Waldlaw Blog

Friday, June 17, 2005

On Parenting and Pit Bulls

It's tough being a parent. For those of you not fortunate enough to live in the Bay Area, you may not have heard that a 12-year old boy was mauled to death last week by his family's pit bulls while his mom and siblings were out doing errands. I had just picked up a 12-year old boy on my older son's Little League team to take him to a play-off game, and had my 9-year old son in the back seat, when we drove right into the police barricades. I turned on the radio to see what was up, and was appalled to hear about the tragedy -- especially with two boys in my car to share my horror as we sat in the traffic jam caused by the street closures in the immediate vicinity of the incident. I took this case personally for two reasons: First, I regularly leave my 11-year old son at home with our dog while I'm out doing errands. He prefers it to coming along; I have a cell phone so he can reach me; and we live in a very quiet, safe neighborhood with friendly neighbors on either side who are retired and therefore home during the day and very willing to help in a pinch. So I had that awful "this could have been me" feeling when I read of the mom coming home to find her son dead. Second, I have participated for years in the dogs-vs-kids debates that periodically rage in San Francisco and, being both a mother and a dog owner, I feel particularly caught in the middle when something like this happens. So I've been thinking a lot about this incident, and I have two musings to share. Let me start by saying that I actually like pit bulls. They often are very fun, friendly dogs. My chocolate lab tends to enjoy playing with them more than most other breeds -- I don't know why, but it's true. But.... Dogs are dogs. Even when well-trained, they are still dogs. They are carnivores with big, sharp teeth. They can do damage. They also have strong innate tendencies that have been bred into them over generations. Our first family dog, a hound, was incredibly sweet and docile inside the house -- as hounds are bred to be -- but open the front door and he was gone, following his nose to wherever it took him and generally raising hell, acting like he never had heard his name before despite having been through very rigorous training. Our labrador retriever, on the other hand, would chase a tennis ball to the ends of the earth, will retrieve anything thrown for her until she is literally dropping from exhaustion, but is amazingly sweet and obedient as she was bred to be. I live with the absolute certainty that if our chocolate lab "went off" -- as I assert that any dog can do, being a dog -- she would snap, and maybe even bite. But then she'd be done. As a parent, I live with the knowledge that my children, being dog lovers and very active kids who run around at parks and the beach, may get bitten by a dog some day. I'm okay with that -- not thrilled, but willing to take the risk to allow them to live full, active lives with dogs in the mix. But when pit bulls "go off," people don't just get bitten. They get mauled. Some even get killed. At this point, this week anyway, I'm not sure why that's worth it. I also have to wonder about parental responsibility. Earlier this week, the boy's mom called the local newspaper to tell her side of the story. What she explained was that the female pit bull was in heat, and the male was therefore acting particularly aggressive, so she put her son in the basement with food and videos before she went out and told him to stay down there. In other words, she knew that the dogs posed a danger to her son, and nevertheless chose to leave him at home with them without adult supervision. Now, this mother has been through hell, having lost her child in a horrific way and having come home to find the devastation herself, without any warning or support. I really don't want to blame her for this tragedy. But I can't help but feel that there's something wrong here. Which brings me back to where I started. It's tough being a parent. And this week, I find myself thinking about pit bulls and children, and particularly about my own sons playing around pit bulls, and about how we draw the lines between what risks are worth taking and what risks just aren't -- not just for ourselves, but for our children. These choices are often hard to make. But then, when we don't make them wisely, what are the consequences....


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