breed discrimination · Human-Canine Bond

You’re Cordially Invited

Dear Mayor Mike Summers, Lakewood City Council, Law Director Kevin Butler, residents and members of the media,

On Friday, October 20, 2017, we will be holding a “Lakewood Community Dog Safety Forum” event, presenting an advanced (rough cut) screening of “Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent” (GTPI) at the Lakewood Public Library (westside suburb of Cleveland, Ohio) in the auditorium, open to the public FREE of charge, prior to the official release in the near future. Seating capacity is limited to the first 100 (first come, first serve), with doors opening at 6pm and the film starting promptly by 6:30pm. We expect the room will fill up fast, so please plan on arriving early.

The documentary – produced by our video production and media company, River Fire Films (a separate entity), was originally released in 2013, touring 20-some times (which included two film festivals) partnering with area dog rescue, welfare and advocacy organizations around the United States, to help arm those championing for dog ownership equality by providing a factual representation of the breed specific legislation (BSL) issue. We dubbed that rendition – the “Rescue Version”.

Although that film went on to have some success and make an impact, we felt it could have been even bigger and better. And, even though there has been much progress made in this social and moral cause – especially nationally in the States, where the recent trends to reverse and repeal these archaic laws are spreading like wild fire, reminiscent to the reactionary way they began in the 80’s and 90’s, the topic continues to pop up, which is why we decided to revisit the idea of doing a reboot with a more strategic plan to finally put an end to breed discrimination globally.

We gave it a complete facelift by re-editing the film, moving chapters around, adding more special effects, more original composed music, and additional footage – including recent coverage of efforts happening here in Lakewood to repeal what never should have passed in the first place.

Those of you who were on Lakewood’s City Council when the law passed in 2008, may remember me. I’m the guy who attended each and every one of those council meetings with my camera gear, recording every word you spoke. At the time, I wasn’t as knowledgeable about the issue as I am today. In a lot of ways, i was no more informed as you. I counted on the many who provided expert testimony against the legislation, which is packaged as a public safety measurement. Back then, I didn’t know enough to refute that. But, today, I can with ease.

In reviewing the archived video footage (which was also included in the film), the June 10, 2008 council meeting former councilman and current Law Director, Kevin Butler, made a comment about his position to support the legislation in the name of public safety that has alway stayed with me:

“You have to understand from our perspective, when we receive complaints about the perception of public safety declining, it can be that there are those who see pit bulls, and while they don’t tell the owners that they’re scared of that dog and they don’t call the animal control officer, they do instantly make a decision that the safety in their city is declining.

So, I think this is a somewhat targeted response to that – I’m not suggesting it’s the right one as it’s written. But, what I’m saying is, when you say there’s no problem because that pit bull hasn’t bitten someone, or hasn’t acted dangerously, I don’t think that’s necessarily accurate.

I think there’s a lot of folks out there, who see a dog, and make that decision. Frankly, there are a lot of folks out there who see a certain type of person, and make that decision. And that may not be fair…what I’m suggesting though is that, we are doing everything we can not only to actually create safety, but also to create the perception of safety.”

When we were building the storyboard for the original version of GTPI, we attempted to do a film as unbiased as humanly possible, which forced us to forget anything we thought we knew about dogs and dog behavior, and start from the very beginning. I say this as an admitted lifelong dog-lover, who currently shares his home with three dogs labeled “Pit Bull” in the shelter system. It may make me biased, since I willingly chose them, but, that, however, doesn’t automatically make me unable to see or think clearly about this complex issue.

Even still, we were incredibly neutral in our process – to let the viewer decide when presented with the verifiable facts. We gave both sides of this debate an equal and fair chance to provide their reasoning – for or against, and sought out only the most qualified experts to speak on behalf of the dogs. The only problem is, there legitimately is not a rational reason in favor of breed bans and restrictions. if it wasn’t for a couple sources who publish incomplete, misleading and inaccurate data, the pro-BSL camp wouldn’t exist…, and of course, the “perception” of public safety factor that former Councilman Butler alluded to, which perhaps existed more back then than now. Even still, perception isn’t based on reality or facts at all – just a warm, fuzzy feeling thinking they did something productive for the community elected to protect.

Over the last few months – mostly due to a dog named Charlie (#ImWithCharlie movement), the momentum has been building again with support all over the country, requesting Mayor Summers and Lakewood City Council finally fix this once and for all. Some of you may have noticed me back in the audience again with my camera, documenting what is transpiring. I’ve written several professional emails over the years to Council, and most have gone unanswered. One of the only responses I have received since I left the city in 2008, was a few years ago, and they just wanted to confirm that I am no longer a resident.

I am encouraged by two current council members – Sam O’Leary and Dan O’Malley, who have publicly spoken on the matter opposing the ban. This was brave of them to do, knowing Mayor Summers and the rest of Council has been against a repeal. One day in the very near future, I hope those words turn into more involvement and action, but at the moment I am just grateful they stuck their necks out with their opposition.

I am encouraged at the thought of new council members potentially being voted in to serve Lakewood residents in the upcoming local election, to replace some of the incumbents who stand firm against any challenge of their ban.

I am also extremely encouraged at the unity and grassroots community programs being thought of and constructed to tackle the public safety concern. Any city should feel so lucky to have passionate people who put safety and equality above all in their community. We don’t need to compromise one for the other. These two things can be of equal importance.

But, back to our upcoming screening event…

By now, you can probably see one or more reasons why we chose Lakewood to be the first city to hold a screening of our re-released film (rough cut). Our hope is we encourage more dialogue by current members of Council and the Mayor, even if we disagree. At least we’re talking.

This is your official invitation to our “Lakewood Community Dog Safety Forum” event. Once the film concludes, we will hold a brief Q&A, where discussions about the film, the law, and how to make our communities truly safer for all families, including our four-legged companions.

In the end, I think we can all agree Lakewood’s ban will be repealed one day. Whether it happens today, next year, or in another nine is up to you who currently represent and serve Lakewood. But, you can be heroes right now. It’s time.

#EndBSL

Sincerely,

Jeff Theman
River Fire Films, LLC
Director, Producer

WOOFobia
Executive Director, Founder

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breed discrimination · Human-Canine Bond

Dear Lakewood, Ohio

Dear Mayor Summers and members of Lakewood City Council,

I spent the day pondering what I would write to you about Monday evening’s council meeting. I thought long and hard, because I wanted to ensure whatever I wrote wouldn’t come across as confrontational, but still direct so the point won’t be missed. I don’t wish to waste your time, and I certainly don’t want to waste mine either. But, I feel this is an important discussion to be had.

Because most on Council were not elected officials back in 2008, I’d first like to take a few minutes and introduce myself, and talk a little about where I’ve been these last 9 years, as well as a glimpse in the near future.

My name is Jeff Theman, and I was a proud citizen of Lakewood, Ohio for a couple years. When I moved to Lakewood, I did so because I fell in love with the countless bars and restaurants lined up and down Madison (my old street) and Detroit, the close proximity to Lake Erie and downtown Cleveland, but most of all because whenever I drove around town I saw an abundance of humans walking their canine companions. A dog-loving community rates extremely high on my list of desirable characteristics about a city I would call home. That is what attracted me most about Lakewood.

In the spring of 2008, former councilman, Brian Powers, proposed legislation to ban “pit bull” dogs, disrupting the Human-Canine bond and tarnishing the image of being a dog friendly city. After all, it’s impossible to do so by having a policy that discriminates or singles out a type of dog for anything other than their actual behavior. The previous year, I had already begun a documentary film project about dog-fighting, started the day Michael Vick’s name and image was plastered all over SportsCenter for his participation in the inhumane crime.

I spent the next year locked in my tiny Lakewood apartment, researching everything available on dogfighting and pit bull dogs. I read everything, from each and every side, leaving no stone unturned. By accident, I came across this law called breed specific legislation (BSL), which targets the ownership of certain breeds or types of dogs, namely “pit bull” dogs (definitions vary). Up until then, as a lifelong dog-lover and Ohio resident, I never knew these laws existed, which is odd, because at the time I lived in the only state that had statewide restrictions on “pit bull” dogs.

I decided I would attend with my camera each of these council meetings where the breed ban was discussed, and do a side film project that followed the process of this law, using Lakewood as the backdrop. Since I was already directing an anti-dogfighting documentary, I figured I might as well include a chapter on breed discriminatory laws in this film, too. By mid-summer (2008) when this ban passed, I scrapped that concept, and began a film about breed discrimination titled “Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent” (GTPI).

Five years later, on Sunday, April 28, 2013, we premiered the “Rescue Version” of the film in Cleveland, which went on to tour around the country screening over 20-some times, including two official film festival selections – 2013 St. Louis International Film Festival and 2014 Kansas City Film Fest. The film was also supported by one of the largest national animal welfare organizations, Best Friends Animal Society, who used the film as a tool to send to legislators who were faced with the issue.

Last year, we started updating the previous version to produce the final cut of the film, with updated material, completely re-edited with more special effects and original composed music, among other upgrades for this official release to make a better impact on the discussion, with the goal to put an end to breed discrimination globally.

Earlier this year, I also founded a 501(c)4 non-profit (filing pending), WOOFobia, which celebrates and secures this Human-Canine Bond, through ingenuity and inspiration – using the arts to bring attention and solve problems related to dogs and people, so this all important bond does not get disrupted. And, here we are, back full circle in Lakewood again, adding footage for our re-release of GTPI, with the goal of repealing Lakewood’s existing failed law banning “pit bull” dogs.

So, there is a dual purpose to this email:

  1. We are officially requesting interviews with you and your colleagues to be used in our feature length documentary film about this issue. Only complete statements and sound-bytes will be used, so that the context cannot be purposely changed to be something different. The integrity of the project is held to a high standard.
  2. We are in the planning stages of screening an advanced copy (rough cut) of our re-released film to be shown in Lakewood next month (October 2017), ahead of the upcoming November election. We are hoping Mayor Summers and Council will accept our invitation for this event, once the date, time and venue is publicly announced.

In all, we are hoping to open discussions about the repeal of the city of Lakewood’s pit bull ban, and come up with a solution to maintain public safety, while welcoming all – two and four legged, to a community who publicly prides itself on being progressive and accepting.

Sincerely,

Jeff Theman
River Fire Films, LLC
Director, Producer

WOOFobia
Executive Director, Founder

breed discrimination · Human-Canine Bond

You Know.

Preston at the corner of W117th and Detroit Avenue where Cleveland borders Lakewood, Ohio.

Mayor Summers and current members of Lakewood City Council:

We know. You know we know.

Tuesday, September 5, many current and former Lakewood, Ohio residents, who probably last saw the inside of city hall in 2008, came back again with several passionate new dog advocates seeking justice. Many stood together in the back of the auditorium of council chambers and held signs in peaceful protest as we awaited the fate of Charlie – one of the newest family dogs affected by your archaic law.

Over 9 years ago, many of us who were present Tuesday, sat in that same auditorium listening to your predecessors cherry pick their “facts” about dogs and dog behavior – specifically “pit bull” dogs. Over the course of 2-3 months, Council repeatedly cited primarily two online resources for their proof of these dogs being different – Colleen Lynn’s DogsBite.org and Merritt Clifton’s annual “study”, Dog Attack Deaths and Maimings .., both of which have been proven unreliably inaccurate, incredibly biased, and torn to shreds over and over again.

The proposal to enact a ban of “pit bull and canary” dogs in Lakewood by former Councilman, Brian Powers, was supposedly started, according to Powers, for a couple primary reasons; the state of Ohio’s (at the time) existing restriction on “pit bulls” that passed in 1987 (and repealed in 2012), explaining the duty the city has to enforce the statewide law without getting additional funding, as well as an unfortunate serious incident involving a drunk man, who went to an after-hours party at the home of someone he did not know, feeding meat to the owner’s dog at 3:30 in the morning. The owner suggested the man, who admitted to drinking all night long, had been teasing the dog before he got bit.

There have been other additional excuses for the proposal of the law back then, but these are the two most repeated during that period.

In an effort to remain transparent, I admit to having some personal motivation in this subject matter. The previous year (2007), I began a documentary film about dog-fighting, with a focus on the victims – the dogs, after NFL star quarterback, Michael Vick, was suspected of the crime. I stumbled upon these laws called breed specific legislation (BSL) by accident. If you spend enough time Googling “pit bull dogs” and “dog-fighting”, it won’t take you long before you do. Additionally, I am also guilty of being a lifelong dog-lover, who has shared my home with a variety of different dogs during my life, but none would have been considered a “pit bull”. So, now that my own bias is out there, let me just say, that doesn’t change the facts about this cause.

Just a couple weeks prior to the first council meeting where BSL was introduced, I visited the home of the founder of the only pit bull rescue in Cleveland – For the Love of Pits, for research on this film. And, again, by accident discovered my soulmate in the form of a dog. The moment our eyes met, I knew instantly Preston was and still is my soul dog. On that day, I made my intentions known that I was going to adopt this dog…until Lakewood threw an unexpected wrench in those plans.

I started showing up and recording all of the meetings. I spoke at the very first one, telling council about my film, and threatened to leave the city I called home if they should move forward and pass their ban. In my few minutes of allotted time allowed to speak, I also told them what I loved about Lakewood. Besides the nightlife, I told them how when I drive through town, all I see are humans walking their dogs. That’s why I chose Lakewood!

Publicly, the city prided itself on being progressive and open-minded, but I soon found out much of that was built on a lie and described best as – beauty is only skin deep.

After that first meeting, Council was caught in the middle of a Fox 8 I-Team News investigation for questionable practices relating to Lakewood animal control visiting residents who spoke and claimed to own one of these dogs, to ensure they were compliant with state law (i.e. liability insurance, containment requirements, etc.). My footage of council members squirming after being called out by a husband-wife attorney duo in the third council meeting was used in this news segment.

After this, the direction of the film abruptly changed to breed discrimination, and Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent was born.

Meeting after meeting, expert testimony after expert testimony, Council chose to disregard verifiable scientific facts, choosing sensationalism and irrational fear to pass the ban in July 2008, with a grandfather clause to save face as a “compromise”. Owners of “pit bull” dogs were given a chance to keep them by registering their dogs annually, and maintain compliance with the other outlined stipulations.

Back then, Lakewood was able to call your dog a “pit bull”, and there was no real way to fight the designation. One of the first residents I met and interviewed was Jeannine and Jason, owners of Macey. If you were able to present a case that the visual identification done by ACOs was invalid, you were able to have your dog’s name removed off the registered “pit bull” list. After obtaining a letter from their vet, completing DNA tests that showed Macey was 51% English Bulldog and 49% Labrador (aka – no “pit bull” of any kind), and hiring an attorney, they finally received that elusive hearing date in 2011, after waiting three long years without due process. They subsequently won their case, and Macey was no longer a “pit bull” by Lakewood’s standards. She passed away on April 22, 2016, after a fight with lymphoma.

2009 marked the first full year of the ban being in effect. Any “pit bull” dogs who were not registered before the December deadline, were officially illegal. Two incidents of such cases were most memorable:

  • white boxer named, Otis, who got out of the house while his owner was sleeping. A horrific video surfaced of the dog warden tasing Otis not once, but twice, then using the catch pole and dragged him on his back before lifting him up into the van by his neck. The dog community was appalled. A deal was made with the owner that would give Otis back, but only if he was removed from the city and never returned.
  • The harassment of a 20-year military veteran, Leonard Shelton, who served in both Iraq wars, and suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Besides companionship, Leonard used his dog, Roscoe, to help with his PTSD. He ended up moving, then suing Lakewood, later settled out of court.

Through the years, several members of that administration moved on. Former Mayor Ed Fitzgerald was elected to the top seat in Cuyahoga County – County Executive, then ran an unsuccessful campaign to be Ohio’s next Governor. There were always rumblings through the grapevine about Fitzgerald being the bird chirping in Councilman Powers ear to propose the ban. Brian was given his At-Large seat due to an open spot on Council, in an election year. As the old saying goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity, because Powers went on to win his seat in that election after his name and face was plastered all over the news for several months bringing him name recognition at the ballot box. He later became Council President, before leaving local politics altogether at the end of 2013.

If there’s one thing I can say positive about him, he did accept and follow through with an interview with me for my film in 2009. Towards the end of the interview, I asked him: if Ohio repealed it’s law, would Lakewood then propose legislation to repeal their ban, since the statewide law was such a big factor?

He replied:
“Absolutely. If the state of Ohio changed the law – the breed specific legislation that covers the entire state right now, we cannot pass breed neutral legislation undoing that. If the state law changed, I’m very confident that we would explore changing the Lakewood law.”

A few weeks after the state law officially repealed in May 2012, I emailed Councilman Powers asking when we can begin discussions on Lakewood’s repeal. You see, I’m a man of my word, and when another man looks me in the eyes and tells me he’s going to do something, call me naive, but I expect him to follow through with that.

His reply was “not sure that any members of City Council would be supportive of changing our current law. Things have stabilized here and the law seems to be working fine. But I’ll keep an open mind if anyone proposes a change.”

What?! Working fine? No, it wasn’t.

This response did anger me a bit, to be blatantly lied to by a public official on camera…an example of the exact reason nobody trusts politicians nowadays. From there, I just wanted to Hold Politicians Accountable Again!

I took Mr. Powers advice and immediately forwarded that email to the rest of Council requesting to open dialogue about a repeal. Not one responded. I was under the impression public officials, are at the very least ethically obligated to respond to all inquiries from the public, including those who now reside outside their city. A couple weeks went by, I sent another, but this time I received a couple snarkier responses in return, including one who only wanted to confirm that I am no longer a Lakewood resident.

Most on Council from 2008 have left office, but some have found a way to stick around. Councilman Tom Bullock, who is up for re-election at the end of this year (2017) is the last remaining member still serving on council. Councilman Michael Summers was appointed by Council in 2011 to take over as Mayor once Fitzgerald left to run the County government. Last, Councilman Kevin Butler became Lakewood’s Law Director. Some of the most influential members in Lakewood’s current legislative branch of government, are from a previous regime with a checkered past regarding this law.

After Lakewood passed their ban, I took my videocamera to Avon Lake, and sat in on a year’s worth of council meetings beginning in 2009. Their Council eventually decided against moving forward with additional measurements towards “pit bull” dog ownership.

For the next several years, whenever there was a city, especially in my NE Ohio region, where this topic was on their agenda, I made every attempt to educate those public officials of the harms this law creates, with some success. I oftentimes point to my experiences with Lakewood. My reason for stating this is, I’ve literally heard every argument possible in favor of breed specific legislation, and not one actually does anything to solve the root problem of maintaining public safety, which is the stated goal.

In late 2015, Shaker Heights, Ohio – another suburb in the Cleveland area, proposed a ban. The Mayor of “The Heights” used Lakewood’s success as an example in his opening remarks to council and the public the day of the vote. Through a public records request, I discovered extensive one-on-one discussions by a Shaker Heights councilwoman and the founder of DogsBite.org, Colleen Lynn, attempting to get advice on how to respond to facts that go against their plan to enact a ban – the same “resource” that Lakewood council used to support their quest. It was eventually voted down 5-2 in January 2016.

This is for Macey.  This is for Otis the boxer. This is for Roscoe. This is for Charlie. This is for all families and their dogs who were unfairly labeled in Lakewood as dangerous because someone identified them as a “pit bull” – whether said dog actually was or not. And this is definitely for my dog, Preston. I had to delay the adoption for 6 months while searching for a new city to live who would accept him as an individual. Now estimated to be 12 years old and closer to the end than to the beginning, I want those 6 months back, Lakewood City Council.

Peaceful protestors who stood in back during a Lakewood City Council meeting in support of the dog, Charlie.

So, here we are full circle. Another family and their dog being negatively impacted by your law. Just yesterday, the results from the hearing came back, saying Charlie, short of a lawsuit, must leave the city within 30 days. Back in 2008, I liked to give the benefit of the doubt, because there was a very real (irrational) fear among the public and often a misconception about these dogs. Many of us in animal welfare have also made mistakes about this issue. But over the last 9 years, there’s been an overwhelming abundance of data showing the failure of these laws. There’s just no more excuses for being misinformed. I don’t know if it’s pride or what.

But, you know. We know you know.