Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Hitting a wall with stereotypes

It's a bad joke in BR circles, but on more than one occasion, different members of a local SPCA cornered BR diehard and foster dad Jesse Hernandez at our Shots Fairs and, in a well intentioned but super-DUMB maneuver to do good, asked him how much money it would take for him to speuter his (already altered) dogs.

Oh. Good. God. Somebody's stereotypes were clearly showing that day. (Bribing dog owners is not a tactic BR uses when promoting responsible ownership by the way). Nevermind that Jesse - a family man and accomplished artist whose art pieces are selling faster than hotcakes - was taking time out of his insanely busy schedule to help low income pit bull owners at the fair - Someone figured he looked the part and needed a talkin' to. You know, the backwards hat, baggy pants dude who probably has a litter of blue puppies for sale at home, right? NOT.

We laugh about it, but not in a happy ha-ha way. More like one of those Oh-my-god, can it get much worse than THAT? laughs.

And so we're faced - in our own community and even with so-called progressive animal welfare partners - the unmistakably annoying head bang of stereotypes. They're the same biases that lead so many to believe that "urban youth" is a code word for street fighting gangsters. That anyone who wears a black hoodie or lives the hip hop culture and is attracted to pit bulls MUST be overbreeding or - very likely - fighting them.

Those biases will continue to damage the dogs by making it so much harder to build bridges to under-resourced pit bull owners. I'll go one step further and call these the same biases that have lead some to believe that "urban youth" is SO very lost and unreachable that only a convicted torturer can reach through to inspire - ahem - empathy for their animals.

Shelters that deal with pit bulls on a daily basis are not so convinced that street fighting is bigger than other issues that affect the breed. In fact, when the HSUS surveyed animal shelters at their expo in 2006, only 18% saw dog fighting as a key problem. Survey Link (Page 12)

One open-ended question asked, “What do you think is the single biggest problem facing pit bulls today?” Forty-seven percent pointed to abusive or otherwise bad owners, while 43 percent said the pit bull’s image and reputation is his main obstacle. Thirty-three percent blamed overpopulation, backyard breeders, and indiscriminate breeding, while 18 percent considered dogfighting to be the culprit. - HSUS Animal Sheltering Mag Oct 06

So why the hype about urban youth and street fighting? Without hardcore data, we have no idea if labels like "epidemic" accurately describe the trend, and we certainly don't know that it's so widespread that desperate measures - ie employing highly controversial role models like Vick - are warranted. The consequence of unbalanced red flagging of any crime is that it can feed the fascination, resulting in copycat crimes, while creating an atmosphere where stereotypes flourish. There's no doubt that street fighting is a common form of animal abuse in our cities, but our experience as well as in our ongoing communications with shelters around the country shows us a very different perspective that matches the results of the 2006 HSUS survey. Most report these key causes for the breed's suffering: POVERTY. Lack of accessible resources - vet care, housing, training. And the heart wrenching consequences of breed bias and discrimination.
"The real truth is, problems in life are never as simple as we want them to be. But the answer is not to stereotype. Don't avoid the issue, but find the real problem and speak to people before believing what you read." - Fairbridge Narrator

I can't speak to how it feels to be under the microscope of owner bias that "urban youth" are under because I'm - you know - a middle aged gringa. But these young people in the UK do and I want to kiss every one of them for telling us what it's like to be stared at and pre-judged as dog fighters and thugs - just for owning a pit bull. Rock on Fairbridge filmmakers - you done good.


Anonymous said...

This is a brilliant piece of film making. Blunt to the point and fair. As always, it is NOT the dog but the owner.

"Prevent people who shouldn't have dogs in the first place from having them--" What a perfect quote that summarizes the problem.

Perceptions can be changed, it takes hard work and perseverance. Combine that with good organizations and the world can and will change.

Thank you Donna & Tim for all the hard work that you do.

Richmond, VA

One voice counts said...

I'm not a Brit but my bestest friend in LA Rita Bonita who is from South Africa is married to one. Jeremy is the one who introduced me to the fabulousness of just one word when something is simpoy too damn grand to wax anything about it. Brilliant. Followed by a period. And a head tilt - very slight- and a sparkling eye. No exclamation point. Not needed. That 'brilliant' is not easily given. Only for the bestest of the best. This post is friggin brilliant. I go Twittering.

inga said...

thanks for posting this. I was reading the HSUS website a couple of days ago and was offended by the implication of just this sort of stereotyping in their anti dog fighting campaign language.

Unknown said...

What a treat to view. Thanks BR for having such a sane perspective on a complex issue.

veganpitbull said...

Thank you so much for addressing this issue. I have seen that stereotyping you describe in full effect from well-meaning but often clueless animal protection folks.

I live in a lower income urban neighborhood and most of the young guys in hoodies that I see out with their pits or when I'm out with mine always want to stop and compare notes about how silly, smart, and incredibly strong these dogs are. Often there is bashing of irresponsible owners and dogfighters and Vick and ear clipping too. It's the same sentiment and ranting I hear from my friends in the humane community, just a little different flavor.

Instead of looking at every urban youth with a pit bull as a potential dogfighter, what about looking at them as potential humane advocates? Even if the outreach/intervention program activities are the same either way, I think that shift in perception is more empowering and fair to kids who are already often stereotyped as criminals because of their race or where they live or how they dress.

MichelleD said...

WOW, just had this conversation last night. The former AC that pushed BSL MSN in KC INSISTS that the urban folks WILL NOT do what's right unless we pass laws to make them do so. And MSN is the only way they can get at dog fighters - which is rampent ya know!? So rampent we haven't had a single dog fighting bust ever.

I also live in the urban core and have had the same experience as veganpitbull - ditto on everything said.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post - and it definitely makes sense. Thanks for posting!

One question about the percentages though - if the HSUS asked for the single biggest problem, were people answering with more than one answer, anyway? Otherwise, the numbers don't quite add up...

The Foster Lady said...

Good video, and I have to say, I have made lots of tattooed friends through owning pitbulsl!

But I am still concerned when I hear remarks about 'it's all how you raise them'. No it's not. It's in their genes whether they are going to be aggressive or not and the only thing is: can you, as a responsible owner, control your dog?????

Also the remark about the dog park, of course, drove me crazy. Pitbulls do NOT belong in dogparks.

Ken Foster said...

I recently did an interview with someone and tried to gently correct the point of view they were expressing. I might have been offended by some of what they said, if not for the fact that it was clear the reporter just didn't have the experience or knowledge to think differently. Yet, after trying to guide them through the large gray area that we all live in with our pit bulls, the piece went to press with everything back in black and white terms--including some of my quotations. UGH. So then I had to consider whether to make a stink about it--or might that just muck things up even more? I decided to just move forward, since I could spend all my days trying to correct these things and never get anywhere.

Pam said...

I just learned something very ugly about myself (that I want to change) by reading this. Just yesterday, I was walking down the street and saw a guy dressed in full gangsta-wear walking a pittie wearing a spiked collar, and made the same assumption you reference. I said "beautiful dog," as I often do to just start a conversation with people so I can find out more (and maybe have an opportunity to "educate"-- such a white elitist attitude!). He said, "thanks, they have such a bad reputation, you know, but they're great dogs." I said, "I know." We had a lot more in common than I ever would have thought. Thank you so much for this posting.

Baba Nann said...

Great post and clip!!!
It is good for all of us to expose the subtle racism, stereotyping, & privelege that exists in our daily lives, especially those areas of our life where we believe we are doing "good".
As a bully dog owning & transracial family in East is part of daily fare for us!! Fortunately for us the dog doesn't really have to deal with the opinions or rolled eyes, and for sons are a young enough to keep the crap at a dull roar and deflect some of it with powerful mama bear mojo!

Always loving you guys!!!

Donna said...

> But I am still concerned when I hear remarks about 'it's all how you raise them'. No it's not.

FL: I wonder how often people say that because it's on the tip of their tongue from hearing it so often in other places.

I'd love to replace that all-too-common line with ... "It's all in how you own them." or "It's all in what you expect of them." Much closer to the truth.

Donna said...

> the numbers don't quite add up...

Anon - If I remember correctly, the survey allowed people to check off more than one answer to the Q's.

We need a newer survey though to capture cleaner numbers from shelter workers on this same topic. Hmm.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to point out that my boy often is in a public off-leash environment (doggie daycare or a dog park) and has absolutely no problem with other dogs or the freedom. There is the occasional 'I'm a boy' issues, but that is quickly sorted out. I've worked hard at his socialization skills.

That being said, I am a responsible owner and I watch the situation carefully for any problems that might arise. The problems I refer to are absent owners or non-aware owners, other over-excited dogs, or even my dog getting tired or excited.

Pit Bulls do not 'not belong' in a dog park. Like any dog you have to teach them the rules and boundaries. Some dogs of ANY breed will never be able to go to a dog park because they can't handle the freedom. That is an individual dog issue. Not a breed issue.

Richmond, VA

Dianne in DC said...

Thank you for Dangerous Dogs. This was my weekend, too. We are doing an Adoption Event at Whole Foods in the heart of latte-sipping dogpark-lovin Tenleytown. It’s my first time as an event coordinator, and Allison has given us a “Y” puppy (all littermates get names starting with the same letter), a Jack Russell mix, a beagle mix, and a Dangerous Dog. Takoma came to us from the Prince George’s County shelter. PG Co. has a breed ban, and she is pretty clearly a pitbull terrier mix. We often take nice pitbulls and pb puppies from them, instead of having them be Put To Sleep. Dale and I are both comfortable handling them.

Comments I get from the latte sippers range from Nice Dog to How dare you try to pass that dog off as adoptable? Several young men stop by to see her and admire her. One burly Latino guy whips out his iphone to show me pictures of his burly bully dog. A young African-American man asks me cautiously how much are you selling your dog for? I engage him in a conversation in which he is visibly shy and reserved. See Donna, we may be middle-aged gringas but we get respect for handling Dangerous Dogs safely. And I wonder if the adoption staff would ever approve any of these young men to adopt our pit bulls. That stereotype thing.

On Monday, I’m walking in Takoma Park and I see a young African-American couple with a young child, and they are walking what looks to me like one of the “Q” pitbull puppies. I ask if they got their dog from the Rescue League and they say Yes she’s one of the “Q” puppies. We talk, I tell them there is still one “Q” puppy left, if they have friends looking for a dog like theirs. As we end up, the wife grasps my hand firmly with both her hands and thanks me for my work.

And just now I remember that two of the adoption staff have visible tattoos. And one is Latina. So maybe there’s hope.

We were scheduled to go back to Whole Foods in June, but they have asked us to come back tomorrow. And we may take another Dangerous Dog.

Chelsea said...

When people say, "It's all about how you raise them," they mean well. I always gently correct them by pointing out that my dog was horribly abused before she came to me as a one-year-old. She ain't perfect (as my sadly diminshed shoe collection can attest to), but, to borrow Donna's language, I expect her to be stable and well-mannered, so she is. Expectations! Such a perfect word for this breed.

Anonymous said...

While I agree with your Blog post, you have only to look at Bad Rap's Happy Endings section on your website to question the sincerity of this Blog. The SF Bay area is far more diverse than your adopter pool shows, or is that just an issue of 'perception'?

Donna said...

anon 10:58, do you care to elaborate on that?

(and, are you willing to not be anonymous when you answer?)

jenny said...

I live in a wonderful diverse working-class neighborhood, and my pit bull and I make new friends every day. Almost everybody wants to talk with me about my dog, in multiple languages. For every person who crosses the street, there are fifteen people--little kids, teenagers, older guys from the South, middle-aged women with kids in tow, from every cultural background, you name it--who want to tell me about a wonderful pit bull in their present and/or past as they scratch my guy on his head. The second time we meet, they always seem to remember his name.
Generally the people I feel like I'm educating about pit bulls come from wealthy white suburbs, not neighborhoods like mine.

The Foster Lady said...

Sorry Leila...cannot agree with you. What if that Lab bounding towards your friendly bully boy, starts a fight with your dog? I would say that your dog would of course, defend himself...and if he did, all would be blamed on him....and there goes the rep of our breed. I will never ever accede to the idea of pitbulls in dogparks. Their continued existence on this planet depends on us making responsible decisions...and thinking of how those decisions affect ALL pitbull owners, not just one dog.

Donna said...

Leila and Foster Mom. IMO you're both* on point with your views. This one needs more exchange but probably not in this thread (or at this time -- I'm swamped right now). We live in a time when what is said about the dogs can and will be used to kill them, so let's try to hold off on this one for right now and I promise to re-introduce it at a later date when we have some time to pick it apart fair and square. I will say that our pit bull Honky Tonk is the perfect dog park play pal, but he doesn't go for all the reasons you know too well.

Anon 10:58 - I rejected your recent comment because, taken out of context, it has the potential to be highly inflammatory not to mention that it's waaay off base from this blog post's core message. I'd be happy to take this up with you one one one if you have doubts/concerns. You'll need to know that we refuse to make this topic about race. Leave that to some of the other orgs. Being a responsible (or irresponsible!) pit bull owner is not about race, and we'll all be better off when we finally recognize that as truth.

bittermelon said...

Fascinating and enlightening. Keep up the good work, BADRAP. You guys rock.