A dog registered as a boxer has killed a woman in Montreal, so the mayor is calling for a ban on pit bulls. This would be amusing, if it weren’t so predictable and depressing: in few areas of public policy do you encounter thinking this routinely deranged. And it all starts with contempt for science.
Consider the National Post’s Barbara Kay, almost certainly Canada’s most prominent enemy of this ill-defined category of dog: the “pit bull.” Kay is one of the saner voices on her side of the debate, and I sense she genuinely believes that she is acting on behalf of dog bite victims. For years she has written screeds calling for the ban of these dogs, based on what she considers solid scientific evidence. It would help, however, if she actually knew what a scientist was, and how they can be identified in the wild. I’ve never dealt with a journalist so distressingly lax when it comes to vetting her sources: she does not so much cherry-pick experts as pick diseased cherries and pronounce them epidemiologists.
In particular, Barbara Kay relies upon two crusaders who stress that they were personally bitten by pit bulls. I have written before about Merritt Clifton, the alleged statistician she describes as “her primary source.” I addressed his claim that he had “more than a hundred peer-reviewed publications.” I found only one — unrelated to pit bulls — in a marginal Asian journal. Since then an immaculately researched book has emerged — Pit Bull: the Battle Over an American Icon (Knopf) — and the author, Bronwen Dickey, is a more intrepid detective than I am: she managed to find two. Both in this same comically obscure journal. “In one of them, he cites his own newsletter twelve times. The rest of the citations came mainly from Web sites, news reports, and press releases.” Dickey is clear on Clifton’s credibility as a scientist: he “possesses no relevant credentials.”
The woman Barbara Kay describes as her “other primary source” is Colleen Lynn. Here, Bronwen Dickey’s revelations are priceless: “Before her bite injury, Lynn maintained a fortune-telling Web site called DivineLady.com, on which she referred to herself as ‘Divine Lady, Beholder of the Soul.’ In 2011, she self-published the third edition of Divine Lady’s Guide to the Runes.”
And the Divine Lady now runs DogsBite — a sober, professional looking website, as long as you don’t click on the links to drooling hate groups — which credulous journalists consider a primary source for scientific information about pit bulls. Bronwen Dickey reminds us: “Lynn has no professional credentials in statistics, epidemiology, or animal behaviour; neither do the sources she relies upon most frequently.”
These are the experts, peddled by Barbara Kay, who are informing Mayor Denis Coderre’s decision to introduce a breed ban. Their favoured legislation is strongly rejected by every expert organization on the continent, including the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Bar Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
When it comes to Breed Specific Legislation, it is not a question of two worthy opinions to be carefully considered and weighed against each other. It is a matter of science versus the worst kind of quackery: rune-throwing fortune tellers, wildly unqualified statisticians, and a posse of foul-mouthed trolls. There is no argument here, any more than there is in the sorry vaccine debate: it’s simply knowledge versus willful, howling ignorance.
Barbara Kay’s third vaunted source — her “bible” — is a book by Alexandra Semyonova, a former welfare inspector for the Dutch SPCA. Despite having spent time at good schools — Johns Hopkins and University College London — Semyonova likes to talk about “science whores”: these are trained scientists with peer-reviewed publications, who come to radically different conclusions from hers, and therefore must be in it for the money.
I read Kay’s bible after some urging. Semyonova’s book is called The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs. Which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “The Old Testament.” Still, it’s not a bad book. Sure, she cites Merritt Clifton, so her statistics can be safely ignored, but it’s not a dreadful book, really, until you come to the end — the section entitled: “Myth 99: Scientists know what they are talking about because they study animals in an objective way.”
Here the counterfactual statements are truly special. “The scientists who have studied dogs have done it either in highly unnatural circumstances (the lab), or they’ve only watched the dogs for short intervals.” If you believe this silliness, I suggest you look up Dr. Ian Dunbar, a scientist with stellar academic qualifications — a veterinary degree, a doctorate in animal behaviour from Berkeley, a Special Honours degree in Physiology and Biochemistry — who has become famous for training dogs through decades of experience in the field. (He opposes BSL, of course, calling it “frankly stupid”.)
I urge you to read “Myth 99” in its ridiculous entirety. Semyonova writes: “We now know that science often attracts people who have various, more or less serious, autism related disorders, perhaps in particular Asperger’s syndrome.” She laments science’s “obsession with measurement and quantification.” She suggests it might be a result of autism.
In short: rigorous science is overrated. Perhaps a kind of illness.
Barbara Kay seems to have come to her own self-serving conclusion: rigorous science reporting is overrated. I read her quirky bible, but despite my insistence, she has declined to read Bronwen Dickey’s book, an exhaustive and likely definitive study representing seven years of research. Which didn’t prevent Kay from tweeting this bit of non-libel, based on her profound insight into a book she hasn’t read: “Why does @BronwenDickey hate kids?”
Let’s take a look at what happened in Ontario when those evil “science whores” failed to prevent Breed Specific Legislation in 2005. For a short time it looked good: “A total of 486 bites were recorded in 2005. That number fell generally in the six years following, to 379 in 2010.” And then — when pit bulls were finally getting thin on the ground — the numbers began to rise: “Toronto’s reported dog bites have been rising since 2012, and in 2013 and 2014 reached their highest levels this century.”
How could this be? Simple: other dogs stepped in to fill the gap. Irresponsible owners remained irresponsible — since the laws did not apply to them, simply to maligned breeds — and their dogs continued to bite. In 2014, pit bulls didn’t even make the top ten list; the top biter in Toronto was the German Shepherd (a perennial), followed distantly by the Labrador retriever. Of course, had the wise rulers of Ontario listened to the science whores, they would have known to expect this: Breed Specific Legislation has been a disaster worldwide. Not one respectable study supports breed bans.
Oh, and if you care about dogs at all: “By 2012, the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association estimated that the law had led to over 1,000 dogs and puppies in Ontario having been needlessly put down.”
Perhaps you don’t care about dogs, but you value fiscal responsibility? Ontario’s worthless Breed Specific Legislation — while killing dogs, and doing nothing to make humans safer — has certainly cost a whole lot of money. The precise figure hasn’t been released, despite numerous requests, but we can infer how much froma study of Prince George County, Maryland (whose BSL costs are considered on the low side, relatively speaking): “The average cost to seize, detain, test, and euthanize a single pit bull was $68,000. In the fiscal year of 2001-2002, the total cost of pit bull confiscations was $560,000.” Needless to say, this half million dollars purchased precisely zilch: “Studies proved that the community had no measurable safety benefit from the ban, and lost out on thousands of dollars from cancelled dog shows, tourism, and consistent ‘pit bull’ report calls from concerned citizens.”
You’d think that Barbara Kay, a political conservative, would have strong ideas about fiscal restraint. But no, saving money has the unbearable consequence of saving pit bulls from the needle. Which is the only reason I can imagine Ms. Kay so greatly favours the failed Ontario legislation over the much less expensive program introduced in Alberta, which happens to actually work.
You see, Mayor Coderre need not look south of the border for relevant expertise here. By coincidence, the most lauded urban experiment in the containment of dog bites — studied across the world — is the Calgary Model. It’s a remarkable success, and it’s much cheaper than Breed Specific Legislation. The downside? It’s a lot of work, and — this really hurts — it requires humans to be responsible. Calgary’s bylaws governing dog ownership, described in depth here, are some of the strictest you’ll encounter: yes, leashes are mandatory, as are licences. The legislation happens to be breed neutral, meaning that if your German Shepherd or your Dalmatian bites someone, you won’t be off the hook. The program stresses education — as opposed to BSL, whose fertilizer is ignorance — which means even more in the way of human responsibility. So, it’s a bit onerous. On the plus side it saves money, dogs, and humans.
Mayor Coderre has a genuine opportunity here: he could set an example, internationally, by introducing this groundbreaking legislation to a city twice the size of Calgary. This is personal: I lived in Montreal off and on for years — one of my favorite cities — and it would be thrilling to see it celebrated for a major contribution to the history of animal welfare.
The Calgary Model is not perfect, of course; nothing involving dogs and humans ever is. It requires constant vigilance and enforcement, and these have waned somewhat in recent years — in 2011, for instance, Calgary experienced a distressing uptick in biting incidents. (Although not that distressing: the city retained “the lowest bite-per-population ratio in North America.”) When the legislation is properly enforced, however, the results are peerless: Calgary “saw a five-fold reduction over 20 years — from 10 bites per 10,000 people in 1986 to two in 2006.”
Pardon my obsession with measurement and quantification. It’s an illness I share with rational people who care about dog-bite victims.
NOTE: regarding the boxer I refer to at the top — to be honest, we have no idea what kind of dog killed Christiane Vadnais. It was identified as a pit bull by the press, who are always quick to jump to this headline-friendly conclusion; then we discovered that it was registered as a boxer. Even this could be wrong; until we have DNA tests, we’re simply throwing runes. All sorts of mixes can look like pit bulls. Alanna Devine, SPCA Montreal’s director of animal advocacy, has the right approach: “The information that I think is pertinent here is that the dog was unsterilized, the dog was named Lucifer, and the dog had previously been involved in an attack against a human.” In short, the owner would have been properly dealt with under the Calgary Model, and this tragedy would likely have been averted.