Sunday, March 06, 2011

All You Need is Love

Warwick Animal Shelter volunteer Mary Lou with one of the Dennis Dogs.

“A book is like a mirror, if an ass peers into it you can expect an apostle to look out”. 

- Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

I was talking to shelter staff about the well publicized case of Clifford Dennis; a Warwick resident known by the shelter crew for breeding Pit Bull Terriers and at least a couple of times a year, dropping some of his dogs off there. Dennis tethers his dogs to dog houses with chains manufactured for use in heavy construction. With one of the worst winter storms in recent history on tap, an anonymous call was made to the Warwick City Council president alerting him that the dogs were outside. Quickly and with an apparent dime dropped to TV news outlets his dogs were confiscated by the Warwick Police and brought to the animal shelter. Dennis has been by the shelter quite a bit since then. I’ve seen him there from time to time over the years. He’s an imposing character, driving around in an old pick-up truck, often with two of his more prized PBT’s riding shotgun. To me it feels like being in the presence of darkness, foreboding. Aside from the observable there are equally unpleasant rumors about his personal politics and then the obvious question for which there can be only one answer, “Why do you breed Pit Bull Terriers?” When queried he’ll sometimes refer to Biblical passages. His dogs are a mixed bag with a couple of common denominators. They are all well fed, all, except for the puppies were extremely tactile sensitive, never having set paw on a tiled floor and while they were confiscated for fear of exposure none appeared to be suffering from it. In the south, hunting dogs are frequently housed strictly outdoors in enclosures that use chambers, wind flaps and hay to keep the dogs warm and dry. They are not family pets and while the life of working dogs seems terribly out of context for many pet dog owners it is not by it's nature inhumane. Strictly speaking these were not working dogs either. I'm not trying to beat around the bush; only Clifford Dennis truly knows what becomes of his dogs. I can only speculate and to me, it looks bad, it looks very bad. This to me is a case of "If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck then it's probably a duck." The lucky ones, thanks to the staff, volunteers and efforts of people like Sue Parker and Tammy Mello end up at the shelter and eventually find good homes. The others, I suspect, are destined for misery.
For all of this there’s a stinky cheese irony to this story that I can’t get away from. Beyond the initial “something smells amiss” aspect, by all accounts Clifford Dennis knows his dogs very well, helping Ann and co. with useful insight into their personalities. He’s quite tuned into them, his frequent visits suggest concern for them. All of this stands in glaring contrast to the strange disconnect, the degrees of separation that exist when you’re breeding a type of dog that suffers in mass at virtually every municipal and private shelter in the country. Dogs who’s “job” is all too often to fight other dogs. Again, the obvious and bewildering question is why? Why on earth would any thoughtful person perpetuate such misery while on the surface appearing to have an affinity for the breed? Of course you can’t talk about Pit Bull Terriers without a heavy, we’re talking black hole heavy, sense of irony. PBTs are vilified in the press every time someone is mauled by one, yet statistically you are far more likely to be bitten by other supposedly less aggressive breeds. I, for the record, have never been bit by a Pit Bull Terrier. If I’m talking broad strokes, they’re some of the sweetest, smartest dogs I’ve worked with. They are, in theory, bred to cope with an extraordinary amount of abuse from humans while being equally intolerant of other dogs and yet, like any other breed there are frequent exceptions, i.e. that rare dog that is aggressive towards humans. Finally, outspoken fans can still find themselves working in earnest to promote low cost spay/neuter programs that limit their numbers.
Ultimately this is a dilemma of an existential nature. In the perfect world we would be blissfully indifferent to the physical prowess that leads to their exploitation. We would appreciate and breeders would breed for the qualities my friends and peers hold in such high esteem. Of course that’s not the case at all and while people like Clifford Dennis are singled out for our collective scorn, he’s only one of many and might easily of escaped any public outing had he been doing this in a more remote location as opposed to a stone’s throw from Route 95. In the meantime, for all the references to biblical chapter and verse this is one “apostle” that at least for now, appears an ass to me. A deeply ironic ass, but an ass nevertheless. Maybe being around the shelter staff (That's Marylou in the picture above with "Baby Bear") has been a positive influence, I hope it has.
The sudden impact of bringing in several dogs all at once put a strain on the shelter's resources. A quick e-mail to my clients, past and present resulted in a flood of donations that helped fill the void. Thanks to everyone who reached out to help. Their acts of kindness was the silver lining to this still unfolding story.