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 · Dog Safety · Human-Canine Bond

Opinions Are Not Facts; Editorial Boards Are Not Experts

RE: “Pit Bull” Bans Are Still Justified

Dear Denver Post Editorial Board,

What exactly is the job function of an Editorial Board? Is it to express opinions based on well researched facts? Or, is it to continue sensationalizing a tired, nonsensical storyline in the name of clicks? We want to know.

And, what qualifications must one possess to be on such a privileged committee designated to be the official voice of the news organization, who are handed over the task to make strong, compelling arguments about complex issues and affect the mindsets of their audience? We’d also like to know.

On Monday, January 29, 2018, the Denver Post Editorial Board released an opinion piece titled “Pit Bull Bans Are Still Justified“, due to a nearby community, Castle Rock, considering a repeal of their 26 year old ban on “pit bull” dogs.

The article begins by casually sympathizing with those residents who live throughout the Denver Metropolitan area, affected by laws called Breed Specific Legislation (BSL), which target certain types or breeds of dog – in this case, “pit bull” dogs, by restricting or prohibiting ownership within a municipalities jurisdiction, causing hardships for responsible families with good family dogs who have done nothing wrong.

By the time we get to the third paragraph, your position is quite clear in response to the repeal initiative in Castle Rock – “we must revisit why these breed-specific bans are justifiable rules in urban areas.

Not only have the leading experts weighed in repeatedly against this type of ideology on numerous occasions, it’s become an increasingly unpopular opinion to have, as well. The reality is, there is no justifiable or rational reason in favor of Breed Specific Legislation. None. Nada. Zero. Zilch…none that wouldn’t apply to community safety with all dogs of all shapes, sizes, types and looks…that is, if we’re talking about actual undesirable behavior by an animal. But, oftentimes, the dogs are not even what this is all about…

By the fourth paragraph, you proudly pat yourselves on the back for actively supporting a proven failed concept, and applauded Aurora voters in 2014 for upholding their ban while it was on the ballot. It’s no wonder several communities in Denver metro still enforce BSL and attempts to repeal such legislation have fallen short, since the region’s largest news source – YOU, the Denver Post, have the mistaken point of view you publicly share, which starts at the top of the organization. You helped create this irrational fear.

There’s been a number of studies performed about the mass media’s power to shape public perception, especially about controversial topics. With attention spans seemingly getting shorter, and the advancements in technology with how ours news is delivered in bits, pieces and soundbites, it’s the primary way people get their information. But, the general public, for the most part, are impressionable to what they see and hear on the news, and you take full advantage of that with incomplete and careless journalism and editorials, ensuring we don’t take huge strides forward in public safety matters with dogs. It always starts with education, not legislation.

We must revisit why these breed-specific bans are justifiable rules in urban areas.
– Denver Post Editorial Board, 01/29/2018

During the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, the term “Fake News” was introduced into our everyday vocabularies, and used back and forth by supporters of both political parties, in an effort to downplay the significance or credibility of the information (or propaganda) the opposition shares. That election, as well as the subsequent following year, the political climate is unlike anything we’ve seen before in American politics. And, in many ways, there was this side war being waged against many of these news outlets, deservingly so.

We remind dog advocates and those who fight this political war targeting certain breeds, historically one of our biggest challenges has been media bias, where attention on “pit bull” dogs (for example) outweighed similar stories with other types of dogs. We put together an example of this very bias several years ago on our former blog project: DogsByte.Org

We can sympathize with the demanding job a journalist has. They are required to find interesting stories to report on that appeal to their demographic, and aren’t given the proper time necessary to thoroughly investigate and decipher what is factual and what is not. But, that should no longer be an excuse, especially as highly publicized this ongoing debate has been for several decades, and how quickly its evolved and flipped in recent years. We know better now. And we have the majority of scientific proof to back it.

Along the way, the media has helped move the needle incrementally in the right direction, but some still hang on to outdated and poorly researched propaganda, and that has handicapped those more skeptical and unwilling to entertain the overwhelming amount of modern day science that exists today. Part of it is due to what the media has shown, which psychologists say, fuels that irrational fear, and can impact the way people view certain dogs, even if they never personally met one that they were aware of. The public’s perception and acceptance of “pit bull” dogs have done a near 180, but instead of channeling the available time and resources into more education programs that could potentially prevent an unfortunate mishap happening by any dog, those efforts have to be made proving archaic policies and legislation such as BSL wrong and reckless, and the primary perpetuator of this is your profession.

You actually state a scientific fact in paragraph five, which completely contradicts much of the rest of the editorial. Yes, behavior of an individual animal – which includes humans, is heavily influenced by their environment. And, all individuals will respond to said environment in their own individual ways. The question that probably should have been asked –  Is it nature, or is it nurture? And the answer to that – It’s both! Across the board.

Immediately following some common sense, you revert back to unsubstantiated claims that border myth in paragraph six, while also acknowledging one of the many reasons Breed Specific Legislation is severely flawed by defining your definition of what constitutes a “pit bull”. Literally, ask ten people, and you’ll likely get around ten different answers of what a “pit bull” is to them.

Breed identification has always been the number one issue pertaining to the real life individual dogs affected by these draconian laws. They’re incredibly subjective, as they are usually first identified through visual identification, by someone who is not qualified to make those determinations or is not a breed expert of any kind. Animal control officers and other law enforcement aren’t trained in breed identification, because it’s simply not relevant to the actual job function of keeping their community’s safe. Nor do they possess a special power that tells them the genetic ancestry of a dog by looking at him or her. No magic crystal balls to predict how an individual dog will behave in the future, either.

The primary problem with the two studies in paragraphs seven and eight are breed identification! Without getting too in-depth about the meaning of the term “breed”, we will pretend we are all talking about the same thing when we play this game and we will conform to your definition for this purpose; The generic term, as you state, “pit bulls”, are American Staffordshire Terriers, American Pit Bull Terriers, and Staffordshire Bull Terriers. So, we admittedly aren’t talking about just one breed then, are we? Those are three separate breeds, recognized by different kennel clubs. If we agree on that, each deserves to be looked at individually, and not lumped together with a generic (your word, not ours) label of “pit bull”. And then, what about mixes? Where do they fit in this charade? Where is the cutoff in a mixed-breed dog, where the “pit bull” percentage doesn’t matter? What dogs are we talking about that are inherently guilty of birth?

One of the most glaring problems with breed labeling is, many households obtain dogs through shelter or rescue organizations, where there are no papers or documented lineage of the dog from a reputable breeder, and the dogs arrive with completely unknown histories. The person(s) doing the identifying is usually someone on the shelter staff, the rescue, and/or the adopter.

There has been studies done about the reliability, or lack thereof, with visual identification. One such study was done by Maddie’s Fund, where animal industry professionals guessed the predominant breed(s) from images of shelter dogs DNA tested at a miserable success rate of 27%. These are people who are in the animal field as their profession, and that’s their combined accuracy. What do you think yours would be?:

Maddie’s Fund Breed Identification Study.

Paragraph nine – more baseless claims with no scientific facts to back it up. Please show us what you have.

Paragraph ten – We actually want to thank you for bringing up the infamous CDC study, because – as you mention to begin the paragraph, they have verbiage at the conclusion which explains exactly why their position on breed specific regulations are a waste of time and resources – reverting back to the difficulties of breed identification, and the rarity of fatal attacks by all dogs. Additionally, the CDC stopped tracking data years ago pertaining to breed/type involved in dog attacks and Dog Bite-Related Fatalities (DBRFs), because of its irrelevance in the equation. Our time would be more wisely spent, dissecting the environmental factors to see if there are the same consistencies usually present in investigations where dogs have behaved badly (family dog-vs-resident dog, for example). Dogs generally do not attack out-of-the blue. There is always a reason, even if it cannot be explained in a “rational” way to human beings.

CDC Study: Conclusion

Your eleventh paragraph, you lean towards logic and common sense once again, by discussing the realities of dog related incidents, and the rarity of those fatal ones. If you think about it, this is pretty remarkable, considering how many people and dogs there are on this planet, living in close proximity to each other, and more times than not – Nothing. Ever. Happens.

We push dogs into situations where they are routinely forced in uncomfortable settings and they attempt to tell us with their body language (tongue flicks, yawns, position of ears and tails, etc), but nothing happens. Dogs deserve a lot of credit, more than we give them. Dogs are extremely resilient, and do more than their fair share of compromising in this relationship. And it’s time we start acknowledging that fact, so we can move this conversation to productive grounds that truly have a level playing field for all – dog and human. We can have equality and safety. One doesn’t cancel out the other.

Now repeat after us – There is no logical, rational and/or justifiable reason for BSL.

—————

Links:
Media Bias – https://dogsbyte.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/media-bias-study/

Dog Safety

The Worst Part Of Dog Advocacy

Unfortunately, the worst part of dog advocacy is the fact that sometimes things can and do go wrong, and a human sustains severe and, at times, fatal injuries due to dogs. This puts us in a unique and very sensitive position, as we do not want to diminish the impact dog bite victims and their families go through, but still have to present the valid reasons why this important relationship of man(kind) and dog outweigh any of the negative risks associated with them, so to not disrupt the laundry list of benefits the Human-Canine Bond offers physically, mentally and emotionally to so many.

With an estimated 325 million people and 89 million dogs in the United States, the vast majority of dog bites don’t require any medical attention whatsoever. Even rarer – on average between 25-35 deaths by dogs occur annually. In 2014, 40 deaths nationally were caused by injuries inflicted by dogs – the highest number of fatalities in years. The most common demographic affected negatively are children, the elderly and postal/parcel delivery workers. The sad reality is, there will always be incidents involving dogs. But, the takeaway should be, we can do better to protect the public safety by analyzing these unfortunate incidents with a fine-tooth comb, while also enjoying the companionship of our canine best friends.

Just a few days ago, on Friday, December 15, 2017, a repeating headline appeared in hundreds upon hundreds of news media outlets across the country and around the world – a 22 year old Virginia woman was attacked and killed by her own two dogs. The commonalities to most of these articles we’ve read are – the victim, Bethany Lynn Stephens, was walking her dogs in a rural, wooded area outside of Richmond, Virginia, and had been missing for a day or two, before her father went out and searched for her. When he discovered her body, the two very large brindle dogs – described as “pit bulls”, were “aggressively guarding her”, and had several gruesome wounds. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

In most of these articles, the headline included the dogs were “pit bulls”, identified by Goochland County Sheriff, James Agnew, and were estimated to be around 125 pounds each, followed by, “although the specific breeds of the animals are unknown“.

Several dog advocates, including us, have pointed out in comment sections and social media posts, what appeared to be some inconsistencies, raising questions about this quick open and shut case by investigators, for lack of information pertaining to the unconscionable act allegedly performed by her own two dogs.

First, we should point out that these can be extremely complex situations to find some clarity, due to no alive eye witnesses (as of yet, at least)…we are oftentimes left with nothing but to speculate based on facts and science. We have seen some comments – especially from anti-dog groups, saying this was a predatory attack, and the aggressive dogs were guarding “their kill”. But, dogs typically do not attack their owners “out of the blue”, and this specific case can probably best be summed up that the dogs were most likely protecting their human. Even friends of Bethany have come forward to defend her dogs and her bond with them, believing they were not responsible, and admitting she recently has received death threats. But, Sheriff Agnew is shutting out the idea of homicide, due to no strangulation marks and the fatal wounds being consistent with a dog mauling in the preliminary report by the medical examiner’s office. And, for the record, the body was found Thursday evening, and these remarks by the Sheriff’s office were made less than 24 hours later. Not much time to conduct a full and thorough investigation, before making such bold, conclusive statements like this.

Did they perform bite tests to ensure the impressions matched the ones on her? And, how could an autopsy have been completed in that short of time to determine and basically conclude her cause of death?

Sheriff Agnew had initially chimed in about the themselves, saying he believes they were bred for fighting. On what grounds, and with what proof? Is he also a breed and dog behavior expert? We’d like to see his credentials that allow him to make these baseless declarations. From these comments and some of the shoddy detective work by law enforcement thus far, it makes this whole case seem so suspect and anything but closed. Two cases immediately come to mind from our hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, for reason to have additional doubt, that changes the way we see the case when the facts are present…even if the end result is the same culprit – the dog:

On September 2, 1992, Angela Kaplan was bitten over 100 times by her husband, Jeffrey Mann’s “pit bull” dog, Mack, which ultimately killed her. It was deemed an open and shut case, until Cleveland detective, Michaelene Taliano, grew suspicious when she observed some inconsistencies. Besides the manner in which she was attacked – where her wounds were found, she became wary of Mann’s story as well and whether or not he was telling the whole truth. The two apparently were verbally fighting, and that’s when Mack attacked “unprovoked”. A few months later, it was proved that Mann trained Mack to attack on-cue using commands in a foreign language. Through discussions several years ago with Det. Taliano, Mack initially defied Mann’s demands, but reluctantly followed through with the orders to attack. Because of that, Jeffrey Mann was arrested and charged with murder, and is paying for his crime.

And, finally, in February of 2010, Carolyn Baker was found in her driveway with severe bite wounds on her shoulder made by her Rottweiler dog, Zeus. Zeus was labeled aggressive, taken into custody and put into quarantine. Carolyn’s kids emphatically stated, Zeus did not kill their mom, and wanted him back. After Zeus was killed, the autopsy came back with the evidence proving he was actually a hero who was attempting to pull his human to safety after she collapsed from a heart attack. But, they killed him, even after her family begged them not to. A hero is dead. In a day, a family lost their mother/wife and the only other thing that mattered to her.

There has been more than 60 pieces of evidence collected in the death of Bethany Lynn Stephens. Sheriff Agnew concluded that the dogs are at the Goochland County Animal Control, and set to be euthanized. Earlier today, a more rational article in the Richmond Times Dispatch about the incident was made public, with interviews from dog behavior professionals, attempting to get some clarity on the events that lead to this unfortunate death. But all they can really do is use their knowledge of the field and speculate. Regardless of what the ultimate final findings are – whether the dogs are found to be the killers he claims them to be, or scapegoats in the name of laziness, we feel each and every case deserves better detective work, and decisive remarks should only be released to the media and public once all the known facts become scientifically apparent.

We are requesting public records for this case, and hope others will also demand a better investigation as well. If Bethany were alive, I’m sure she would want the truth to be the deciding factor on their lives in this tragic incident. And with this, if one or both of the dogs turn out to be the culprit, perhaps we can learn better from these tragedies, to educate the public about safety with dogs.

Goochland County:
Goochland County Sheriff’s Office/James Agnew – http://www.goochlandsheriff.org; or send a message via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pg/goochlandsheriff/about/
The Goochland County Animal Control department – tclough@goochlandva.us

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

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 unreliable, 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 reasons; the state of Ohio’s (at the time) existing restriction on “pit bull” dogs 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 issue.

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 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 human beings 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, dragging him on his back before lifting him up into the van by only 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, and 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 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.