The D.C. Council has declared war on pit bulls. Dog lovers say we should hit an even more menacing target: humans.
Of the many stray dogs that roamed my old Baltimore neighborhood, none were as legendary as Butch. A warlord among a mismatched band of terriers, shepherds, and Dobermans, Butch scared the hell out of every kid on my block. Tales abounded of his leaping fences, fighting two dogs at once, or chasing some unsuspecting kid for blocks. On days when we felt bold, we’d assemble a pint-size lynch mob and hunt for Butch with sticks, socks full of stones, and the steel tops of garbage cans. Butch was our own urban legend, and to talk to any fifth-grader on my block, you’d think he was Cerberus guarding the alleys of West Baltimore like the gates of Hades.
The reality was much more humbling. Butch was not the baddest of a band of killer strays, and his minions weren’t angry castoffs determined to avenge themselves on humanity’s children. Butch was, in fact, a chump—and his followers gave alley-mutts a bad name. The ancient and ragged German shepherd was a king only among cowards. I never heard Butch bark, and no reports of bites were ever substantiated. But the mythology mattered most. So we scared our little brothers, just as our older brothers had scared us, with tales of Butch’s blood lust. We threw rocks and ran and ignored the fact that he never gave chase.
A couple of years before I moved away, Butch disappeared. Again, the neighborhood lore machine flew into action: Butch, we were told, had died in a fight with a pack of strays—but not before taking five other canines with him into doggie heaven. Once again, the reality was not so glamorous. More likely, Butch was stoned to death by kids who needed something to fear or picked up by
the pound and sent off to doggie heaven that way.
Whenever I think of Butch, I get an ugly feeling in my stomach, produced by years of guilt and anger. I get that same feeling whenever I see a pack of kids picking on a helpless dog. So you can imagine how pit bull owner Victor Chudowsky feels when he sees a pack of grown-up D.C. councilmembers doing the very same thing.
The way Chudowsky sees it, One
Judiciary Square’s fun bunch has its own Butch. In fact, they’ve got a whole breed of them. The pit bull—that stereotypical marker of the inner-city low life—is the new Cerberus. Ask Councilmembers Jim Graham and Carol Schwartz, and they’ll tell you that the
pit bull is a threat to humanity. They’ll talk about the neighborhood thugs who breed pit bulls for the exclusive purpose of attacking other pit bulls or other people. They’ll astound you with tales of pit bull attacks on children and old men. But what these guardians against the canine legions won’t talk about, claim pit bull fans, is the owners who make them that way.
Somewhere in Cleveland Park, in the maze of houses just west of Connecticut Avenue, I’m being rushed by a pit bull. A volt of electric fear turns my body into a cathode tube as I stare at the dog running toward me. I resist the urge to turn tail and head back to my side of town. Instead, I stand firm, resolved to endure whatever suffering the canine brings.
But when the pit bull is in striking range, she simply stares at my knees, sniffs me for a few seconds, and silently retreats back into her owner’s home. That owner would be Victor Chudowsky, and in all of the District of Columbia, you
will find no heartier defender of the pit bull than he.
Chudowsky is the founder and coordinator of the recently formed District of Columbia Dog Coalition (DCDC), an organization of dog owners who’ve come together to battle those who seek to banish pit bulls to the hinterlands. DCDC has no board or budget, just a good 40 or so pit bull owners who are tired of being lumped in with dog-fighting hoodlums.
Last spring, Schwartz introduced legislation that would make it significantly harder to own a pit bull in the District. Horrified at the prospect of giving up his pit bull, Cleo, Chudowsky decided to turn himself into the Dian Fossey of pit bull protection. He scoured the nation to see how other pit bull bans had worked and assembled a battery of facts to support his assertion that pit bulls are the ideal family dog. In the course of his research, Chudowsky came across a critical mass of local pit bull supporters, most of whom became charter members of DCDC.
Chudowsky’s crib isn’t quite a temple to dogkind, but you can tell he’s a bit of an enthusiast. There’s a framed picture of Cleo displayed on his mantel; several photos of her are strewn across a table in his dining room. Cleo isn’t exactly the picture of evil incarnate, he asserts. “My dog has never growled at anyone or threatened anyone….[Cleo]’s a big sissy,” says
Not according to Schwartz and company. The at-large Republican’s legislation would classify the pit bull as a “dangerous dog.” The bill would mandate that all pit bulls be muzzled in public and that no new pit bulls could be brought into the city. Furthermore, people who currently own pit bulls would have to purchase some $50,000 worth of insurance for their dog. Chudowsky says that the insurance portion of the legislation would, in effect, ban pit bulls. “No self-respecting insurance person will insure your dog if it’s already been declared dangerous,” says Chudowsky.
Schwartz staffer Mark Sobo says he sympathizes with the plight of law-abiding pit bull owners, but he adds that insurance is essential. “This is not a ban,” says Sobo. “But it’s like if you buy a Ferrari. A Ferrari is very fast car, and it costs a lot of money to insure.”
Anti-pit-bull hysteria reached a fever pitch this summer when the District’s oldest firefighter, 64-year-old Costello N. Robinson, died after a pit bull leaped out at him while he was searching an alley where smoke had been reported. The animal itself didn’t injure Robinson; Robinson tore knee ligaments trying to avoid the dog. Three days later, he died of a heart attack.
Never mind that Robinson was never bitten. The assembly of pit bull haters mobilized immediately. Speaking at Robinson’s funeral, Graham positioned himself as a canine’s worst nightmare. “It’s time to end this breed in this city,” he told the assembled mourners. Even the Washington Post chimed in by running a somewhat disingenuous headline: “Veteran Firefighter Dies After Fending Off Pit Bull.” The logic held that pit bulls are a threat to small children, old women and basically anything warm-blooded that happens to cross their path.
But whereas ornery pit bulls usually just bite people, mankind is much more creative in its cruelty. Consider the list of heinous acts against dogkind compiled from the Washington Post’s “Animal Watch”:
* In April 1999, a man was charged with beating his pet pit bull to death.
* In November 1998, an animal control officer found a female pit bull confined in a home in Mount Vernon, Va., with no access to water.
* In June 1998, someone set a pit bull puppy on fire and left it for dead in a District elementary school.
* In June 1996, the bodies of 14 pit bulls were found with bullet wounds to the head in Stafford County. The carcasses had been doused with gasoline and set afire.
* In July 1995, a man in Baltimore County was charged with cruelty to animals for failing to feed and care for 11 of his 44 pit bulls. The county Bureau of Animal Control said the dogs had been raised in an “atmosphere of violence, torment
In a pit-bull-vs.-man battle, it doesn’t take a veterinarian to know who comes out on the losing end. Add in the fact that most pit bulls that attack people have been abused, neglected, or trained to be malicious, and you begin to understand the anatomy of a scapedog.
Chudowsky and his pit-bull-friendly cohorts have a better idea for how Schwartz, Graham, and Co. could throw their political muscle around: Exterminate the District’s laughable animal-cruelty laws. In the District, the maximum penalty for animal fighting is a $1,000 fine or 180 days in jail. The lax laws, they say, make D.C. a haven for miscreants who would breed pit bulls for fighting.
Tyrone Brown is the boarding manager for Friendship Animal Hospital, as well as a member of DCDC. Brown has seen more than his share of abused pit bulls. “A lot of people assume [pit bulls] can take anything,” says Brown. “They leave them outside when it’s 2 degrees, they tie bricks to their neck….Then they fight them, and if the dog loses they abandon them or kill them or just tie them up somewhere.”
Pro-pit-bull rhetoric hasn’t exactly taken a bite out of the campaign against the breed. Ward 1 Councilmember Graham, for his part, now says he plans to introduce still stronger legislation to ban the breed altogether. And Graham has more muscle behind his legislation because it’s backed by the local Humane Society. “I had a constituent who was attacked in June after [a pit bull] killed its cat,” says Graham. “He had to fend it off with a trash can top.”
Playing the role of the well-traveled urban politician, Graham says that he’s seen—firsthand—the dangers of pit bull ownership out on the mean streets of his ward. “The other day I witnessed a guy on the street training a pit bull puppy to attack,” says Graham. A few days
earlier, Graham says, he saw a man walking down the street with his pit bull on a leash. Graham says he immediately crossed to the other side of the block.
Graham’s mind is pretty much made up, and DCDC’s rhetoric has done little to change his image of pit bulls. “Are there gentle pit bulls out there? I suppose there are,” says Graham. “[But] I have people who are absolutely terrorized to walk down the street. There’s too much evidence of a problem.” Graham says he does plan to introduce new animal-cruelty legislation—but only after his pit bull ban passes.
For now, pit bull advocates haven’t gained much rhetorical traction. In the halls of power, all they have is the old National Rifle Association argument with a canine twist: Pit bulls don’t hurt people; abusive owners do. Of course, the NRA never got very far with its logic in the District, either. “Dogs will be dogs,” says Sobo. “We know that there are irresponsible dog owners, but there are also irresponsible gun owners….We banned [hand]guns in the city.”
So a few councilmembers in search of constituent support may think scapedogging the pit bull is a good idea, but some of us take exception. Some of us know what it’s like to be underdogged, to have society lay all its problems at our feet. Some of us know what it feels like to be demonized by the small minds of men. And some of us just remember Butch. CP