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Landlords and Pit Bulls, Part 2

Blog entry by Anthony Taibi
     My “humanistic” lawyer response begins with the proposition that stereotype-based bias against any group of human beings is simply not morally analogous to dog breed discrimination (dogscrimination?), for at least two reasons.  First, dogs are (presumably) more the prisoners of instinct and less inherently reasonable than humans, and so stereotype is less inaccurate, and based on traits more immutable, than anything that can be ascribed to any group of people.  The dog rescue argument that, just as with humans, individual dogs defy group stereotype and that individual dogs behave as they have been trained, may have some truth, but the principle that individual human will and choice always deserves a chance to show itself over any apparent defining group trait seems based on at least some measure of biological reality, as well as mere species chauvinism.  Indeed, since prehistoric times humans have selectively bred dogs (and castrated them) precisely to achieve certain behavioral, temperamental and other traits, in addition to their training.  Dog breeds as we understand them would not exist without such human purpose.

    Secondly, we ought not recognize dog breed discrimination as morally analogous to human racial or sex discrimination because dogs themselves make no political or cultural claims based upon breed identity.  I agree that animals have rights when it comes to freedom from cruelty; however, the rights of animals cannot be understood as we do human rights – according dogs freedom of religion should be self-evidently absurd.  Dog owners – even those who claim only family or companion status with the dog in their life – may assert identity-type claims, but their assertion of doing so on behalf of their dog is questionable.  Breeds exist at all only by virtue of human agency, and a dog’s culture (if that is the proper term) apparently derives from is relationship with the humans in its life, particularly the “pack leader” (formerly called its master).  Dogs only exist separate from wolves because of human intervention, dog breeds exist only by virtue of human agency.  To suggest that dogs and other domesticated animals have some “natural” existence outside of that created for them by humans is at odds with historical and biological fact.  A breed is not a racial or ethnic identity, and any perceived “unfairness” in stereotyping is a purely human emotion that is undoubtedly lost on the animals upon which we impose it.

    From a legal point of view, the issue is not one of or whether most pit bulls could be nice dogs if only properly cared for, the issue is whether the victim of an attack can get compensation for her injuries, and what she must prove to get them, especially against third parties like landlords.  You can keep arguably dangerous animals if you want, you can rent an apartment to folks who keep wolves and wild cats if you want, but if the animal gets out and injures someone, “it was an accident” should not prevent the injured person from being compensated.  I accept that, if properly raised, any dog can be a calm animal that is safe around babies, but many of the people I see who want to keep a pit bull in their crowded rental apartment have a different purpose in mind, and their landlords should have to watch out for the neighbors and their kids.

     A rescue activist friend of mine argues that breed is largely meaningless external appearance, and that there is simply no inherent difference between pit bulls and other dogs.  She writes, “this Maryland garbage only makes sense if they replace the phrase ‘pit bull’ with the word ‘dog’ every time it appears throughout the [court’s ruling].”  The activists argue that the statistics showing that pit bulls are responsible for a grossly disproportionate share of serious mauling incidents are deeply flawed and methodologically inaccurate, and, moreover, the product of irresponsible owner behavior and not the fault of the dog.  I assume a similar argument for the observation that pit bull breeds appear to be abandoned and in need of rescue disproportionately to their overall numbers.  The activists' arguments may well be true, and to her credit, my friend concludes that all “owners should be responsible no matter what their dog looks like.”  The problem is, as in so many areas of legal change, we are not going to have a full bore shift holding owners, and especially landlords, more responsible for the injuries and damages inflicted by their animals.  Legal change comes piecemeal and partial.