A series of attacks by dogs on innocent citizens had been increasingly fanning the flames of public anger in Germany in recent years. On June 26, when Volkan Kaja, a 6-year-old boy, was attacked and killed by a pit bull and an American Staffordshire terrier on a playground in Hamburg, a public inferno was ignited.
The Federal Government acted promptly, imposing a nationwide ban on breeding of various bull terrier breeds. What’s more, each of the nation’s 16 provinces (states) have mandated additional restrictions.
“Exterminating a population of specific breeds is a holocaust,” says Edith Steffen, via the Internet. Steffen, who owns the Leonberger (a relative of the Newfoundland), was an ordinary citizen in Essen, until she thrust herself into the public dog pit when her own breed was targeted (merely because of it’s large size, since at least one province all dogs exceeding 44 lbs. are subject to restrictions). In addition to setting up a controversial, perhaps inflammatory, website: www.geocities.com/dogholocaust, Steffen organized four protest rallies decrying breed specific legislation.
“There’s no question, the incidents of dogs being used as a dangerous weapon in Germany is on the rise,” says journalist Elizabeth Simpson, who is covering the story for Dog World magazine (based in Chicago, Ill.). “These are thugs and gangs who use dogs there pretty much as guns are used here.”
Each of the country’s 16 provinces (or states) has created their own list of targeted breeds. For example, in Northrhine-Westphalia (Nordhein-Westfalen), the most populated province in Germany (17.6 million), seven breeds have the most stringent restrictions placed on them. The condemned seven (American Staffordshire terrier, pit bull, Staffordshire bull terrier, Mastin de Espanol (Spanish mastiff), Dogue de Bordeaux (French mastiff) and Dogo Argentino (Argentinian mastiff), and (Neopolitan mastiff) are designated as highly dangerous dogs (referred to as Appendix One dogs). “The ultimate goal is clearly to annihilate these breeds,” Steffen says.
In addition, 26 dog breeds – including the Doberman, Rottweiler and Briard – are listed in appendix two – requiring special government approval before they can be owned. Appendix three includes any dog (mixed breed or purebred) that happens to weigh over 44 lbs, and these dogs also have restrictions placed upon them.
The breed restrictions are confusing. What’s more, the revered German shepherd dog is pretty much immune to any breed-specific mandate. According to the most recently available statistics from the Northrhine-Westphalia Office of the Minister of the Interior, 73 people in the province have been injured in dog attacks (where the breed has been identified) – and there has been one fatality – from 1989 through1997. German shepherds were involved in 41.9 per cent of the incidents (including the sole fatality). (The Appendix One-listed American Staffordshire terrier was targeted in only 4 percent of these incidents and pit bull-looking dogs in 16 percent. There were no reports whatsoever involving any of the other condemned seven.)
“The veterinary community knows breed restrictions won’t work in the long run,” says Dr. Thomas Goerbrich, via the Internet, a veterinarian in Munich. “But (political) authorities felt they needed to do something.”
The obvious question is why target specific breeds instead of the individual owners of bad dogs?
Olga Mechnar owns a Doberman who has several obedience titles. Her dog has served as a search and rescue dog, and he’s credited with saving a life. Today, Mechnar is fears taking her dog outside Hessen, the province where she lives. For one thing, she doesn’t know exactly what the restrictions are from province to province since the bans vary and are so confusing.
Mechner says in an interview on the Internet, “My dog was once a hero. Today, people call me obscene names if I walk down the street with my dog. I mostly walk (the dog) late at night.”
Mechner’s not alone. The backlash against dogs and people walking with their dogs is scary. A German woman unobtrusively walking down a street with her Dogue de Bordeaux (French mastiff) were both reportedly doused with kerosene. The woman survived, but dog was set on fire and burned to death.
Recently, a TV crew captured graphically what it’s like to own a condemned dog in Germany. A member of a local bull terrier club simply walked his pooch though a busy shopping area. His dog was on a leash, and was far less interested in passerbys as they were in him. The dog and the owner were spat on, insulted, and even threatened at knife point.
According to Internet reports, on August 17, a stray adult mastiff was shot and killed by police for no apparent reason. In some places in Germany, Mastiffs are considered as armed and dangerous as criminals. It’s conceivable the dogs’ owners’ just didn’t know what to do with their “marked” breed – so they panicked and let it loose. Shelter populations in some German cities have doubled.
According to one recent poll, 74 percent of the German public agrees with the federal breed bans.
Torseten Muller, a writer near Hamburg, says via the Internet, “Our Amstaff is the most gentle and friendly dog on the planet. Our lives have changed completely because we can’t just walk out the door with our dog like we used to. We have to steal away into the woods, looking over our shoulders the whole time in case someone should report us to police for walking with a forbidden dog. We can’t go into town. Even if we put the muzzle on (which is now the law if you have American Staffordshire terrier), we would be spit on or attacked. This is no way to live. We have decided to leave the country.”
The breed bans could soon spread to other nations, as interior minister Otto Schily hinted at a press conference. This could lead to a European-wide ban on breeds deemed dangerous.
Jack Smith, director of general programs at the Canadian Safety Council, Ottawa, concedes, “The breed bans in Germany have been the catalyst for us to learn exactly what the problem may be in Canada.” The Safety Council is beginning an effort to carefully audit dog bites. However, Smith is quick to add, “We certainly don’t want to fly off the handle as they did in Germany.”
“The CDC is firmly against breed specific legislation,” said Dr. Julie Gilchrist, medical epidemiologist and pediatrician with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Ga. The CDC maintains the nation’s database on fatal wounds inflicted by dog bites. In recent years, Rottweiler and pit bull- type dogs have caused the majority of these fatalities. Several communities around the country have used CDC statistics as evidence in crafting local breed specific legislation, which is the outlawing of specific breeds or placing restrictions upon them, based on the presumption certain breeds are inherently dangerous.
In an upcoming CDC report, which will appear in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, research reveals breed specific legislation does not work.
“It may not be politically correct to admit, but this entire issue isn’t a problem of dog breeds as much as it is a social problem,” says Gilchrist, who participated in the CDC research. “For example, Germany’s response to their (dog bite) problem is not based on good science.”
However, not everyone sees the German response as bad science. Lisa Stone, a housewife in Buffalo Grove, Ill. became a breed specific activist when she helped to successfully encourage breed specific limits in the Chicago suburb in 1997. Stone first became alarmed because a neighbor purchased a Rottweiler puppy. While Stone does not condone the violence occurring in Germany, she applauds the government’s solid stand. “Facts are facts. Some breeds are the canine equivalent to a lethal weapon, and laws need to be passed in this country as they’re being passed around the world,” she says. “While I admit not every individual dog of these breeds are dangerous, there is serious potential for harm. Is it worth the risk for your children?”
According to the CDC, in the U.S. in 1995 and ’96, there were 25 fatalities attributed to dog attacks. Of the 22 attacks where the breed of the offending dog was known, 11 were attributed to Rottweilers (or Rottweiler crosses) and three by pit bull-looking dogs. The numbers for 1996 and ’97 have yet to be published. However, an exclusive preview for this column has determined little change from the previous figures.
Stone says those numbers prove her point. Gilchrist of the CDC disagrees. “Banning breeds isn’t the answer. However, if we could ban people from intent to do harm with dogs, we would instantly see fewer dog attacks.”
“If 20 skinheads attack an old lady with a dog, the government does nothing about it,” says Steffen. “The officials are turning the other way when the dogs and their owners are being attacked for no reason. I see parallels with a time in (our) history when the authorities stood by and watched atrocities take place on the streets. Clearly, this is a holocaust.”
“It’s devastating so many people in Germany are assured by this quick fix; they’re being fooled,” says Peggy Moran, of Lemont, Ill., a columnist for Dog World magazine and behavioral consultant to the American Dog Owners Association (not-for-profit organization that fights breed specific legislation). On several occasions, Moran has testified against breed specific legislation in the U.S. “Dog breeds don’t bite, individual dogs bite,” she says. “If we ban ten breeds, someone will create ten more breeds to fill that niche as the biggest, baddest and most dangerous dogs. Dog breeds are easily created and modified. Aggression can be bred into any existing breed, even the golden retriever, anything. Instead of blaming the dogs, look at the people behind those dogs. In Germany politicians are reacting, instead of leading – that’s too bad. Innocent dogs are paying the ultimate price for their ignorance.”
The good news for pets will be if communities in the U.S. considering similar actions targeted at specific breeds look to the chaos going on in Germany. Sure, everyone wants to lower the number serious dog bites – but there’s got to be a better way.
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