breed discrimination

A Letter To Parma, Ohio

Dear Mayor Degeeter, members of Parma City Council, Clerk of Council Ramser, Director of Public Safety Weinreich and Law Director Dobeck;
I want to first take a moment to express my sincerest gratitude in how Monday’s council meeting was conducted. I truly expected the experience to be similar to what I have seen in the past with other cities, where elected officials spent the majority of time with their heads down looking at mobile devices, rather than what the speaker had to say. I scanned the room several times – speaker after speaker, regardless of which “side” they stood on, you maintained eye contact and gave nothing but 100% of your attention to them. That deserves to be recognized and praised. I felt you do care what each person had to say, even if we may not see eye-to-eye on this very important and multi-layered issue. This is what I mean when I talk about fairness. 
The following is very long, but definitely worth reading in its entirety. 
I prepared a speech to give, and last minute decided mine could wait, but felt it still necessary to give a brief statement for our cause and intentions instead. For the first one of these meetings, I wanted to ensure the Parma residents who felt comfortable enough to speak were given the opportunity, since you’ve stated you want to hear from your own constituents and not outsiders. I’m sure you will hear me publicly speak much more with credible facts from the wealth of knowledge I have been able to accumulate through speaking with and interviewing the real experts for my documentary film – Guilty Til Proven Innocent, in animal behavior (which encompasses all animals, but primarily canines – both wild and domesticated), as well as psychologists to discuss fear (or irrational fear), those with legal backgrounds to discuss the legality or constitutionality – or in this case. the lack thereof, of breed specific legislation (BSL), as well as respected professionals in animal welfare
First, I do want to give you a brief background of myself. I was born in Parma, Ohio at Parma General Hospital (now University Hospitals). Regardless what the media may use in a title or what some individuals who advocate for singling-out dogs on the basis of “breed” or type, I am not a “Pit Bull” advocate. I am a dog-lover, who has shared my home with a bit of everything, starting with toy poodles as a child. As I stated in Monday’s council meeting, there will be people who claim I have a bias which automaticaly disqualifies me as being an expert because I share my home with dogs that people in shelters labeled as “pit bull”. But, let’s think logically here – why on earth would I have dogs in my home if they were “ticking time bombs” like some people and a couple of organizations (who reached out to you) attempt to describe “these” dogs as. It doesn’t make any sense. The dogs in my home, as well as most dogs in households today (regardless of what they are identified as), are simply amazing – in spite of what humans put dogs in situations where they should fail. They compromise the most in this human-canine relationship.  
I don’t just sit here thinking of ways to repeal BSL, without looking at ways to enhance public safety, as well, despite what our detractors say. The fact is, even if you were to remove the “breed” language from your current dangerous dog ordinance, your law is still ineffective and outdated.  And there are many accounts of selective enforcement by Animal Control of your ordinance, too. So, our goal is to replace the current law the way it is written, and modernize it to make it stronger with a focus on the actual behavior of dogs, where truly dangerous dogs who pose a threat can be identified quicker, and reckless owners punished – regardless of what type of dog they may have. And, there are so many dogs already in your city that could be visually identified as “pit bull”. That’s also where the problem starts in this debate. If you ask 10 people what a “pit bull” is, you’d likely get about 10 different responses. It’s absolutely absurd. 
If I were to give an example, I currently have three shelter dogs, who all came to me at different times (Preston in 2008, Era in 2011, and Fergie in 2012), with different backgrounds and personalities, who all visually look physically different (color, build, size, etc), yet share one common denominator – all were labeled as “pit bull” dogs in the shelter system, and all were subject of being killed simply because of it. But, they are not cookie cutter robots manufactured on an assembly line. They are living, breathing beings, who have their individual strengths and challenges, as any individual does. I challenge you to browse on area shelters and rescues websites, and see all the dogs labeled “pit bull” or “pit bull mix”; there is no consistency whatsoever. 
In the neighborhood where I live, for three years I have kept mostly quiet about a group of neighbors who get together and let their dogs run off-leash in the park nearby. After the third or fourth time of these dogs running onto my property while I was out with my leashed dog, I finally got tired of compromising the safety of my dogs and myself, and called my council person to formally issue my concern. Enforcing leash laws is the single greatest way to limit incidents from happening out in the public. Most people have very limited knowledge, if any, about dog behavior. That’s the unfortunate common thing among dog owners in general. Education should be the number one priority a community has to make their city safer with dogs. 
Which brings me to this…I won’t go into too much detail now, because there’s a time and place for me to expand further, but I mentioned in a previous email to be very careful with whom you align with because it can backfire. One of the three pro-BSL speakers from Monday evening is a well known associate of an organization who fronts as a dog bite victims group. They do zero educational programs. Nothing for the proper way children should interact with dogs. All their focus is on these laws and attempting to cherry pick which opinions are “fact” and which are “fiction”. The unfortunate thing that we do both agree on about incidents involving dogs is, children and the elderly are the most vulnerable and oftentimes the victims of serious dog bites. This is where we fail as a society. 
Over the course of my research, I have kept screenshots and such of members from this group literally laughing when someone is attacked by their dog labeled as a “pit bull”. This is a dog bite victims group? Please. If I have an agenda because I share my home with dogs that fit their subjective profile, I have no idea what they would be considered as. Besides, we want to strengthen your law, so reckless dog owners of any type of dog are dealt with swiftly and appropriately, preferably before a major incident can escalate. But, like i said, I will refrain from discussing them at the moment, there is a time and place where I will. They are just too easy to refute. 
In an effort to remain completely transparent, I am going to list exactly what our plans are to repeal Parma’s law – in no particular order, using the model we used in Lakewood: 
  • First, as you know, we are going to assemble and repeatedly attend council meetings. There will be representation from the dog-loving community (both residents and non-residents of Parma alike) in attendance if not every meeting, nearly every one. Some crowds will be smaller than what we had Monday…and some may be larger. But, we will be there.
  • We are also actively doing public records requests, and will be reviewing them with a fine comb to uncover the many mistakes Parma has made. I say this without even seeing the requests we submitted for yet (and the subsequent ones that will follow), but I know they are there, because they always are in enforcement of this law, especially selectively enforced. The city is under a microscope moving forward. 
  • We prefer not to go the petition route – like Public Safety Director Weinreich stated we should in his interview, but we are already strategizing for that, too. In 2018, repealing this law is a no-brainer. It may have been a popular thing in the 80’s and into the 90’s, but as we move forward, we see just how ineffective it is. Look no further than the countless cities who have repealed over the last 5-10 years – most with long standing bans who finally admit they failed at the very thing they were publicly meant to do. 
  • We are compiling the list of when Parma elected officials terms are up. Last year in Lakewood, there were two existing council members who were public about their intentions of repealing the law, but they didn’t have the support from the other five. When election time came around, we inquired with the three candidates running for the At Large positions against the incumbents, to learn where they stood on this issue. And when we discovered they supported the removal, we did actively encourage residents to vote responsibly in making Lakewood an inclusive community where all well-behaved dogs and families could exist without the threat of being taken away or forced out for nothing more than the way a dog’s physical appearance is. Let me be clear – The two candidates who won their seats over the incumbents, did so because the community voted for their campaign, which included the repeal of BSL, but also other important issues collectively are what ultimately won them their seats. Fresh faces with fresh ideas are important in politics today. This was key in the repeal, but the community voted for them because of what they represented as a whole. We will support candidates who oppose BSL in the upcoming elections. With the sample size we have thus far, we know for a fact your community, in general, does not agree with your collective stance, and we will ensure candidates who run align with the community’s interests. Additionally, you are losing good families by having this law, as many others have approached us saying they have no choice but to look outside Parma for their next home. 
  • After we review the public records requests, and discover people who were unlawfully mistreated by this archaic law, we will be actively filing lawsuits, where the city will have to defend their law in the courts. The good news for us is, the courts have already set a precedent on this issue here in Ohio. We hope it doesn’t come to this, because we’d prefer to work WITH you all in crafting a dangerous dog ordinance that encompasses all dogs, but we will if we have to. 
  • We will be doing other creative initiatives to continue to shine a spotlight on this issue in your city, gathering more supporters in the process. I won’t list those things here, but there will be more events in the near future that show just how wrong this law is. This is how advocacy works. We will continue to do things professionally, but we do have a very firm stance on this issue – no more BSL. Too many of your constituents have reached out to us for help, which is the only reason we are involved. The people who are reaching out to you, who made a point to tell you outsiders are behind this initiative may be true in the respect that we are organizing for those who live in Parma and who don’t have the understanding that we do. But, I’d be negligent if I didn’t point out – those same people criticizing us for being outsiders, are outsiders themselves – some don’t even live in this state, let alone northeast Ohio. 
I want close by discussing two more items that are extremely important in this debate. Through my extensive research, there is a component of racism and classism, and I’m not talking about the dogs at all. In the 80’s when these laws spread like wildfire, law enforcement and humane organizations used this law as a tool to legally harass “suspicious” dog owners. Since legislation cannot be created to target protected classes of people, law makers were able to disguise their law – dog owners, as a group, are not a protected class. There is ample evidence of this very thing at work in many of my public records requests made, as well as remarks made by a former member of the Ohio Senate, who was responsible for the statewide BSL Ohio held from 1987-2012 when it was finally repealed. I am not here to make claims that anybody on Parma City Council currently, or in the past since this law has been in the books, is a racist or a classist, but knowing how the law began, that alone should warrant the repeal of this archaic, draconian and discriminatory law. You can read more here from a guest blog entry I wrote:
Last, there is one more major issue with the law. What happens to those Parma dog owners who have service dogs that fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), who may have dogs that would be labeled generically or genetically as “pit bull”? The ADA has made this very clear – you cannot. 
Thank you for your time. There will be more to come in the near future that dismantles the “validity” of this law. If any of you would like to speak offline, know that our conversation will stay in confidence. But, we are serious when we say – in 2018 this ends now in Parma. 
Jeff Theman
WOOFobia, Executive Director
Related Links:
Sept. 17, 2018
Sept. 18, 2018
Sept. 20, 2018
You Had Me At WOOF

You Had Me At WOOF: Jeff Theman

I turned 40 years old yesterday – July 28, 2017. There was a time, just a couple years ago, where I didn’t think I’d survive and get to see this somewhat irrelevant milestone.

Preston at Edgewater Park in Cleveland, Ohio on 7/28/2017

Since 2008, there’s two days each year I take off from work – July 28th and October 4th. Every. Year. And, both involve me and my soulmate/souldog, Preston.

On July 6, 2006, Preston and two other dogs were confiscated from a home in Akron, Ohio – about 30 minutes south of Cleveland, where the owners allegedly used them for dogfighting purposes. I say allegedly because the owners were never charged with the animal cruelty crime, but instead on only illegal drug charges. From there the three “pit bull” dogs were brought to an area humane society where they were kept as evidence while the case moved forward. This was pre-Michael Vick, so the outrage around the country towards animal fighting “sports” wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. And in Ohio, where we had a statewide restriction (BSL) of “pit bull” dog ownership since 1987, these dogs taken from situations like this were typically systematically killed without much, if any, publicity at all.

After Preston was brought to the shelter, he was visited by a woman, Shana Klein, who owned a rescue – For The Love Of Pits, specifically for “pit bull” dogs in the northeast Ohio area, and began to walk him around the confines of their property. Along the way, because of the stance back then about dogs who came from this type of environment, the other two dogs brought in were killed, but Preston’s life was spared, temporarily at least, mostly due to being a shelter favorite.

On a Friday afternoon, the shelter gave a courtesy call to Shana, to notify her that Preston would be put to sleep at 4pm that day. She then hung up, and scurried to find a foster home where he can go. Luckily, she found a safe, temporary place, before being moved in with her, until I met him (in April 2008) and was able to officially adopt him on Saturday, October 4, 2008.

The entire encounter could be considered accidental – a coincidence of sorts, due to the only reason I was visiting the rescue to begin with, was for research on my documentary film, “Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent“, about Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) in Ohio, that labeled all “pit bull” dogs inherently vicious at birth. I knew there was something special about this dog, as I never felt the way I did about an animal when our eyes first locked. Within 15 minutes of meeting him, I had already made my intentions known that I was going to adopt this dog.

Soon after, the suburb of Cleveland I was living in – Lakewood, Ohio, proposed and passed a ban of pit bull dogs within their city limits, claiming the state law as being the primary reason for the legislation, which delayed my ability to adopt Preston. It took me nearly six months, and a new residence, which wasn’t easy, due to landlords perceptions of his alleged “breed”, but with perseverance, I was finally able to welcome him home.

One of the first photos I took of Preston after adoption in 10/2008

We began on a journey together, where we both took the time to understand and trust each other, which only helped to solidify our natural bond, while my editor and I went to work and finished the documentary. There were some lows during this time, such as my grandpa passing away in 2009, and the loss of the human version of the love of my life, but there were many highs as well, such as the 20-some screenings GTPI was screened at around the United States, and other recognition for our accomplishments because of it.

Then, towards the middle of 2014, I noticed I didn’t feel right, and things went south in a hurry. I was in the infancy stages of severe anxiety and crippling depression, mostly due to being outspoken about some of the problems I recognized in the field I had immersed myself in, as well as all the unnecessary pain and suffering – to both human and animal, I saw on a daily basis, which made me react in uncharacteristic ways. My mental health, as well as my reputation within the community I built a name in, was crashing and burning simultaneously together. Without getting into specifics, my personal life suffered greatly, too.

Image by: Greg Murray Photography ©

I remember going to sleep nightly with all three of my dogs, holding Preston close to me with his head resting alongside mine on the pillow, and repeatedly telling him “I love you so much”, over and over and over again, until I drifted asleep. It became so bad that on the early morning of November 2, 2014, I closed the door to my home office and wrote what was to be my final blog entry titled “Save Me, and I’ll Save You“, with the intention of making it public, and then blowing my head clean off with my S&W 9mm. Weird, because I purchased that handgun for my and my dogs safety, but I never thought I’d have to protect myself from myself.

At the moment I decided to proceed, Preston nudged the door open with his nose. I took one look into those beautiful brown eyes of his, and wept. Preston prevented me from carrying out an action I had no way to take back.

Image by: Greg Murray Photography ©

The following spring, I got into a serious auto accident, and suffered a concussion – the third of my life, from slamming into the cement highway guardrail on a pouring rain morning commute to the office. This manifested itself into post concussion syndrome a month or so later, which lasted for nearly a year. During this, I visited all three of Cleveland’s main hospitals seeking their help and expertise. They all prescribed several pharmaceuticals, which made my suicidal thoughts resurface again. I had no quality of life – I went to work, took my meds to ease the pain, went home after the 8 hour day, let out and fed the dogs, and was in bed by 7 that night…every night, most nights without dinner. I felt like a shell of myself, like a robot…numb to everything. I knew, this was not living.

On a January 2016 morning, I made the decision that if I am going to survive, I will need to do it myself. All by myself…but, with the help of my dogs, obviously. I threw away the prescriptions, and began venturing out in the cold with my camera and a dog (mainly Preston), photographing the urban decay of Cleveland. There’s something beautiful about rust and graffiti-laced, dilapidated vacant buildings, and the way they appear in the dead of winter. Bringing one of my dogs with me served two purposes. They still needed to be walked, and it gave me a companion to be a pair of eyes for me while I get lost in the moment framing my next shot.

A scene captured at Euclid Beach in Cleveland, Ohio in 02/2016

Art and expressing my creative self was one of the things that was missing prior to, and by reintroducing it back into my life, it was the therapy that temporarily took away the pain I was in. My dogs – specifically Preston, were the only reason that kept me from “pulling the trigger” – both figuratively and literally speaking. Which bought me time to get myself better – mentally and physically, again.

Since, I still have some bad days, but they’re not as often as before. Each day my well-being gets a little better. Because of those experiences, I am now armed with a new sense of what’s important, and the message it has with the creation of this start up non-profit (filing still pending) organization I founded, WOOFobia, because I noticed a growing need for more advocacy work which includes both dog and their human counterpart. Especially with the spike in cases of mental illness, and trend of them being brushed aside where nobody wants to talk about it, which leads to more suffering of all at the hands of it.

Back on July 28, 2006, I was at my local Honda dealership buying a brand new car for a birthday present to myself, at the exact same time Preston’s life was scheduled to expire. When the rescue stepped up and fate saved him from his demise, it happened on my birthday. His new life started the day we celebrate mine. Some things are just supposed to happen, like celebrating the human-canine bond with your best friend, hero and soulmate (or souldog), as we do every July 28th and October 4th, since we crashed into each other’s lives.

It brings up the age old question – who rescued whom?

— Jeff Theman
WOOFobia, Executive Director
River Fire Films, LLC, Filmmaker/Director/Producer

— To submit your “You Had Me At WOOF” story, click HERE! —