There's a real problem when the communications director for the controller's office in the fourth-largest city writes an ill-informed opinion piece, and the city's daily newspaper publishes it without question.
I'm talking about Roger Widmeyer's September 20 piece for the Houston Chronicle's Outlook section, which describes his decision to euthanize one of his dogs after it attacked his wife. Widmeyer was no doubt shocked and scared by what's described as a terrifying, unprovoked attack. Anyone would be emotional after any dog, let alone a pet, turned on a loved one in his own home. And I can understand saying something dumb in the heat of the moment. But Widmeyer didn't do that. Instead, after several months he could have spent reflecting and researching, he carefully and deliberately crammed more stupid into 1,083 words than we ever imagined was possible. Relying on one personal experience and a mythical statistic, Widmeyer proclaims that pit bulls "probably do not belong in our world."
It's a radioactively ignorant essay that belongs on a fearmongering, pseudo-scientific site like Dogsbite.org, not in the pages of a major metro daily, where it's camouflaged in credibility.
I'll tell you right now that I own a pitbull and regularly carouse with other pit owners. You may infer whatever bias you want, but I'll absolutely cop to a bias against idiocy.
I ask that you read the piece right now and see if you agree with our synopsis, which is this: Some months ago, Widmeyer impulsively adopted a three-month old pit puppy that was left outside his veterinarian's office. The dog was named Chester, just like Widmeyer's dad.
"I knew right then I'd take him home," Widmeyer writes.
Stop right there: The final decision to bring a strange dog into your home should not be the fact that he shares his name with your father, your mother, or your second cousin twice-removed. Children want to adopt cute puppies without a second thought, just like they want every piece of candy at the supermarket. Adults -- at least the responsible breeds -- do not.
Not knowing anything about Chester's temperament, or whether he got along with other dogs, Widmeyer brings this unknown variable into his home. Incredibly, Widmeyer writes that "I had mixed feelings about neutering him."
Apparently, Widmeyer was unaware that the municipal pound in the city that provides his paycheck is woefully overcrowded because of irresponsible owners who do not spay or neuter. As a matter of fact, the mayor of the city he works for has hammered this point home again and again. Apparently she needs one more "again."
Male dogs, especially, need to be altered. I'm guessing Widmeyer just doesn't know much about dogs. Which is fine -- just don't own one. Let alone three.
It's at this point that Widmeyer unknowingly sends a smoke signal that something is not right: he swaps short, clear sentences for treacle.
He anthropomorphizes Chester -- and not in the silly, benign way that most dog owners do by, say, putting a baseball cap on their dog and calling him Lance Barkman, which I've never done -- but by saddling him with existential angst.
"There was something profound in his face," Widmeyer writes. "...A sorrow that passeth understanding."
Widmeyer, writing as if this is perhaps a unique phenomenon, describes how Chester barks at cars and people, including a mailman who apparently moonlights as a pirate: "Got yourself a pit, aye?" the mailman says.
But Chester's bark, it seemed, was dripping with menace. That's where Widmeyer introduces Chekov's gun: "He barked as though he wanted to kill."
One day, Chester "lunged" at Widmeyer's hound, Lucy, "going for her throat." Widmeyer "hurled" Chester into the bedroom -- so enraged was the Controller's chief spokesperson that "I was quite ready to beat him."
At this point, you might think Widmeyer would realize he was in over his head. A rational person might take ol' Chester to a trainer, or look online for a rescue group who might place him with someone who can handle a dog who may have issues. But another thing struck us: nowhere in those 1,083 words does Widmeyer mention taking Chester to a dog park or somewhere he might be able to burn off some energy.
All we know is that Chester was crated. Which is fine if there's a flipside -- time for a puppy to be a puppy. Perhaps Chester was more interested in running around and rolling in disgusting, smelly things than in pondering the point of his existence. See, puppies and young dogs are a lot of work. They can be annoying and mischievous, like gremlins. To lazy people, they're the devil. That's why the two pit bulls I've non-impulsively adopted were 10 and 3.
Widmeyer doesn't write of taking Chester to a trainer, or looking online for a respectable rescue who might be able to place him in an appropriate home. Instead, he sought advice from his vet, who allegedly told him "Just keep doing what you're doing, coaxing good behavior."
That baffling tip was apparently good enough for Widmeyer, who by that point was "attuned to stories in the media about dog attacks, especially those that killed children." He was worried, because of the "numerous kids" who lived on his block. How worried was he that his bloodthirsty cur might rip out the neighbor boy's throat? Worried enough to take out an umbrella insurance policy to protect his assets. That's how worried he was.
Of course, Chester didn't turn on a tow-headed tyke, but on Widmeyer's wife. Chester lunged for Patricia Widmeyer's face, like he previously lunged for Lucy's throat, and drew blood. It sounds like a terrible, tragic incident, and we extend our sympathies to Patricia.
Widmeyer subsequently took Chester to his vet to have him put down. He cranks the melodrama to eleven and writes "I took his wonderful face in my hands, looked into his sad brown eyes, and whispered to him, 'You mixed-up dog, you had it all.'" Widmeyer then left Chester with the vet, lacking the stones to be there when he died.
Up until this point, what we have is a sad story of a bad dog biting a loved one's face and having to be euthanized. It's sort of like Old Yeller, except terrible. That's when Widmeyer lifts the curtain and reveals the true meaning of his piece.
"I've learned that nearly 90 percent of all very serious dog bites brought to hospitals are by pit bulls. They probably do not belong in our world," he writes, throwing in the poetic yet odious notion that even Chester knew his kind was rotten: "I think the sadness in Chester's eyes was a recognition of that."
With the unsourced "90 percent" bit, Widmeyer waved a wand of ignorance over his entire narrative and transformed it from a personal tale of tragedy and regret and into propaganda disguised as epiphany.
As we've previously noted, there's a real paucity (pawcity?) of legitimate dog bite studies. The study that's usually most cited, a 2000 review of the previous 20 years' of fatal dog bites, ranks pit bulls and rottweilers as highest on the list, but the study also acknowledges its limitations.
A key limitation of any study is the fact that "pit bull" is not a breed, but an umbrella term. When Widmeyer writes that pits may not belong in the world, he's actually saying that American pit bull terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, American bulldogs, and a few others aren't fit -- and, presumably, any other breed that's mixed with one of those.
And if none of those breeds are long for this world, someone ought to tell the veterans in the Operation Pits Healing Heroes program, sponsored by local rescue group Guardian Pitbull Rescue, which has yet to report a single attack. Why does Widmeyer think his sole experience is enough to condemn all of those breeds? That would be as misinformed as me thinking all pit bulls like Queen because my dog once licked my face while I may or may not have been air-guitaring "Fat Bottomed Girls." It passeth chutzpah and goes straight for fanaticism.
Maybe there was no hope for Chester. Maybe his wiring was faulty and there was no other solution but to put him down. Widmeyer didn't really provide enough information. But there is no question that plucking statistics out of the air to support your argument is dishonest, irresponsible, and downright dangerous. The fact that this man is a gatekeeper of information for the city controller's office, and the fact that the Chronicle ran what he wrote, is embarrassing.
To get an expert's opinion, I shared Widmeyer's piece with Aaron Ogden, president of Guardian Pit Bull Rescue.
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"First off, anytime a person is injured by a dog of any breed it is definitely unfortunate, but in reading through this article several things popped out to me and as a responsible pit bull owner and advocate, there are so many things that can be done to prevent such behavior," Ogden told me in an email. "....One thing we always preach is that dogs need more than just love and a meal. They need boundaries, leadership, and structure. Without these things any dog of any size/breed can develop negative behaviors and create an environment where incidents like this can happen. So no, Chester didn't have it all, he didn't have the one thing he needed most which is a leader."
Ogden also pointed out specific sentences that raised flags. The bolded words are Widmeyer's:
But now and again - we never knew when it would happen or why - he went after one of the other dogs - He didn't know when or why because he never paid attention or took the time to learn why his dog was behaving this way.
Before Chester, [Lucy] was always the first at the back door when I got home; now, she hung back. - This is a perfect example of lack of leadership between the owners and the dogs. Lucy hung back because she didn't feel her owners could control the situation. If they could, Lucy would trust them and do what she wanted to without fear of Chester.
We tried walking him, utilizing some of his energy, but he was impossible to walk, seemingly terrified of the outdoors but seized with uncontrollable anger when he saw another person or, especially, a dog. - This statement is probably the most telling in my opinion. It illustrates both that they didn't know, recognize, or understand their own dog. "Uncontrollable anger" is not that at all, it's a result of the owners inaction and enabling a dog to get into that mental state.
It's not pit bulls that aren't long for this world. It's lack of education and common sense that have no place. I think the cluelessness in Widmeyer's words is a recognition of that.