Sunday, June 12, 2005

Death by disobedience

12-year-old kid mauled to death at home by pit bulls: whose fault was it? the dogs’ fault? the parents’ fault? Oh, no, no, no. It was the kid’s fault, because he didn’t obey his mother:

“ ‘I put him down there [in the basement], with a shovel on the door…he had a bunch of food. And I told him, “Stay down there until I come back.” Typical Nicky, he wouldn’t listen to me.’ […] Apparently, Nicholas found a way to get the door open and come upstairs.”*

And so, he died, a horrible, nightmarish death. And it all happened simply because he didn’t obey his mother.

“ ‘Even after the whole thing,’ she said, ‘I’m not mad at my dogs. I just love them to death.’ ”*

“Deeply remorseful, Faibish says she continues to think of what she might have done differently. For one, she wishes she’d persuaded Nicholas to go to a picnic with his younger sister, Ashley. But she insists, ‘I have no regrets about that day,’ Faibish said.”*

Clearly, this woman does not accept any responsibility for her son’s gruesome death, but for her to say she “has no regrets about that day” is nothing short of breathtaking.

She’s not even mad at her dogs, she says. Less than eight days after her son’s tragic death, she is accepting of it, saying : “It’s Nicky’s time to go…when you’re born you’re destined to go and this was his time,”* and even telephones a newspaper reporter to spew forth her version of events. What a stunning absence of grief. Where is any indication of her profound loss, of her sense of accountability? But perhaps, this is merely typical of people who would choose to bring such dogs bred for killing into their homes.

Every time another of these pit bull kills hits the news, their defenders sound off about what loving dogs they are, and note that more people are bitten by other breeds than by pit bulls, so why does public disdain focus so sharply on pit bulls? But to be bitten by a cocker spaniel or golden retriever is a very different encounter than what can be expected from a pit bull. There is no excuse for people being bitten by dogs of any sort, but the potential for serious injury is far, far greater when the attacking dog is a pit bull (or rottweiler or presa canario); the comparison simply does not wash.

The other common refrain from other pit bull owners is along the lines of “I take full responsibility for my dog, and with training, pit bulls are no more dangerous than any other dogs.” This argument fails in numerous ways.

First, it assumes that a well-trained pit bull will never revert to type, and this contention has been demonstrated to be false by well-trained pit bulls who have, without provocation, attacked and seriously injured people. How often have we heard a killer pit bull described as being “the sweetest dog I’ve ever known”? The pit bull has been specifically bred to attack and to kill, and possesses both the equipment and personality to do so, inherent in its genetics, and no amount of training can ever remove that breeding in a fail-safe manner.

Second, it presumes that all pit bulls will receive such training, and that clearly is not the case. How can we-the-public distinguish between well-trained pit bulls and their non-trained look-alikes? I cannot trust that a pit bull that I encounter anywhere has had any significant training.

Third, what, exactly, does “I take full responsibility” mean? In short, it means absolutely nothing. The person saying it is not the person who suffers the actual consequences, and no amount of retribution is sufficient to balance the experience of a full-on pit bull attack, even assuming the victim is not mauled to death. It is merely empty rhetoric with a subtext of “I will do whatever I choose, and then maybe, I might say I’m sorry afterward.”

Having pit bulls in our midst is a bit like leaving live grenades laying around. As long as everyone is trained to treat them correctly, they’re perfectly safe, and life goes on according to plan. But if even one is handled in the wrong manner, there is hell to pay, and nearly always, that hell is paid by an innocent party, not by the person responsible for the presence of the danger.

Ultimately, the question that needs to be asked regarding whether pit bulls should be allowed in our midst is: what good can come of it? What, exactly, is the benefit of having pit bulls around? And how does this compare with their detriment? Is it worth the risk of severe injury or death to innocent people to allow other people this choice of pet? If so, why not also allow cougars, bobcats, alligators, gila monsters, or bears as pets? Does the freedom to choose a particular breed of dog take precedence over the safety of the public at large? What motivates the choice of a pit bull for one’s pet? Why would anyone want to risk being responsible for causing such grievous harm to any other person, family member or not?

Because ultimately, that is the bottom line. Whether Ms. Faibish will admit to it or not, her son is dead because of choices she (and her husband) made, heedless of the obvious risks posed to her children and others. She (and he) set the plot into motion on the day they brought those dogs into their home, just as surely as if they’d brought in a randomly-activated bomb. And now, unbelievably, she wants not only our sympathy, but even wants us to hold her blameless. Perhaps this, then, is the profile of a typical owner of pit bulls.

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* “Mother shut boy in basement to protect him from pit bull: 12-year-old was killed by family dog; owner sees death as tragic accident but defends the breed as loving pets,” by C.W. Nevius, Cecilia M. Vega, Chronicle Staff writers. SFGate.com, June 12, 2005.

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