Imagine coming home from work one day and discovering that your family pet is gone. All you find is a note on your door that says, "Call us about your dog." He's been taken to doggie prison just because of the way he looks.
It has happened in Denver. It's happening all around the country, including communities in Tennessee. It's even been pondered, albeit for a very short period of time, in the Tennessee state legislature. In many cases, the dog is put to death solely because it is a particular breed, or in this case simply exhibits the physical characteristics of a breed.
It's called breed specific legislation (BSL), and it has recently targeted the "pit bull" breed of dog. Actually, pit bull isn't even a breed. The term is often used to include the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Stafforshire Bull Terrier, and thousands of variations in mixed breeds.
Over the past few years, this breed, which was once the mascot for World War I, has gone from hero to monster. Some attribute the new image to sensational coverage by the media.
Libby Sherrill, a Knoxville resident, recently directed her creative energies into a project that might help restore reason to a situation based on mass hysteria. She has created Beyond the Myth: A Documentary About Pit Bulls and Breed Discrimination which she intends to release at the upcoming Secret City Film Festival.
The feature-length film sheds light on the plight of pit bulls and their owners throughout our country, uncovering the sterotypes and false information about the breed and the many reasons. It challenges the idea that pit bulls are inherently vicious and goes one-on-one with people on both sides of this issue.
"Innocent animals are being murdered, and responsible owners are being discriminated against, just because their dogs have certain physical characteristics," Sherrill states. Interestingly enough, she didn't even own a pit bull and had never owned a pit bull when she decided to undertake this endeavor. Since she started the project, however, Fern has become her four-legged BFF.
She says that BSL is being formed at the local level, rarely with any input from animal advocates or professionals, and she notes that the American Veterinarian Association and the Humane Society are strongly opposed to the concept. Locally, Tim Adams, Executive Director of Young-Williams Animal Center says, "We look at pit pulls like any other breed. If a dog passes our temperament test, it's considered for the adoption floor."
"It has definite parallels to racial profiling and racial discrimination of people," Sherrill suggests. "The principles are the same, targeting a certain population based on physical characteristics. BSL is about discriminating in a country where we pride ourselves in not doing that. It's a step backward."
Some of the specific myths debunked in the film include the belief that pit bulls have locking jaws, that they're not good with children, that they're not trainable.
"They're just not true," Sherrill says. "There's so much research that these communities don't even review."
The documentary points to the importance of responsible dog ownership. "Punish the deed, not the breed," Sherrill says, noting that other breeds have been targeted with similar mass hysteria, such as Dobermans and Rottweilers, just not at the same intensity.
"It could be your dog that is misidentified," she warns. "Or some other arbitrary breed might be targeted. The next news report of an accident might be your favorite breed of dog."
She concedes that pit bulls aren't for everyone."But, they're just dogs," she adds. She says everyone needs to carefully choose a breed that's right for them and to get training, especially for larger breeds.
She encourages all dog owners to be responsible for their pets and follow the law. She contends that dangerous dog laws exist in most communities, but they're often not enforced, and in many cases the penalty is not strong enough.
"I challenge people to spend time with a pit bull, to think for themselves, and to realize the bias that is currently being spread by media. I don't think the media is always conscious of that bias, but it definitely exists."
For more information on Beyond the Myth and breed specific legislation, visit www.beyondthemythmovie.com.