Hyperbole and anti-intellectualism dominate the BSL debate

 

On Sept. 27 Montreal city council voted in favour of adopting  Mayor Denis Coderre’s proposed bylaws prohibiting new pit bulls across the city’s 19 boroughs. Please speak out against this by signing this petition.  Lives – human and animal – are at stake.

I was reading the comments section recently of an article about something bigoted or racist that Donald Trump had said (there’s something new every day, I can’t keep up), and I was struck by how – even when confronted with crystal clear evidence to the contrary – many people insisted on clinging to their “beliefs” and parroting their talking points repeatedly.

It’s one thing to hold an opinion; It’s quite another for that opinion to be based on science and evidence. And it’s quite another thing yet when that “opinion” has the end result of many thousands – and possibly millions – of innocent sentient creatures being killed needlessly.

It seems to me that when the stakes are high, so should be the standard of evidence required to put into place policies that will impact many. Yet, much like Donald Trump’s bigoted ostracizing of many societal groups, our dialogue around BSL – or banning “pitbull type” dogs – tends to be reactionary, hyperbolic, and based on irrational fear.

I have felt frustrated by this low level of dialogue, and sought to understand how seemingly “normal” internet commentators could so blasé-ly advocate for legislation that essentially will result in thousands of dogs are killed for no reason aside from how they look, even as virtually every single body of experts in existence argues AGAINST the very same legislation.

Think about that for a moment.  BSL results in thousands of dogs being killed for absolutely no reason.  Dogs are wonderful and joyful creatures. Do they really deserve to be put to death because some uninformed person on the internet is scared because one dog somewhere at some time hurt a person?

Doesn’t it seem almost…sociopathic…to argue so passionately in favour of the death of many thousands of individuals who have done nothing wrong, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that your set of beliefs are actually objectively wrong?

gigi

Then it occurred to me that it’s just a continuation of the anti-intellectualism that permeates our society.  Wikipedia defines anti-intellectualism as hostility towards and mistrust of intellect, intellectuals and intellectual pursuits, usually expressed as the derision of education, philosophy, literature, art and science, as impractical and contemptible.

It was on full display during the presidential debate on Monday night, and it was on full display during the council meeting where some council members implored council to make a decision based on the evidence – that BSL doesn’t work – rather than out of misguided fear – and then the majority voted against logic and evidence anyway.

I believe strongly in making decisions based on science, evidence, and rational thought, even though I do not have multiple degrees or an intellectual pedigree. I have a bachelor’s degree, but would not count myself amongst the intellectuals.  I grew up in a rural area, and my family is not particularly well educated.  I have a job, but I am not wealthy.

I fail to comprehend why anyone would think that it’s somehow morally or objectively superior to base important decisions – particularly those of public policy – on personal anecdotes and irrational fears.

While I am glad that the internet has offered us unprecedented opportunity to learn and communicate and build community, I regret that it has also resulted in an anti-intellectual mentality that all opinions are somehow equal.

Some random person on the internet’s opinion, formed from anecdotes and reading a couple of articles, does NOT matter, and is NOT as valid as the Canadian Veterinary Association, or the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals when it comes to BSL.

And yet, many think their opinions are not only valid, but MORE valid than those of the experts, of those individuals and bodies of individuals who have committed their entire lives to accumulating and exercising their knowledge in the field of animal health and behaviour.  This is absurd.

(If anyone is wondering why I feel qualified to write an op-ed, I do have a four-year journalism degree and I’ve worked as a writer and communicator for more than 13 years.)

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I used to be afraid of dogs.   I remember being especially afraid of German Shepherds and Dobermans as a kid, despite never actually meeting a dog of either breed.   They were the scary dog du jour of the 80s, I learned later.

I remember pedalling as hard as I could down the dirt roads on which I lived, trying desperately to cycle away from the neighbours’ dogs who roamed the neighbourhood at large, and bit my legs as I tried to pass.

It left me terrified of dogs until I adopted my my own less than five years ago. The dogs who chased me were mutts.  They were also completely untrained and left to roam. Even though they actually did bite me, it would never occur to me to ban their breed, or ban their existence.

I’ve become resigned to the fact that many people simple cannot and will not be reasoned with; that no amount of evidence will sway them from their dearly held “beliefs.”  I accepted that long ago with my vegan advocacy, but I somehow thought that most people could appreciate and value that beauty of dogs since they aren’t eating them.

As we often say on the internet, “haters gonna hate.”

But if only they were the only problem! I have low expectations of lay people, but what about legislators?

It’s legislators who are pushing for BSL and enacting it where it previously did not exist. It’s legislators who are making decisions that do NOT take into account facts, evidence and science.

It’s legislators who are refusing to listen to the multitude of experts – veterinarians, dog behaviourists, animal shelter policy makers, and people who work with dogs every day of their lives – and who instead push forward with anti-intellectual policy based on the hyperbolic nonsense of a few.

I expect more from the people who make the decisions that govern our society.

Tone deaf politicians like Anie Samson who when confronted with the SPCA’s public announcement that they will no longer provide canine services to Montreal boroughs if the BSL legislation is implemented, insisted that Montreal “would not back down.”

The SPCA said in a statement that the bylaw would result in putting down healthy dogs, and that is a practice it cannot support. “We’ll be forced eventually to euthanize hundreds of dogs in good health,” said Benoit Tremblay, the SPCA’s executive director.

The SPCA rightly argues that it cannot ask that of is staff.  Suicide and mental health issues plague those who work in animal care as it is. (These issues are also apparent amongst slaughterhouse workers.) Arguably, the mental health impacts on those forced to carry out unjust BSL will be even more marked than the danger to humans that we see in the rare but highly publicized dog attacks.

But Samson and her ilk have instead wrapped themselves in motherhood statements about safety and protecting people.

It is undisputedly a tragedy when someone is hurt, maimed or killed by a dangerous dog.  We absolutely need to have laws and tools in place to address these situations. Nobody disagrees with that.

There are many things that hurt, maim and kill humans. Cars, for example.  Other humans. Guns.  As a civilized society, we seek to address the individuals who brandish them in harmful ways by developing laws and policies that hold them accountable.

Aside from the facts that 1. It’s very challenging to identify a “pitbull type dog” by appearance only, 2. Even if a dog is a pitbull, that doesn’t mean he or she is dangerous, 3. Many dogs will be misidentified and will lose their lives as a result and 4. It’s virtually impossible to enforce the laws, evidence from other jurisdictions show that BSL simply doesn’t work.

In the short term in makes politicians feel good about themselves because they are “doing something,” and it makes everyday people with no skin in the game feel “safer” – but it’s all smoke and mirrors.   If we don’t address the key issues (responsible pet guardianship, seeing animals as “things”), and simply focus on the bogeymen (in the case of BSL, pitbulls), we do little to create a tangibly safer world.

And if you think you’re in the clear because your dog is a Labrador or you don’t have a dog at all, think again. BSL gives “authorities” sweeping powers to confiscate and kill ANY dog – all they have to do is “look like a pitbull” according to the judgement of any appointed authority. Plus, many of the people supporting BSL also appear to advocate for things like mandatory muzzling on all dogs over 20 kg.

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Even if you aren’t a pitfall lover,  surely you can agree that it’s important to make decisions and public policy based on facts, rather than fear mongering?

Who do you really think has the evidence on their side – veterinary associations, animal behaviourists, and animal services organizations that spend their entire lives working with the animals in question?

Or people like Anie Samson and the rhetoric charged internet peanut gallery that seeks to ban anything that they don’t understand?

From the American Veterinary Medical Association:  “Don’t rely on breed stereotypes to keep yourself safe from dog bites. A dog’s individual history and behavior are much more important than its breed, and since you don’t always know a dog’s history or behavior, it’s not a good idea to make assumptions. Instead, concentrate on prevention: educate yourself, teach children about proper interactions and behaviors with dogs, and learn how to recognize risky and escalating situations with aggressive dogs. These steps — not breed-specific legislation — will lead to fewer dog bites.”

Further reading and resources:

Why Breed Specific Legislation is Not the Answer – American Veterinary Medicine Association

Toronto Humane Society position and backgrounder on BSL

Canadian Veterinary Medical Association position statement on BSL

HugABull Advocacy and Rescue Society – check out the evidence based citations

Humane Society International

Australian Veterinary Association

A list of position statements from training, veterinary and breed organizations

A list of some organizations that do not support BSL

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