breed discrimination · Dog Safety

The Facts

Dear Mayor Degeeter, members of Parma City Council, Clerk of Council Ramser, Director of Public Safety Weinreich and Law Director Dobeck;

As of Monday, three council meetings are in the books for our initiative to repeal Parma’s 30+ year “pit bull” ban. Six full weeks since the official start of this cause; who knows how many more we’ll have to attend until the law gets replaced with a strengthened ordinance that actually does the job it’s supposed to do – protect the citizens from potentially dangerous dogs and reckless dog owners, including those labeled “pit bull”. One thing is for certain, it will in due time, but it’s going to take many, many more weeks before it does. We’re prepared to do that. We just haven’t done a good enough job thus far articulating why you should care enough to make this a priority. Or, at very least, instill enough doubt about the effectiveness of your current dangerous dog ordinance. It’ll happen eventually. I’m confident that a common sense approach will prevail with a little persistence.

After the first council meeting we attended as a group, I decided I would write an email to all of you after each meeting. The first in this series was to be completely transparent, and briefly outline the steps of our plans. Basically, to give you the playbook, so you aren’t caught off guard. That’s incredibly fair to me. It was firm, but professional. We are going to conduct this effort with professionalism, and make sure we’re respectful in our interactions with all of you. That’s a promise. If someone in our group isn’t being respectful, please notify me and we will correct it. This can be an extremely personal and emotional issue for many of us – on all sides of the debate, really. The biggest challenge is effective communication, which works both ways.

I take pride in the committed group of dog-lovers we have. We are normal everyday people, that could be your neighbor, family member, or friend. That’s the goal, I think, to be able to discuss these important things like this as friends. When you respect someone – like you would a friend, you’re more willing to sit down and listen to legitimate concerns, even if you may have a set stance or opinion. To add, the duty of an elected public official is to remain unbiased and neutral, and when information is presented that may contradict current laws, ears and eyes should be open to this new(er) science and data. To be a critical thinker in solving these social issues.

So, I’d like to begin by reiterating, we do want to work with you. We would much rather our interactions be memorable ones for all the right reasons. We are sincere. We don’t want anyone to be harmed by dogs. We just want all dogs and their owners judged fairly, as individuals. We have the intellect, dedication and resources to modernize and strengthen your existing dangerous and vicious dog ordinance to make it more inclusive, and when enforced properly, has the ability to identify potentially dangerous dogs who pose a threat before they have an opportunity to escalate in their behavior.

The second email sent in this series was about my personal story – “The Why” I am personally invested in seeing this through. I typically don’t discuss my personal life when interacting with public officials who I am trying to enlighten, but I did think it was necessary at this early stage. So you understand the deeper meaning of why this matters to so many people out there, who have well behaved family dogs of all different looks and personalities. I started an organization last year called WOOFobia, after I began to feel more like myself again. The organization’s mission is to celebrate and secure the human-canine bond, using the arts to deliver a powerful statement. The concept began when I realized how crucial my dogs were in my own survival. The physical, mental and emotional benefits we get by sharing our lives with dogs.

After that second meeting, I was incredibly touched by the unexpected kind gesture of Councilman Casselberry, who caught up and pulled me aside in the parking lot to tell me he was glad I didn’t go through with the plans I detailed in that email where I contemplated suicide during an extremely rough period where I battled with severe depression and anxiety of few years ago. I told him, this is why this subject is important to me – and, when residents of your city asked for help because we were able to be effective in other communities, I had to give what I can. So many others feel the same way as me. The human-canine bond is that crucial of a relationship. The fact is, if not for my dog Preston, I wouldn’t be here today being a thorn in your side. We learned that evening that Councilman Casselberry recently lost a couple family members in a short period of time, and I feel we had a good human moment in that parking lot – even if he and I may not currently see eye to eye in this discussion, we were able to empathize with each other. One human connecting with another.

Three nights ago, at the third council meeting we attended (Monday, Oct. 15), I received back my first lengthy public records request, which contained all communications regarding the ban from 2014 to present. In it, I was able to read the messages Mayor Degeeter and City Council has received from a few people who represent a national “dog bite victims group”. Now is the time to reiterate our statement again – we do not wish anybody (human or other animal) to be harmed by any dog, regardless of perceived type or breed. That’s the difference in our messaging – we want to encompass all dogs and single-out reckless dog owners, they only want to single-out some by generalized looks. Our number one objective is enhancing public safety with dogs. It’s sad, and somewhat disappointing, that time has to be spent advocating against these laws, when that time could be better spent actually implementing programs that do make a difference in the community – another goal of WOOFobia. As mentioned in the first email, whenever anybody is harmed by a dog, we fail as a society…and the most vulnerable victims are usually children and the elderly. This is not a “pit bull” (even used in the most vaguest sense) specific problem.

So, you’ve seen the same few sensationalized things from this group of people they always do. You’ve seen the gross photos of disfigured children. I can produce some, too, if it would help. Only thing is, I won’t include the “breed” or type, because of the irrelevance, and because we don’t feel throwing other reported types of dogs under the bus is productive in the name of public safety. You’d see the same similar outcomes, though. Yes, it is true the size of the dog will determine the potential damage that can be done. Comparing a Chihuahua bite to a medium-large sized dog (which “pit bull” dogs are often described as) bite is not at all an accurate comparison to even entertain. The reality is, the human species is incredibly fragile. The average human can be taken out by a medium-sized dog. But, it rarely happens. If it weren’t for fear (oftentimes, irrational fear), that side wouldn’t have a single case to influence you with. It worked much better in the 80’s, but has become increasingly unpopular as a method for a city to protect the public’s safety, because of all the overwhelming modern day science about this debate. These laws are being shot down and repealed at a much higher frequency than they are being implemented (proposed and passed). The current ones in this country are eventually all going to be replaced in favor of a common sense approach that incorporates all dogs based on actual behavior, so the focus isn’t on subjective physical traits of how some look. It’s just not that popular anymore.

Besides the use of those photos, the predictability continues with that group. They share a thousand news articles about “pit bull” attacks on people and pets. We did a request on the records of the breed identification training for your animal control officer. In the returned request were five pages pertaining to her training, including three separate certificates of course completion by the National Animal Control Association – an organization that is publicly against breed specific legislation. The other two pages are – the National Animal Control Association training guide cover and the chapter (Chapter 5) page in the guide dealing with “Identification of Dogs”. In this chapter, one of the contents is “The Challenges of Breed Identification”. I’ve asked for the additional pages to show what specifically was in this training, but so far from here, it looks like this request only further validates one our concerns in enforcement. So, if the NACA expresses cause for concern on focusing attention on breed or type because of the issues with visual identification, how accurate do you feel news reporting is based on public opinion determining breed? I discussed my own three dogs in a previous email, and how each looks different and each has their own individual personalities. This is true for all dogs. The two things all three had in common, was someone somewhere labeled them “pit bull” in the shelter system, and all three were subject of being killed simply because of it.

Another common thing I’ve seen is the amount of very old cases this group presents in an attempt to support their claims. A rebuttal of my original email one of these people had, was an Ohio Supreme Court case heard in 1990-91 (State v. Anderson), which occurred when Ohio had statewide BSL. Of course the law would be upheld as constitutional – the state declared “pit bull” dogs as inherently vicious and restricted ownership! The original statewide law was passed in mid 1987, and subsequently repealed 25 years later in the 129th General Assembly with the passage of Ohio HB14 in May 2012.

The same above reasoning holds true for the rest of the examples she gave:

  • State v. Robinson (1989) – Ohio had statewide BSL…
  • Singer v. Cincinnati (1990) – Not only did Ohio have statewide BSL, the city of Cincinnati took additional action – a ban. They repealed their ban in 2012.
  • State v. Smith (2008) – Still had statewide BSL…
  • Tarquinio v. Lakewood (2011) – Not only did Ohio still have statewide BSL, the city of Lakewood had a ban that was implemented in 2008, which was repealed earlier this year, as you know (2018).
  • Tellings v. Toledo (2008) – Not only did Ohio have statewide BSL, the city of Toledo had additional heavier restrictions. Their local law was repealed in 2010.

Since then, a new precedent has been created in the 5th Appellate Court of Appeals – Russ v. Reynoldburg (2017). When the state repealed its law declaring all “pit bull” dogs as vicious, this decision stated local municipalities are in conflict with the state law, thus are unconstitutional. What this means to you is, if Parma’s law should go to court, you will lose. I have cc’ed the attorney, Phil Calabrese, who represented this case, to this email in the event you may have any questions for him. He’s a very nice guy, and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind responding if there are inquiries.

I have watched all the coverage done by the local news since our efforts kicked off. Two of you were interviewed – Mayor Degeeter and Director of Public Safety Weinreich, repeating the same method we should take if we want to get this change done – a petition to take to the people of Parma. Now, you and I both know why you are recommending this method. For Parma – a suburb of 80,000 residents, a petition would require a ton of signatures of registered voters, and an awful lot of time going door to door. You also know how terribly wrong things can go going the petition route – verifying signatures and deceiving verbiage on the ballot once the petition is approved. Even supporters of this change can be confused by the wording. But, we are actively organizing the petition as we speak, ensuring we get the proper and official protocol down before we take to the streets, in an effort to show we are going to do everything asked, but we still feel the you should do the right thing before our efforts increase in the beginning of 2019. At the moment, we are only organizing at the City Council meetings, so our voices are heard. We have even bigger plans being staged for after the New Year.

There’s been a couple things stated in the news that have made me question. Mayor Degeeter has said of the 30+ year ban: “From our administration standpointm we think it’s working, it’s been in place since I was in high school.” In this same news article, the city also stated Parma has forced out seven “pit bull” dogs in 2016, and another nine in 2017 (no stats were given for 2018). How? How is this law working if you have 16 dogs labeled “pit bull” in two recent years kicked out of the city thirty years after the ban was implemented. You clearly have a ton of dogs already living fine in your city that could be targeted as “pit bulls”, and “asked” to leave simply because a neighbor may have complained. To any person with a little common sense, this is absurd to think the law is working this far into its implementation, don’t you think? Wouldn’t be a better use of all our time if animal control spent their time on calls of dogs that behaviorally pose a threat to the citizens?

How well do you think you know your constituents? If you believe that the majority of them would vote to keep the law in the place, I feel you don’t really know them at all. Sure, there are going to be some who buy into the fear-based propaganda, but, the general public knows a lot more than we used to about this topic. In this political state of the times, when more and more people are becoming aware and being active on social justice issues, I’d place a wager that the vast majority of your residents do not want this – especially once presented with the current accurate data.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out a couple other things I noticed in the records request so far. As I stated in the first email sent out, this law that spread like wildfire in the 1980’s began as a tool to use to legally harass lower income families and people of color. I gave a couple brief examples in that email. Parma has been scrutinized for questionable character in the past regarding race relations and classism. That chatter happens about your city. Statistically, it is not an inclusive and welcoming community, populated by 88% white. Now, I am not calling any of you a racist or classist, but there are residents who I would. One of those examples was in the records request, where a woman used these racist and classist undertones. I am not going to repeat what was said, but I am shocked, amazed and disgusted that in 2018 we have to explain inclusion is a good thing, and there is no place in this country for stereotyping and generalizing dogs or the human family members that share their home with them.

Last, it makes me sad that since the onset of this initiative I’ve observed some of you actively engaging in inviting people (some of whom are out-of-staters) to attend council meetings who share this short-sighted belief to combat our advocacy. Even in those earlier interactions, I feel most of you would have never given us an equal opportunity to present our case. Public officials – elected ones, especially, must remain open-minded and neutral. We are firm in our position, because we know there is literally no logical or rational reason for this law, short of fear and perceptions. We’ve been called out at least once, as being disrespectful and name-calling, which I don’t those accusations lightly, for the simple fact that they haven’t occurred. Perhaps this person was being defensive, but it’s not helpful, and frankly you have left us no choice but to be firm. If you have any input here, I would appreciate it. We know that the only way this is going to get done is if we have cooperation from the government, which means you, or the people we hope to help campaign for to get elected in the upcoming elections.

We want to be the people you go to for questions you cannot answer. We want to be the ones who provide the resources and solutions needed to make Parma a welcoming and inclusive place for everyone. Activism doesn’t end once a breed neutral law is implemented. It continues on. These are the facts. We hope each of you will consider sitting down face to face and discuss this further with us. We need to work together to solve this. My apologies, again, for another lengthy email….there is just to much to say at this stage. I will try my best to shorten them up in the future.

Sincerely,

Jeff Theman
WOOFobia, Executive Director

breed discrimination · Human-Canine Bond

The Why

Dear Mayor Degeeter, members of Parma City Council, Clerk of Council Ramser, Director of Public Safety Weinreich and Law Director Dobeck;
Hello, again, everyone. It’s been a couple weeks since my last email, and I wanted to send out another before Monday evening’s council meeting. In my previous email, the goal was to be forthcoming and completely transparent about our intentions, and how we are going to implement them. I feel we can be firm in our position, while still being professional. Also, to reiterate, some of us spearheading this initiative may not live in Parma, but many, many, many residents have indeed contacted us after we successfully worked with Lakewood City Council to craft a much stronger dangerous/vicious dog ordnance, and asked for our help to replicate what we did there in Parma. Additionally, many of us also have family and friends who are Parma residents, as well as places of business we spend our money at, so this impacts us, even if we aren’t residents. 
It’s a shame we only get 3 minutes, twice per month, to formally speak to Council, because for something so seemingly simple, I do admit this is a multi-layered, complex issue with numerous nuances in it. So, I am left writing these lengthy emails, hoping those public officials it’s addressed to will fully read and comprehend the material that took precious time spent on. We care about public safety, just as much as we care about equal opportunity for dogs and humans. We can and do care about both. As a matter of fact, we have the same exact goals you who sit on Parma City Council have – except our version includes every dog and human, regardless what their physical traits may be. We focus solely on the behavior to decipher who may or may not be a threat to public safety. Behavior, behavior, behavior. Focusing on fear is failure.
Through my experiences, I have always believed to stick to the facts and the science when interacting with public officials about this law. To leave the emotion at the door. Let common sense prevail. It will indeed do so eventually. But, I do find it appropriate to speak on a personal level for this specific email. I’ve told you about what we’re going to do, and I detailed how we’re going to do it, but I haven’t explained the why…specifically why I am personally involved. And, I believe that is extremely important for you to know. I do want to apologize in advance, it will be another very long one, but worth the time. I promise this will be the last one of these book-like emails. 
In my last email, I barely gave much about myself, so I wanted to expand on that a bit. As I stated, I do not consider myself a “pit bull” advocate. If I have any bias, it’s because I am a lifelong dog-lover. But, that’s where the line starts and ends. As an Ohio resident “born and bred”, I grew up with our statewide BSL and never even knew we had it. My family and I didn’t have dogs that would ever visually fit the targeted description (however subjective and vague it may be), so we were just as ignorant and unaware as most Ohioans about the issue. 
Of course, we’ve seen the horrible news headlines in the 80’s and 90’s about “these” dogs terrorizing neighborhoods in low-income urbanized areas, so even as a family of dog-lovers, we were at least partially influenced by what we seen in the media. And, our opinions about “these” dogs reflected that. It wasn’t until many years later when I stayed with an out of town friend who had a dog named Kena. The entire week I was visiting, every night she slept cuddled up in guest bed with me. She was an absolute doll, and was my first real experience interacting with a dog labeled as a “pit bull”. To this day, I think about her, and the door she unlatched open. 
I have always been a creative person, and in 2005 i began writing my first screenplay based on a period in my life. Once completed about two years later, I attempted to turn this script into an independent feature film, but couldn’t keep a cast and crew together long enough to start production. I then turned my attention to something I could control from start to finish – a documentary film. Having no film experience, and no formal schooling, I began researching animal abuse in February 2007, attempting to scale down a subject matter to base the project on. I spent weeks, upon weeks, upon weeks, reading every article, watching every video, about every reprehensible act humans have done to mistreat animals. Just when I was about to decide to move forward with a film about the broken shelter system, an NFL star quarterback – Michael Vick, was suspected of dog-fighting crimes in April of that same year. 
His face and the ongoing developing story was plastered all over ESPN and other media outlets for days. I took it as a sign, and officially began my documentary about dog-fighting, with a emphasis on the victims…the dogs. 
One year later, in April 2008, I reached out to the only “pit bull” rescue (at the time) here in Cleveland, Ohio – For The Love Of Pits, wanting to learn more about “these” dogs. My exposure was still limited. I arranged a day with the owner, Shana Klein, to come to her home and spend some time with her and some of the adoptable dogs in her rescue. When I walked inside, I was immediately greeted at the front door by 5 or 6 deliriously happy puppies leaping over the short child gate meant to block them in the kitchen. Tails wagged, puppy tongues were flying just about everywhere…as a dog-lover, it was pure bliss. 
 
We eventually moved our conversation into the kitchen, which is where I met him – Preston. The dog who changed everything. Even though the puppies were much younger, they were still a bit taller than Preston, therefore he wasn’t able to leap over the child gate and meet me at the door with them. He moved up to my feet, sat down, and looked up at me with these big brown eyes I can never forget. I knew instantly there was something special about this little black dog. I decided to squat down and say hello, and that’s where I noticed several scars slashed on his arms. Before I could even turn around to ask, Shana said (paraphrasing): “That’s Preston. He’s our dog who was formerly used for fighting”. This was the first dog I ever met, who allegedly came from this background, but I don’t remember feeling fearful. Just sad. 
After a little while longer, we eventually moved our conversation again, this time out on the deck in the backyard. All the dogs of course followed us out, and Preston again sat at my feet when I found a chair to sit in. I motioned for him to come up, and he obliged. Once on my lap, he took a few turns attempting to find his spot, then plopped his back right into the crevice between my arm and body, with his head resting on my shoulder. I turned to Shana and said: “Did you train him to do that?!” Without giving her enough time to even answer, I blurted out – “I’m going to adopt this dog!”
 
It was never my intention to find a dog. Never mind a dog like Preston. I wasn’t even in the market for a dog. I was living in Lakewood for a couple years, enjoying my complete independence – one of the only periods where a dog was not present daily. But, I did start to settle down the previous year. stayed home much more often, and the thought of having Preston with me just felt right. It felt like it was supposed to happen. My apartment didn’t allow dogs (of any type), so i started to look for rentals that would allow a pet. I wanted to stay in Lakewood. I enjoyed the community, and its progressive values (the perception, anyway). Plus, everywhere you looked people were walking their dogs. That was important to me. 
 
But, that did not last; a couple weeks later in May 2008, Lakewood City Councilman Brian Powers proposed a ban of “pit bull” dogs. I began attending all the council meetings with my camera rolling – the thought being some of this material could be included in my anti-dog fighting film. But, as it became more and more clear, if I was to bring Preston home, that home would have to be in a city outside of Lakewood. In July, the ordinance passed, and I turned my attention and changed the topic of my film to breed discrimination, titling it – “Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent” (GTPI). A couple months later, I moved to Eaton Township in Lorain County. It took me nearly 6 months, but on October 4, 2008, Preston was officially a Theman.
From there, Preston and I went everywhere together. I walked him every day in the metroparks – rain, sleet, shine or snow. He was there when my grandfather was dying in 2009, and wanted home hospice. Let me tell you, it’s an eerie feeling knowing someone you love is dying in the next room over. When it was my turn to stay the night, Preston comforted me. When I discovered I had a human soulmate on this earth, Preston celebrated with me. When it didn’t work out, he, again, was constantly there for me. Through this, I added two more dogs (both labeled “pit bull” in the shelter system), Era in 2011, and Fergie in 2012, but the relationship I have with Preston is and always will be different. He’s my canine soulmate – my souldog. 
 
We originally released GTPI by premiering the film here in Cleveland on April 28, 2013. From there, it went on to have some success; screened 20-some times in cities around the country, including two film festivals (2013 St. Louis International Film Festival, 2014 Kansas City Film Fest), among other achievements  When I set out to do this project, I decided to I had to start on a blank slate, forget anything I thought I knew and let the story organically develop in front of me. I only sought out credible experts, which means I had to reach out to a lot of people to be able to sift through who is who, and also made sure to interview notable people who stood on both sides of the debate, to make it as unbiased as humanly possible. And I felt we mostly accomplished that task. 
 
There was a time in my life, especially early on in my research (2008-2011) where I questioned to myself whether or not I was doing the right thing. If i was seeing the issue clearly. Or if I was letting “my bias” get the better of me, and compromise the integrity of the film. I think it’s impossible for someone to not be at least somewhat affected by news reports of interactions with dogs gone wrong. I believe I had to go through those self doubts, to get to where I am today. It truly made me leave no stone unturned in my studies, so my work can never be branded as “pit bull” propaganda. If anyone says it is, they clearly never watched it. 
 
By mid-2014, I started noticing I felt off. I spent a considerable amount of time in advocacy and rescue, and didn’t like the way things were being done. Accountability and transparency are high on my list – both then and now. And, I felt we were our own worst enemy in this cause – the wolf in sheep’s clothing. I felt like we can be honest and still be right. And, I looked around at all the unnecessary suffering – to dogs, to people, to other animals, and it seriously affected me. I knew we could do better. During this time, I even contacted several of those same people (the “dog bite victims group” and other pro-BSL folks) who stood on the polar opposite side of me, attempting to understand why they do what they do. Those messages were either left unanswered, or the conversation I did have with one was mostly spent trying to defend my honest intentions in engaging dialogue. Oh well, I did try.
 
My mental health began to slowly deteriorate; I was in the infancy stage of true debilitating depression – like nothing I ever experienced before. I had no sleeping pattern. I’d get a couple hours of sleep, then wake up in a panic and sweat. Then, on November 2, 2014, I woke up about 4am, closed the door to my home office, and began to write what was to be my final blog entry titled – Save Me, And I’ll Save You. The plan was to publish it, then blow my head clean off. I purchased that gun for protection after being violently assaulted in 2010. It never occurred to me that I would need protection from myself. 
 
Near completion of the blog, I stopped to take a break, took the gun out of the closet it was kept in, set it on my computer desk and stared at it. I don’t remember what was going through my head, but I do remember a feeling of relief that it was all about to end. The pain I was in was finally going to be gone. At about 9am, I wrote the last sentence, and hit the publish button, and just as I was about to get the nerve to pick it up and pull the trigger, Preston nudges the door open with his nose. He looked at me with those big brown eyes again, like he did the day I met him, and whoosh it all came back to me – the reason I am still here. I sat there and just wept. 
 
Things didn’t get any easier, though. The next two years were challenging not only mentally but physically, as well.  I had a nagging neck, shoulder and back pain initially caused by spasms, that increased after a bad auto accident in June 2015, where I was diagnosed with post concussion syndrome several months later. I was on three different pharmaceuticals, that were constantly interchanged trying to find the right dosages and kinds. They all just made me feel numb, and I didn’t like living that kind of life. I thought about suicide a lot. Basically every day, multiple times per day. I can honestly say, if it weren’t for my dogs – Preston, specifically, on numerous other occasions, I wouldn’t be here writing this email to you today. 
 
When I started to feel better, and more like myself again, I realized something that I would have never thought about had I not had to suffer and endure what I went through – the power of the human-canine bond. This is something that has been studied a lot – the physical, mental, and emotional benefits we, humans, get from companionship with dogs. We definitely are the ones who benefit most from this relationship. Do you know when it stopped mattering what my dogs look like, who they were labeled as, or any other generalization that is assigned to them? It was then, at those moments of life and death. Preston and my girls aren’t the exception to the rule. They are the rule. This is the reason last year I started my non-profit (filing still pending), WOOFobia, which was set up to celebrate and secure the human-canine bond, using the arts to be the vehicle of change.
Through my years and years of being involved, there’s been one story that I have not been able to forget, and likely never will. In 2012, a struggling soap opera actor, Nick Santino, committed suicide after being pressured by a condo policy to remove his beloved dog, Rocco, from the building. Feeling as if he had no other choice, Mr. Santino put him to sleep, and that guilt weighed on him as he then took his own life:
 
Yes, it is true dogs are dogs, and it is important to protect the safety of the citizens from potential threats by dogs. But, dogs are also family, and well behaved family dogs, regardless of their physical traits, should be able to live anywhere their family members live without the threat of an archaic, draconian, ineffective, and subjective law to interfere and be a threat of its own to the well being of a family. I get messaged – publicly and privately, all the time from people with stories about their dogs being the only reason they even get up in the morning. Dogs give us purpose to continue when we don’t even want to. This is why we do this. When residents reach out to us asking for help, I know the feeling of being defeated. Of not knowing where to turn. Feeling at any moment our lives can be different. I know the feeling of uncertainty. And, I know the feeling I have when I am comforted by my dogs, and how it all go away. 
 
This is why we’re in it for the long haul, and won’t accept anything short of a full repeal of breed specific legislation in Parma, Ohio. 
Sincerely,
Jeff Theman
WOOFobia, Executive Director
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. 
 
Sincerely,
Jeff Theman
WOOFobia, Executive Director
Related Links:
Sept. 17, 2018
Sept. 18, 2018
Sept. 20, 2018
breed discrimination

To Err Is Human

Humans are exceptionally complex beings. The same can also be said for other species who we coexist together with on this planet, especially those we share our homes with, such as dogs. In its simplest form, like us, they are not only in the world, but aware and conscious of it. They are sentient individuals who depend on the same basic principles for survival as we do – air to breathe, food to eat, and water to drink.  Also like us, they desire shelter, companionship, freedom of movement, and the avoidance of pain.

But, too often, we attempt to simplify and compartmentalize individuals by broad, sweeping generalizations, regularly by stereotyping by appearance or physical traits. We do this naturally to be more efficient in life by fitting everything into neat, little boxes, to help satisfy our intuition to quickly analyze, and possibly predict our world around us, to avoid a potential threat to our well-being. These mental shortcuts we learn from family, friends, peers and other influences, such as the media, are a result of how we process and communicate “knowledge”, especially those with negative associations – whether we are directly or indirectly affected by them.

There are many examples that can be found where an accident is not a matter of life and death. We chalk it up to “To Err Is Human”, which is used to exonerate any fault or blame, and say – “No harm, no foul”. But, what about cases where zero error in judgement is imperative and expected, and comes with a price if and when it does occur?

Laws like Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) – or breed discrimination (BDL) to be more accurate, which target certain breeds or types of dogs as inherently vicious at birth, are found in all 3 types of developed human settlements – urban, rural and suburban environments. They can include one or more targeted breeds/types of canine, which almost always includes at least “pit bull” dogs. Here in the United States, these laws can be enforced as a restriction (i.e…liability insurance, public muzzling, special containment, among others) or an outright ban, and can be implemented at every level of government – Federal (i.e. Military bans), the State, or local municipality (county, city, town, etc.).

In other countries, it can be implemented in a region of land independently governed – i.e. a Province, as is the case with Ontario, Canada; or in places like the United Kingdom, which incorporates 4 separate countries – England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales, to name a world example. Branched off of the actual laws (as in, legislation), there is also policy that can and has discriminated towards one or more breeds/types of dog, including the insurance (home and rental) and housing industries, as well as animal boarding/grooming corporate policies.

These laws enacted by government are oftentimes used as a tool by law enforcement and humane agencies, directed at specific classes of people (social, or even racial, prejudice), due to the way laws work where you cannot draft legislation that discriminates against a protected class…Dog owners are not a protected class. There’s internet memes that have become running jokes about the inability to accurately identify dogs via visual identification alone. These images display half a dozen or so images of various items and all are labeled ‘Pit Bull” beneath them to comically show the plight of the cause.

The chore to enforce and carry out the laws are often bestowed upon the the local municipality’s Animal Control Department, which frequently produces subjective identification practices, and otherwise innocent dogs (if not for the subjective law) are impacted – at times even with the loss of their own life. None of this, mind you, is due to how that individual dog actually behaved, but simply because their physical appearance resembles that of a targeted dog – We should all hope to be defined by only what we do, say and how we act.

Although the following scenario presented below humorously characterizes the failure of enforcement and makes a case against the laws and policies which identify dogs as vicious due to breed/type, the real life situations of families and their pets affected are anything but funny. They’re downright scary.

This morning, I drove to the local grocery store near me – Giant Eagle in Parma, Ohio (the city of Parma has a ban of “pit bull” dogs since the 80’s) to pick up a few items needed to make breakfast for me and my three dogs. It’s an every weekend ritual we do. First, I went to the produce section and grabbed some bananas, then ventured to the bread and dairy aisles to grab English muffins and butter spread. And then, on towards the checkout registers I then went.

Passing through, I stopped at a rack that had an assortment of pet related items, like the dog bowls below with photographs of breed specific dogs to attract those who adore those certain breeds.

First, there was one with PUG on the side, and a photo of a typical looking Pug inside…

Next, BICHON, with a typical Bichon Frise…

LAB, with a typical black Labrador Retriever puppy…

A BOXER with a typical Boxer…

Then, AUSTRALIAN SHEPHERD, with a typi-…{abrupt record scratch sound}, Say what?!?

Now, we understand that this can also go against us, because we are looking at a photo of a dog and also visually identifying the breed, but we’d like to think in no way would someone say the dog inside this bowl conforms to an Australian Shepherd (see AKCs photo).

Clearly this was human error at the manufacturing plant these bowls are mass produced at. Nobody got harmed. We can all have a good chuckle at the expense of them. There’s always tomorrow to correct this mistake.

But, through this, there’s a strong argument that can be made which shows the very reason these laws and policies are inept – human error. Additionally, animal control departments serve primarily one function – to keep the city safe from potentially dangerous dogs and other animals.

If we are to truly be serious and want to protect our communities from dangerous dogs, we need general, breed-neutral dog laws, with an emphasis on behavior, so the focus doesn’t get sidetracked from the actual problem.

Our first widespread initiative at WOOFobia is focusing the attention on removing any law or policy that singles-out any dog by looks alone, in any place around the world, to help ensure all dogs are judged on a level playing field, and to secure and celebrate the all-important Human-Canine Bond. Because, killing innocent family dogs who have done no wrong, is something that does not deserve forgiveness, and should be placed in the history books with all other forms of discrimination and intolerance.

There just is no rational or logical reason for the law – short of fear-based propaganda. We invite you to join us in this fight. To collaborate and/or volunteer, Contact Us HERE!