A Rose By Any Other Name Is Just a Dog - Little Orange Buddha
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A Rose By Any Other Name Is Just a Dog

Part Three of a Series of Posts On Saving Chicago’s Healthy and Treatable Animals

This next series of posts will discuss open admission shelter capacity-related challenges, so I’ll start with what I observed to be challenge Number One, because it is the subtlest of them all and perhaps will be the toughest nut to crack …

After a long discouraging day at the shelter a year or so ago, looking at kennel after kennel filled with hundreds of homeless, yearning, ordinary looking pups, tails happily wagging for the attention of a passerby, and dreaming of a chance — I channeled my best Emily Dickenson angst and wrote the following poem:

The Ordinary Dog

He has all four legs,
A tail that wags,
A pretty short coat:
Black, white, some grey.

Two eyes, yes two.
A wet black nose,
A great big smile,
Some pretty cute toes.

A beach-body build,
An athletic stance,
A load of energy,
Some call the happy dance,

He sits sometimes,
Will sometimes pace,
And sometimes race,
All over the place.

He spins and spins,
And barks and watches,
As people pass and
Fail to notice.

He jumps up high,
He crouches low,
He sleeps and eats,
As we all know,
He’s the ordinary dog,
In the shelter’s space,
He’s the poor ol’ dog that
Waits and waits.

It is admittedly poor poetry, if truly cathartic in its writing. What I witnessed was unmistakable and caused a great deal of consternation: kennel upon kennel of medium, beach-bodied, blocky-headed dogs with beautiful smiles, and cheekbones a run-way model would die for.

At the end of the day, when all was transferred, redeemed, and done, these were the residual animals that needed the most help. Variously they are called “pitbulls,” “pitties,” and “bullies” — all loaded terms with a spectrum of connotation depending upon who is doing the uttering.

Had we been able to secure their “Dogcestry” paperwork, we would have learned that the majority of these dogs were mixed-breed dogs: Very few would have been pure-bred American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Bull Terriers, American Bull Dogs, Mastiffs, or any other actual breed. (Not that such royal lineage would have mattered.) They were rather, “Yee Olde Mutts,” whose fathers were most probably traveling men. And like all other dogs that don’t have those physical characteristics, some were good, some were bad, and some would make some bad decisions because of their circumstances.

The Animal Farm Foundation (AFF) and the National Canine Research Council (NCRC) have always been my go-to resources for information regarding the link between a dog’s looks and its behavior … to wit, that there is none. I like facts and science, and when the AFF and NCRC tell me that visual breed identification is notoriously inaccurate, that looks don’t equal behavior, that the look of an animal comprises very little of its actual total DNA, and that all dogs are individuals, I’m more inclined to believe that than broad statements like, “pitties are simply the best dogs,” or, conversely, “they’ll turn on you after they turn two.” And yes, I’ve heard both and many more odd generalizations besides.

There are far more of these mutts in municipal shelters, in part because their looks have imbued them with deeply held biases and all of these biases have kept dogs that look like this, even those with the most wonderful temperaments, stuck in shelters for longer periods of time. And stuck in rescues. And just plain stuck. And stuck can lead to a lot of problems.

This much I know is true: If you are judged based on the way you look before you step paw out of kennel, the deck is stacked against you for getting out of that kennel timely, or even alive sometimes.

As Karen Delise shows in her thoroughly researched book, The Pit Bull Placebo, one wrong move or bad decision or aggressive episode by a dog that looks like that would lead to a stream of very well publicized articles, and wide-spread media attention that would not be afforded to a different “breed” or look of dog. The media knows such charged terms as “Pit Bull” in a headline can create a news-selling buzz. And the public would start to believe the hype because of the number of times they saw the same article or term, that somehow this “breed” of dog was more dangerous than any other. Their bias comfortably confirmed in the wide-spread publicity.

Long before I’d become director of the City shelter, I’d been a volunteer at the City shelter, and others besides. So my own experience with thousands of dogs that had a certain swashbuckling, smoosh-faced look was that, indeed, they were all individuals, with everything that dogs bring to the table. They could be great family pets, or they could be targeted for euthanasia because of aggression or behavioral issues that arose before or after they entered the shelter. Just like any other dog.

So where do we go from here. Truth is not sexy, and oddly not newsworthy. Treating all dogs as individuals takes courage. Whether we will have that courage as a City is still to be determined, but I do see glimmers that we will — as more and more dogs with the “look” are being adopted and rescued. I think the concept is slowly catching on: Three steps forward, and two back.

Some people ask me why I called all of the dogs at the City shelter, irrespective of how they looked, “Chicago dogs.” Shakespeare’s Juliet got it when she just wanted a man who happened to have a problematic family name:

What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.

Chicago’s homeless animals can be the pride of our City, irrespective of what wonderful mixes are muddled in their genes. Words matter. They always have. So if we want to begin tackling ONE (and I emphasize it is but one) of the reasons municipal shelters are filled with animals that look at certain way, we need to tackle the ideological bias that has inhabited our minds and our institutions, hand-in-hand with a number of other important considerations such as responsible pet ownership.

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Susan Russell
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