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A dog’s mark / July 12, 2017
With tumult and strife constant around us, it helps every once in a while to pull back and take stock of a comforting reality: Most people go out of their way to make nice with the world. When you make it your business to write about politics, as I typically do in this space, it’s easy to lose sight of the plain fact that for many, the daily headlines have no bite. It’s all just a bunch of hullabaloo. Other subjects are faster to get people’s blood pressure up. Let’s take an example: pit bulls.

I’ve had two encounters with the breed in the past couple of weeks. The most recent came Saturday afternoon when I got a call from my wife. She and our daughter had driven out into the countryside and my wife’s car popped a flat tire. When I arrived, everything was more or less fine: Eva’s car was parked safely off the road in the empty lot of a boarded-up country store. She and daughter Kiki were both reading books. Storm clouds had gathered in the distance, but there was ample time to change the tire and continue with our day. In no sense was this a big deal. But as soon as I got out of my car, my wife warned in a fretful tone: “Be careful, there’s a pit bull in front of you.”

And so there was. He was standing maybe 50 feet off in the distance, near the vacated store building, taking stock of this roadside assistance moment with obvious curiosity. He was a tall dog, with no leash and no collar. But any fear the encounter might have induced was dashed immediately by his goofy grin. If this had been our family beagles (two of them) the barking and the commotion would have commenced immediately. This big dog just stood there, panting in the summertime heat. Eventually he started to edge toward the car, as if to inspect my tire-changing skills, but then a peal of thunder sounded in the distance and he scooted away for cover. Nice doggy.

That was the second pit bull encounter our family has experienced recently. The first took place exactly a week earlier when my daughter went out for a run in the neighborhood and was attacked by a pit bull as she was jogging in the street. The assault sent Kiki to the emergency room with a wrist fracture, bite wounds to her arm and left leg and a torn-off chunk of skin on her thigh. Her voice trembling and weak, my daughter called home crying for help from a phone number I did not recognize — the cell phone of the dog’s owner. It was a shot of panic on what was otherwise a sleepy Saturday morning. A parent’s nightmare, in other words.

Let’s go directly to the good news: Kiki is doing fine after the attack, notwithstanding the splint on her wrist. Her injuries are healing up nicely, and she’s back to running in preparation for the fall high school cross-country season. Her cuts and bruises were ugly, but even in the hospital ER it was apparent the bites were unlikely to cause major problems. A county animal control officer was able to confirm that the animal was current on its rabies shots. In moments like these, you also worry about a child’s state of mind: Will my daughter fear dogs forever? Fortunately there are no signs of this; during our second pit bit encounter of the week, Kiki was calm and unconcerned. It was a comforting sight to see.

So all’s well that ends well as far that part of the story goes. The rest is generally positive, too. As distraught as our daughter was after the attack, the dog’s owner was nearly as upset. She’s a young woman who was totally torn up by the entire thing. And from the get-go, she’s done everything in her power to set matters straight. Most importantly to me, she agreed on the day of the attack to give up her dog to be put down by animal control.

I have no brief against people who own — and love — dogs that the rest of world may see as a dangerous breed. Truth be told, almost any animal can be dangerous, a fact we overlook in our domesticated harmony with the animal world. Our family beagles are about as harmless (and lazy) as dogs can be, but they’ve been known to snap and snarl when provoked.

This was different. What happened in our case is Kiki was running up a hill, past this small house where we had seen this particular pit bull tethered on a line many times before. (It wasn’t a dog chained all day every day; it enjoyed life indoors too.)

This time, the dog broke free from its tether and made a beeline for our daughter. It didn’t have far to run to cross the yard and reach the street, giving Kiki no chance to escape. Thankfully the dog owner saw the attack under way and got the animal inside before more harm could ensue. We were lucky things didn’t turn out worse. What if our daughter were still just a small child? What if the victim has been someone else altogether — say, a woman in her seventies, instead of her teens?

Episodes like these are why pit bulls have bad reputations. Obviously. And for obvious reasons, it’s not a rap I particularly care to refute. But unlike when I write about politics, where it’s easy enough to pick a tribe and defend your choices, in real-life, people-to-people situations where conflict arises, it’s only right to offer some respect for the other point of view. You can always count on people to weigh in with their own bad animal stories at times like these. “Horrible dogs,” read a text that popped up on my cell phone as I was sitting in the ER waiting room. We have a friend in South Boston who lives in one of the community’s toniest neighborhoods — big homes, manicured lawns, great place to raise a family. Just one problem: Up the street is a pit bull. It unnerves our friend, who has little children to be worried about. On the flip side of the coin, one of my daughter’s best friends has a pit bull mix that’s ridiculously sweet and beloved in the home. Then there’s the almost comically passive pit bull that stood by as I changed a flat tire this weekend. Nice doggy.

I don’t have any dogmas (sorry!) to offer anyone on this subject. I try never to speak ill of another person’s child, and I don’t like to do so with their pets, either. But I do hope that people will give serious thought to the responsibilities — and potential consequences — that come with owning a pit bull. Or any dog, for that matter. I understand why people would acquire pits or Rotts for reasons of personal security, but is it really a good idea to obsess over the possibility of a home intruder if your dog mauls a toddler instead? I realize I’m posing these questions in ways that are biased towards a particular answer, and pit bull defenders will have their own way of formulating the question, but I do think pit bull ownership requires a level of care and consideration than many people simply aren’t prepared to give.

As a neighbor, as a parent, as a person who has suffered the consequences of mistakes of my own making, I would simply note in conclusion that people have been incredibly kind and considerate throughout this episode, as people typically are. And I would further ask that this generous spirit be applied preemptively — so that folks make choices that render further such attacks less likely. If you’ve got a large yard, or a secure enclosure, and it’s clear your dog doesn’t pose a hazard to innocent bystanders, fine, I guess: please just think this stuff through. Sadly, too many people don’t. Challenging anyone on their choice of pets is no-win proposition, of course, and you’ll sooner convert the Pope than convince many pit bull owners to forsake the breed. Yet if nothing else, at least let safety guide your thoughts. If you can do a check to make sure your dog can’t slip off the leash, that’d be worth a lot.


I would be remiss in not mentioning the outstanding care that our daughter received from the emergency room nurses, doctor and staff at Sentara Halifax Regional Hospital, the prompt follow-up by the Halifax County Health Department and the comforting professionalism of Halifax County Animal Control. Our most heartfelt thanks to each of you.

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