[Editor's note: This series consists of two posts: A Pit Bull Advocate's Interview with Merritt Clifton, and a prefatory essay by Barbara Kay titled Sweet Revenge. "Mark" is a pseudonym; Ms Kay does not wish to call negative attention to his highly reputable college or its excellent film department. See Sweet Revenge for events leading to this interview.]
The following email interview was conducted in February, 2013.
Right off the bat, assuming someone doesn’t know your stance on the BSL issue, would you say that pit bull-type dogs are inherently more dangerous than most other breeds of dog? If so, what evidence would you use to support this assertion?Merritt Clifton:
The pattern discovered during the past 30-plus years of data tracking turns out to have prevailed among non-rabid dog attack cases going all the way back to 1844, which is as far as the data can be reconstructed from published accounts.
However, the frequency of attacks has increased exponentially, from fewer than one dog attack fatality per year in the middle decades of the 20th century to an average of more than 30 per year just by pit bulls since 2010. Also, more than half of all the pit bull fatalities & disfigurements of the past 30 years have occurred just since the Michael Vick dogfighting case broke in April 2007. Pit bulls had already accounted for half the total numbers of dog attack fatalities & disfigurements then.Mark:
Looking at the report, and some summations of it, one would come to the conclusion that you feel pit bulls are an inherent danger to the public. Why is it that almost every single agency concerned with animal welfare and veterinary medicine has come out vehemently against any breed-specific legislation? They really have nothing to gain or lose by opposing BSL.MC:
It is entirely incorrect, indeed the inverse of reality, to assert that the agencies involved “have nothing to gain or lose by opposing BSL.”
Indeed, the organized veterinary profession has for more than 60 years opposed ANY legislation that would curtail breeding dogs, and the largest humane societies have tended to align themselves with the veterinary societies time & again, until smaller organizations employing veterinarians who have been willing to buck the establishment have conducted the demonstration projects & won the lawsuits that permitted the introduction of discount spay/neuter, high-volume spay/neuter, spay/neuter offered through non-profit clinics, the introduction of neuter/return, and differential dog licensing, which means that sterilized dogs are licensed for a lower fee than those who are intact.
Time and again the major humane societies have belatedly climbed aboard the bandwagon once it was already rolling, rather than risk losing market share.
Further contributing to the present positions of most of the major humane societies is the reality that over the past 20 years, donors have responded very positively to the transition many have made to a no-kill or low-kill modus operandi – exactly as I had editorially urged at the now defunct Animal People newspaper from Volume 1, #1. (I was in fact the keynote speaker at the first No Kill Conference, in 1995.)
Unfortunately, it is very difficult for any humane society to remain no-kill when 30% or more of the dogs coming through the doors are pit bulls – unless the humane society ceases to be open-admission on the one hand, thereby obliging a public agency to accept all of the hardest cases, and denies the realities pertaining to pit bulls on the other, so as to be able to adopt out more of them.
Among the consequences are that of the 42 fatal dog attacks by shelter dogs occurring in the past 33 years, 40 have occurred since 2000. There have been 37 fatalities involving shelter dogs from 2010 to present, involving 29 pit bulls, seven bull mastiffs, two Rottweilers, a Lab who may have been part pit bull, and a husky.Mark:
Even Dr. Julie Gilchrist of the CDC has come out with the statement: "There are enormous difficulties in collecting dog bite data.”MC:
Julie Gilchrist has a background in sports medicine and water safety. She has no relevant background in dog attacks, animal care & control, or dog-related zoonotic disease, and does not seem to have any interest in these areas, either.
I had already been tracking dog attack data for 21 years before the dog attack portfolio was tossed into her jurisdiction, & had been tracking dog attacks by breed for 17 years, often exchanging data with her predecessor at the CDC, who produced some relevant studies. Under Gilchrist’s tenure, which began in 1999, the CDC has produced no new studies or data worthy of being taken seriously.Mark:
Dr. Gilchrist explained that no centralized reporting system for dog bites exists, and incidents are typically relayed to a number of entities, such as the police, veterinarians, animal control, and emergency rooms, making meaningful analysis nearly impossible.MC:
If the CDC took this view of the data pertaining to any other disease or occupational health and safety issue, the CDC would have no meaningful data on any subject, because in fact there is no centralized reporting system for any medical issue until one is established, usually by an Act of Congress.
Usually the reason such an Act of Congress is passed is that “a number of entities” have assembled an overwhelming preponderance of data establishing that something – smoking, asbestos and drunk driving, among other examples – is creating a public health problem worthy of official tracking & study.Mark:
Dr. Julie Gilchrist also said: “If anyone says one dog is more likely to kill — unless there is a study out there I haven’t seen — that’s not based on scientific data.”MC:
Her opinion would be more significant if she had in fact kept up with the relevant studies. Some examples:
Laurel Holmquist, M.A. and Anne Elixhauser, Ph.D. Emergency Department Visits and Inpatient Stays Involving Dog Bites, 2008. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD, USA, November 2010; www.hcup-us.ahrq.gov/reports/statbriefs/sb101.pdf
John K. Bini, MD, Stephen M. Cohn, MD, Shirley M. Acosta, RN, BSN, Marilyn J. McFarland, RN, MS, Mark T. Muir, MD, and Joel E. Michalek, PhD. Mortality, Mauling, and Maiming by Vicious Dogs. Annals of Surgery, Volume 253, Number 4, April 2011, page 791.
Alan M. Beck, Honey Loring, and Randall Lockwood The Ecology of Dog Bite Injury in St. Louis, Missouri. Public Health Reports, May-June 1975, Vol. 90, No.3, page 263.
Lisa B. E. Shields, MD, Mark L. Bernstein, DDS, John C. Hunsaker, III, MD, JD, and Donna M. Stewart, MD. Dog Bite-Related Fatalities: A 15-Year Review of Kentucky Medical Examiner Cases, American Journal of Forensic Medical Pathology 2009;30: pages 223–230.
Angelo Monroy, MD, Philomena Behar, MD, Mark Nagy, MD, Christopher Poje, MD, Michael Pizzuto, MD, and Linda Brodsky, MD. Head and neck dog bites in children. Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery (2009) 140, pages 354-357.
Emergency Department Visits and Inpatient Stays Involving Dog Bites, 2008, Laurel Holmquist, M.A. and Anne Elixhauser, Ph.D., Healthcare Cost & Utilization Project Statistical Brief #101, November 2010.Mark:
Many have criticized your report for being based on “press accounts since 1982,” as stated in the report itself. Even with verification of each press account with a police file, medical report, etc., isn’t the use of media reporting (notoriously sensationalized) sourcing an incomplete, untrustworthy source for a meta-study of this scale? (i.e. even though the media reports are backed up with secondary sources, using the media reports as the initial source seems like it would limit the data to only cases reported in the media, hardly an empirical source.)MC:
From the daily stock market reports to the sports scores, the world relies on media compilations of data to inform practically every form of both personal and public policy decision-making.Mark:
How do you feel about the vagueness of breed-specific legislation? For example, in Ontario, the law essentially states that Pit Bull Terriers are banned, that Staffordshire Terriers are banned, and then it goes on to state “a dog that has an appearance and physical characteristics that are substantially similar to those of dogs referred to in any of clauses (a) to (d).” Many feel that this is a slippery slope where many other breeds could be sucked into the fold simply because of how they look (and this type of misapplied profiling has been documented in Ontario, for example with a man named Rui Branco).MC:
A pit bull is not actually a terrier; it is a category of molosser dog, with a bit of terrier added, to which the term “terrier” was applied as a sort of whitewash when dogfighters such as John P. Colby began to sell their culls as pets about a century ago.
The inherent misunderstanding in your question is the confusion of the definition of “pit bull” with show dog breed standards, which have no relevance to the issue at hand. Pit bulls are dogs in whom form follows function: if the dog has the armament of a pit bull, with sufficient adaptations for fighting and dismembering to do what pit bulls have historically been bred to do, it is a pit bull, regardless of whatever other superficial cosmetic traits it may possess.
It is important to understand that nature never created any dog analogous to a pit bull. No street dog resembles a pit bull, nor does any other breed which was not very selectively bred to be capable of fighting, dismembering escaped slaves, and holding livestock by the nose while their throats are cut.Mark:
What is your take on the data collected by the American Temperament Test Society, in operation since 1977 and having tested over 32,000 dogs, and their temperament results? The American Pit Bull Terrier and American Staffordshire Terriers have 86.8% and 84.5% pass rates respectively, whereas the average passing rate for all canine breeds is only 83.0%, with many falling well below that into the 50s, 60s, and 70s.MC:
No person of good sense takes any of that seriously. Here is a detailed explanation of why, compiled by Dawn James:
Looking at bite statistics may pose a problem with creating a full-spectrum analysis of the pit bull type. Many would say that this is the most abused, neglected, and mistreated type of dog on the planet, so of course there will be more bites numerically than other breeds not traditionally labelled as a “risk”. Couldn’t the data be skewed by the fact that humans have turned so many of this type of dog into fighting, killing machines? Can the dogs themselves really be to blame for the actions of their owners? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?MC:
First of all, I wonder if you are aware that I was probably the first on record to quantify that pit bulls are the most “abused, neglected, and mistreated type of dog” in North America – certainly not the world, though, as I have observed while investigating the dog meat markets of Asia.
It is interesting that pit bull advocates have seized upon this finding, which I began making public in 1993, and have pretended that it in some manner supports their desire to continue to breed, fight, neglect, chain, and otherwise abuse pit bulls, in between allowing their pit bulls to run amok, killing and maiming other animals and sometimes humans. What this finding actually shows is that the maladaptive traits of pit bulls tends to make them particularly attractive to maladaptive people – and that in itself should be sufficient reason to stop breeding pit bulls. Why should they be bred, only to suffer and die?
The view that pit bull terriers get into trouble chiefly because the wrong people have them was reinforced on November 16, 2006 when a peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence revealed that among a sampling of 355 people who keep pet dogs, all who keep pit bulls turned out to have had some sort of trouble with the law. Thirty percent of the people in the sampling who had been cited at least once for failing to license a pit bull were found to have had at least five criminal convictions or traffic citations.
Explained lead study author Jaclyn Barnes of the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, "Owners of vicious dogs [mostly pit bulls] who have been cited for failing to register a dog (or) failing to keep a dog confined on the premises ... are more than nine times more likely to have been convicted for a crime involving children, three times more likely to have been convicted of domestic violence ... and nearly eight times more likely to be charged with drug (crimes) than owners of low-risk licensed dogs."
Co-authors included Frank W. Putnam of the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center; Barbara Boat of the University of Cincinnati, an investigator of animal/human relationships who has often spoken at humane conferences; and Harold Dates and Andrew Mahlman of the Cincinnati SPCA.Mark:
In the course of making this documentary (which I am approaching from an objective standpoint, having never even owned a dog or worked with an animal organization), I have come to meet many calm, affectionate, obedient pit bull types who, quite frankly, put me at ease. Why are there so many dogs that effortlessly break the stereotype applied by popular media?MC:
First of all, what alleged stereotype? If you are talking about “aggressive” behaviour, you are completely missing the substance of the problem – because that isn’t the problem at all, nor even part of it.
Literature produced by dog behaviorists and legislation drafted by public policy makers has historically treated ordinary dog bites and those of more severe consequence as a continuum produced by aggressive dog behavior. Dog training, dog guardian education, and animal control ordinances have consequently focused on preventing or restraining aggression in dogs, without understanding that aggression may be much less the issue than the capacity for doing extreme damage in any biting incident.
The capacity for doing extreme damage is coupled in many molosser dogs, e.g. pit bulls, Rottweilers, and their mixes, with the tendency among breeds produced to fight to explode from calm to all-out attack for an obvious reason, in that the dog who hesitates in a fight to the death will soon be killed.
At least 15 common dog behaviors may be considered aggressive, and may result in biting, but most are rarely involved in fatal and disfiguring attacks.
Among these "aggressive" behaviors are play-chasing; the air-biting & growling of two dogs who are just becoming acquainted; enthusiastically greeting a person by leaping up on the person or putting paws up; trying to steal food; barking, even when the barking is just a friendly hello; ear-biting; defense of food; growling at a perceived territorial intruder; irritability at being suddenly awakened (mostly seen in older dogs); assertion of dominance; and response to pain, either acute or chronic.
Defense of pups by a female dog was identified in early Dog Bite Prevention Week literature (1955-1961) as the most single common cause of bites, very distantly followed by rabid behavior. Studies published from the mid-1930s into the 1960s consistently identified female dogs as most likely to bite.
Fatal and disfiguring attacks were then so rare, occurring at the rate of less than one non-rabid fatality per year 1851-1971, that no one even tried to study them before the late 1960s. Yet during most of that time the national dog sterilization rate was zero, rising from about 1% to about 10% after 1960.
Neither defense or pups nor rabies is commonly seen now in either the U.S. or Canada, where the rate of sterilization of female dogs reached circa 70% in the early 1990s, while canine rabies was eradicated from the U.S. by the early 21st century.
Predatory behavior, more than classically aggressive behavior, appears to be commonly involved in fatal and disfiguring attacks by wolf-like dogs, such as wolf hybrids, huskies, Akitas, Malamutes, German shepherds, and their mixes.
But by far and away the aggressive behavior most often involved in fatal and disfiguring dog attacks in the U.S. and Canada today is the characteristic behavior of molosser breeds, associated with hair-trigger reactivity to stimulus and the capability of doing catastrophic harm in a first-ever biting incident.
Indeed, the rate of sterilization among pit bulls in particular is very low -- probably less than 25% for females, less than 20% for males.
But the rate of sterilization for all dogs in the U.S. was effectively zero between 50 & 60 years ago, when just two fatal attacks by Dobermans -- in 1955 and 1960 -- were sufficient to make national headlines and get them a lasting reputation as dangerous.
Ironically, pit bulls also killed at least two people within that time frame. A couple of other breeds killed people too. But any dog attack fatality was still an extraordinarily rare event.Mark:
Fatty Arbuckle, Helen Keller and President Roosevelt had pit bulls, not to mention celebrities like Jon Stewart, Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Kaley Cuoco, Linda Blair, Alicia Silverstone, Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray, and Jamie Foxx have all owned pit bulls, yet have never been mauled, maimed, or killed. With so many high-profile and famous owners, why hasn’t there been a case of one of these celebrities being attacked or killed?MC:
Miss Universe Canada joins call to restrict pit bulls in B.C.
Attacked at age 14 by her family's puppy, she still has scars
By Kim Nursall, Vancouver Sun, August 31, 2012
Miss Universe Canada has joined the fight for a pit bull ban in B.C., and plans to make the effort a major part of her reign.
Sahar Biniaz, 26, was crowned Miss Universe Canada on May 19, and thinks the provincial government should adopt either a pit bull ban or at least require that pit bulls be leashed and muzzled at all times.
The Richmond resident was a victim of a pit bull attack herself at the age of 14, a year after her family adopted a five-month-old pit bull from a breeder.
* * *
Police say noted artist likely killed by pit bulls
Watercolorist Elsie Grace, of Desert Hot Springs, is found dead in the room with two family pit bulls
By Craig Shultz; Press Enterprise, February 11, 2013
A 91-year-old woman died Friday, Feb. 8, after being mauled by two family pit bulls in a Hemet motel room, police said.
Elsie Grace, of Desert Hot Springs, was pronounced dead by paramedics who were sent to the Motel 6 in the 3900 block of West Florida Avenue about noon Friday, Hemet police Lt. Duane Wisehart said in a news release.
Grace was a nationally known water colorist who taught for many years at Copper Canyon College in Joshua Tree, said Karen Ellis, a Palm Springs consultant who said she knew Grace.
* * *
Mariel Hemingway Targeted in Pit Bull Probe
12/26/2010 12:10 AM PST by TMZ Staff
Actress Mariel Hemingway -- Ernest's granddaughter -- could lose her dog ... because according to Animal Control officials, her pooch went on the attack recently ... and sent two people to the hospital.
A rep for Animal Control tells TMZ, the attack went down last week near Mariel's L.A. home -- her pit bull went after another dog and two humans, who were immediately sent to the hospital with serious puncture wounds.
* * *
First On 4: Steelers Star James Harrison's Dog Attacks Son, Will Be Put Down
Woman Says Pit Bull Bit Crying Toddler In Back Yard
POSTED: 11:43 am EDT May 22, 2009
UPDATED: 5:25 pm EDT May 22, 2009
FRANKLIN PARK, Pa. -- Steelers linebacker James Harrison's toddler son remained at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh with a severe leg wound Friday after being badly bitten by a family dog one day earlier.
WTAE Channel 4 Action News broke the story that Patron, a 4-year-old pit bull, went after 1-year-old James Harrison III in the back yard of his father's Franklin Park home.
* * *
Houston Chronicle; June 4, 2008, 4:36PM
Ex-Texan Foley turns self in after dogs injure woman
He's accused of failing to secure pit bulls that attacked a neighbor
and her puppy
By ERIC HANSON <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Houston Chronicle
RICHMOND - Former Houston Texans linebacker Steve Foley, the owner of
two pit bulls involved in the attack on a woman and her puppy, has been indicted on a charge of attack by a dog by a Fort Bend County grand jury.
* * *
Steelers' Porter cited because dogs killed neighbor's horse
The Associated Press 9/21/2006, 6:25 p.m. ET
WEXFORD, Pa. (AP) - Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Joey Porter was cited by police after two dogs he owns got off his property and killed a
miniature horse on a nearby farm.
Porter's dogs, a pit bull and a mastiff, got loose on Tuesday and killed the horse that was about 30 inches tall.
* * *
Garritson Brothers Mauled by Dogs During Run in Valley Center
Despite being injured himself, John Garritson carried Richard Garritson to a safer area after the attack
By R. Stickney and Artie Ojeda
Monday, Nov 28, 2011 | Updated 9:24 PM PST
Several national publications have featured the Garritson family including Runner's World Magazine.
Two members of an elite running family from the North County were seriously injured in an attack by a pack of pit bulls Sunday. The two brothers were out for a run just after 5 p.m. on Cobb Lane near Valley Center Middle School in Valley Center. Richard Garritson, 21, and his 20-year-old brother John Garritson were running with other family members when as many as six pitbulls attacked them.
[Editor's Note: Since this interview was conducted there have been other noteworthy attacks by celebrity pit bulls. Chief among these are the suits pending against Cesar Millan, the "dog whisperer," as well as those brought against Kim Richards, whose notoriety now stems more from the suits brought against her than for her role in the TV reality show "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills." In May of 2012 a judge ruled that former NASCAR star Jeremy Mayfield pay a postal service employee a $1 million judgment after she was attacked by Mayfield's pit bulls.]Mark:
Pit bulls are seen throughout history as something to be respected; a sign of strength and goodwill. What happened to the “hero” status that this type of dog once had?MC:
There has been a great effort made in recent years to invent & propagate this fiction. The actual historical record is considerably different.Mark:
It is commonly mentioned by pit bull enthusiasts that pit bulls were featured in the "Buster Brown" and "Our Gang" film shorts without mentioning that the dogs' roles included chasing and attacking people, and that some of the dogs who played those roles were biters in real life, too.
It is sometimes mentioned that some pit bulls were mascots of troops during the U.S. Civil War, but not that pit bulls and pit bull derivatives, such as "Cuban bloodhounds", not at all related to English bloodhounds, were extensively used to track and dismember fugitive slaves, as a warning to other slaves who might think of escaping. Neither do pit bull advocates like to acknowledge the well-documented use of pit bulls by the Ku Klux Klan in connection with lynchings, as described--for example--by Cayton's Weekly for August 2, 1919, easily accessible online.
Indeed some dogfighters did photograph their pit bulls with their children, to help advertise the sale of their cull dogs as pets, but that hardly means pit bulls were safe pets.
One of the most notorious of these gents, professional dogfighter John P. Colby, of Newburyport, produced his first pit bull litter in 1889. The Boston Globe on December 29, 1906 reported that police shot one of his dogs who mauled a boy while a girl escaped.
On February 2, 1909 the Globe described how one of Colby's dogs killed Colby's two-year-old nephew, Bert Colby Leadbetter.
The sole known published reference to the now popular "nanny dog" notion, before the rise of opposition to breed-specific laws in recent decades, came in a 1922 work of fiction, Pep: The Story of A Brave Dog, by Clarence Hawkes, a blind man who wrote by dictating his stories and, though able to spin a gripping yarn, routinely muddled his facts.
The entire history of the "nanny dog" myth, also by Dawn James, is outlined here:
What are some other criticisms you’ve had made against your report, and what were your responses to them?MC:
A couple of weeks ago someone did some web searching which discovered that 1,470 pro-pit bull web sites & Facebook pages have identified me as an idiot, 60 as a moron, 33 as an asshole, & seven as a motherfucker. I am assured by longtime friends that only the latter assertion is correct.Mark:
Something I’m asking all interviewees, on either side of the debate, is: have you yourself ever been attacked by a pit bull type dog, or a dog that would be included in one of these legal bans?MC:
Anyone who has dogs, works often in proximity to unfamiliar dogs, as I do in visiting shelters, rabies control projects, and censusing street dogs in developing world back alleys, or does a great deal of running, as I have for most of my life, will be bitten.
Altogether, I have been bitten many dozens of times, by many different types of dog – some trying to play, some injured and frightened.
The first dog who seriously injured and tried to kill me, in 1982, was an attack-trained German shepherd, whom I had rescued from the road after he was hit by a car. He gave every warning sign possible, but it was open countryside and there was nowhere I could go to be safe.
The second dog who seriously injured and tried to kill me, only two months later, was a pit bull who rushed out into a busy street full of joggers in downtown Amsterdam and was already flying through the air toward me, silently, from behind, before I was ever aware of his existence.
I had already been logging dog attacks for four years, as a control sample parallel to a log of attacks by exotic pets, but until that moment I had never realized that different types of dogs might attack in such different ways that the differences could be significant.
So I began logging fatal and disfiguring attacks by breed, not just as “dog,” upon my return home to Quebec. Pit bulls were then a very rare breed type compared to German shepherds, Dobermans, huskies, chows, et al, so I did not really expect to see very many of them in the data.
After eight years, though, during which pit bulls topped the list and accounted for half the total deaths and disfigurements in every year, it was clear that this was a recurring pattern (as also was that Doberman attacks proved to be unexpectedly rare.)Mark:
Where else have your reported statistics been published, or cited, besides ANIMALS 24-7?MC:
I haven’t kept any sort of personal bibliography or resume since my student years. I am called & e-mailed constantly, though, by people who have seen the data in a variety of places, including the footnotes of peer-reviewed professional journals, & spend a great deal of time, including now, answering questions which would have been answered already if the askers had read the relevant reportage in ANIMAL PEOPLE.Mark:
What would you say to people that are against the idea of banning specific breeds?MC:
See any of my many editorials on the subject.Mark:
Would you say that proper education and harsher punishments for owners of dogs that actually display real aggression or attacks could be a more viable, more humane alternative to destroying an entire breed?MC:
Punishment is no substitute for prevention. Civilization pretended to have learned that lesson when we abandoned public torture, hangings, & witch-burning.Mark:
It is not necessary to “destroy” an entire breed; only to stop producing it. Pit bulls are a wholly artificial creation in the first place, with no analog in nature, and although dogfighters have tried for centuries to find other breeds as willing to fight to the death, they have failed, so if pit bulls are no longer bred, that’s the end of the problem.
What statement would you, yourself, give to summarize or characterize this entire debate?MC:
The humane community long since accepted & advanced the recognition that regulatory distinctions among dog breeds must be made to provide both long-haired and short-haired dogs with appropriate protection from the elements, and to accommodate the differences in working abilities between racing dogs, cart-pulling dogs, retrievers, etc.
Breed-specific recognitions, in short, are fundamental to practically all humane legislation governing dogs – except when it comes to prohibiting the propagation of pit bulls.
This is a blind spot which serves pit bulls themselves the worst of all, since it is the people who purport to love pit bulls who keep breeding & then dumping in shelters most of the 900,000 or thereabouts per year who are killed in shelters at the average age of 18 months, mostly after flunking basic behavioural screening.
End of interview
* * * * *
For events leading to the publication to this interview read Barbara Kay's prefatory comments, Sweet Revenge.