pit bull" as found in the Omaha Municipal Code Section 6-163. As pit bulls are increasingly crossed with exotic mastiffs, Catahoula Leopard Dogs and other breeds, the vernacular definition of "pit bull" should be made even more inclusive.
Sources cited by news media sometimes refer to "Animal Advocates" or sometimes "Experts." In many cases these words are used to refer to single-purpose pit bull advocates who have never advocated for any other breeds or species of animals. Media would be more accurate to refer to these pit bull advocates as advocates of fighting breeds.
Similarly, in many cases pit bull advocates refer to themselves as "dog lovers" or "canine advocates" and media often accepts this usage. The majority of these pit bull advocates are single-purpose advocates of fighting breeds.
Statistics:Statistics quoted on SRUV are from the nation's authoritative source for current dog attack statistics, the 32+ year, continuously updated Dog attack deaths and maimings, U.S. & Canada.
View or download the current PDF
Record 33 fatal pit bull attacks & 459 disfigurements in 2015
2015 Dog Bite Related Fatalities (Daxton's Friends)
Fatal Pit Bull Attacks
Today's pit bull attacks