Friday, September 13, 2013

I used to think that way

Spelling corrections: 20:29 GMT; September 27, 2013

California has the rare distinction of simultaneously prosecuting two cases involving fatal pit bull attacks.

Prosecutors charged Alex Donald Jackson, the owner of the pit bulls that killed Pamela Marie Devitt on May 9, 2013, with second-degree murder, negligent ownership of a mischievous animal causing death or serious bodily injury, and other charges. Jackson entered a plea of “not guilty” on Wednesday, August 8, in a Los Angeles County Court.

In the second case 55-year-old Steven Hayashi faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. Hayashi's pit bulls killed two-year old Jacob Bisbee, his step-grandson, on July 22, 2010. Three of Hayashi's five pit bulls were in the garage when his son's step-children wandered in.

The dogs had previously killed two family pets and had shown aggression toward Jacob. Family members had asked Hayashi to get rid of the dogs, but as he told his wife, the dogs were his, and the children were his step-grandchildren, and they [the step-grandchildren] should leave before the dogs.

In the three years since Jacob's death Mr Hayashi has apparently experienced a change of heart about pit bulls.
Before the tragedy, Hayashi said he had always believed that pit bull owners - and not the dogs themselves - were the problem. "Well, I used to think that way. That's what got me into this mess, just thinking that they're regular dogs."
Mr Hayashi's new understanding came at a high cost. A peculiarity of pit bull advocacy is that many advocates are not wrenched away from their advocacy until they personally witness or experience an attack. And not a few pit bull advocates continue their advocacy even after they themselves have become victims of their own dogs.

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A look at how several California papers have responded to these trials is informative. The trial of Alex Johnson has been nearly ignored by the LA Times. The attack and its aftermath received exemplary coverage by the news team, after which the Times over-compensated with numerous pit bull advocacy articles on their editorial pages (see here). The Times has now retreated into sullen silence on the trial.

The LA Weekly ran a brief piece when the charges against Johnson were announced in May. The emphasis of the article was the billboard-sized glamour shot of a pit bull:

Accessorizing a news account of a murder charge with such a beguiling image is weirdly discordant; unfortunately these glamorous studio images of pit bulls have become de rigueur in some quarters.1 Sherry Davis of the Bakersfield Californian ran a disgraceful column sympathetic to pit bulls in the wake of Ms Devitt's death.

The Contra Costa Times has had ample opportunity to cover pit bull attacks. The attack on Mr Hayashi's grandchild occurred in Concord, Contra Costa County, and on August 11 of this year 10-year-old Hunter Kilbourn was attacked by a neighbor's pit bull in Antioch, Contra Costa County. Hunter suffered massive head and facial injuries and faces years of reconstructive surgery. The June 17th mauling death of 6-year old Nephi Selu occurred a 45-minute drive away, in neighboring Alameda County.2

The CC Times has covered the mauling of Hunter and the trial of Mr Hayashi with the delicacy and finesse of a figure skater executing a candlestick spiral. In the immediate aftermath of the attack on Hunter columnist Joan Morris offered a list of safety tips in the event of a pit bull attack, apparently without recognizing the irony at the heart of the article. Among the many misrepresentations is the conventional advocacy conceit that the
breed has existed for centuries and once was considered the darling of the dog world, good with children, loyal pets and stalwart defenders of the family home. It has only been in the past 30 years that pits have replaced Doberman pinschers as the most feared dog in the country.
Ms Morris seems blissfully unaware that she has repeated, practically verbatim, pit bull advocacy themes that are ubiquitous on the web. Or perhaps she is aware. In an article presumably about the disfiguring attack on a 10-year old child her comments demonstrate a callous disregard.

Two weeks later CC Times columnist Tom Barnidge also weighed in with an equivocal column. Mr Barnidge demonstrates his own susceptibility to pit bull web advocacy when he repeats the notorious ATTS deception, which Mr Barnidge hadn't heard of until two days ago.3

Both of these Contra Costa Times columnists, who live and work at the nexus of an important story, have produced timid columns, as if they were afraid of blowback from pit bull advocates. Perhaps it was not in their portfolios to produce incisive journalism but what they did produce is a disservice to their readers. Ms Morris and Mr Barnidge both may have been gulled into promulgating pit bull advocacy but the newspaper redeemed itself somewhat with exemplary coverage of the Hayashi trial by Malaika Fraley.4

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The coverage of Steven Hayashi's trial and the death of Nephi Selu by Henry K Lee in the SF Chronicle is what journalism aspires to. Lee scooped the hometown journalists on their own turf by conducting a jailhouse interview with Hayashi the day after Jacob's death. During the interview Lee elicited the quotation above as well as Hayashi's admission that he ignored signs of aggression in his pit bulls. The interview was a once-in-a-lifetime career-making achievement for a journalist. But Lee's journalism is consistently excellent; he covered the breaking news of the Nephi Selu attack with the same professionalism.

In his coverage Mr Lee explores precedents for the Hayashi trial, interviews former prosecutors and legal analysts, analyzes the current prosecutor's choices and discusses the judicial philosophy involved, all without injecting either sentimentality or sensationalism into an elegantly written, concise account. The articles that resulted are a rare journalistic achievement.

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1/ The Softer Side of Pit Bulls, Time Magazine, July 11, 2013. The timing of this article, by Los Angeles based author Paul Tullis, is not accidental.  Pit bull advocates often follow the news of a death or mauling with strategically placed advocacy articles. The print edition of the Time magazine article is graced by six glossy billboard-sized studio portraits of pit bulls, all of them shot against a soft yellow background. So many articles about the softer side of pit bulls have been published in recent years, all of them so similar in their advocacy, that all of the authors could be jointly accused of plagiarizing from one another and creating numerous drafts of the same article.

2/ All of these attacks occurred within shouting distance of the epicenter of the California pit bull advocacy and the anti-BSL movement. See Preemption.

3/ With a little more research Mr Barnidge might have discovered that the ATTS was originally designed to test Schutzhund dogs and is not an accurate indicator of the explosive aggression of pit bulls. The ATTS study he refers to is the result of thousands of field tests which were compiled into a "study" by Scot Dowd, who, as it happens, is a breeder of pit bulls. Dr Dowd also offers online courses for pit bull advocates (example: Hugs O' Steel) through his own APBT Network University.

4/ Fraley's article appeared in the San Jose Mercury-News, which is also owned by the Bay Area News Group.

Stories by Henry K Lee:
Is pit bulls' owner guilty in tot's fatal mauling?
   San Francisco Chronicle (Henry K Lee), August 24, 2013
Boy, 6, fatally bitten by relative's dog
   San Francisco Chronicle (Henry K Lee), June 19, 2013
Often no warning signs in pit bull attacks
   San Francisco Chronicle (Henry K Lee), June 19, 2013
   . . . . additional stories by Henry K Lee

Other Sources:
Opposing views of the pit bull debate
   Contra Costa Times (Tom Barnidge), August 28, 2013
Man could get 10 years if convicted in pit bull mauling
   ABA Journal, August 26, 2013
Trial begins for step-grandfather of child killed by pit bulls
   San Jose Mercury News (Malaika Fraley), August 22, 2013
Pit bull attacks and safety tips
   Contra Costa Times (Joan Morris), August 14, 2013
Pit bulls will take a hit from this
   Bakersfield California (Sherry Davis), June 7, 2013
Savage mauling leads to murder charge
   LA Weekly, May 30, 2013

Related Posts:
Into the Wormhole (May 20, 2013)
Hotel California (Index of SRUV posts on California)
California Timeline (Recent pit bull attacks in California)

Related Material:
Overview of "breed specific" laws, Kenneth Phillips, Dog Bite Law

Statistics quoted on SRUV are from the 30+ year, continuously updated Dog attack deaths and maimings, U.S. & Canada, published by Animal People. To view or download the current PDF click here. This page may also include information from Dogsbite and Fatal Pit Bull Attacks.

Information on euthanasia rates is from Pit bulls and Political Recklessness, by Merritt Clifton. Shelter intake and euthanasia rates are published annually in the July/August edition of Animal People.

Google News: Today's pit bull attacks