Sunday, March 19, 2006

Anti-dog ordinance is the pits

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Ever wish you could throw a muzzle on law-abiding people and keep them locked up so they can't hurt anyone?

I sure don't! No way!

But if I were that sort of person...

Um, separately, I'd like to discuss something that may be coincidentally relevant. This week, City Councilors Pat Casey and Tom Kozak and City Council President William F. Whitty introduced a measure that would criminalize all pit bull and Rottweiler dogs.

If passed, the strict ordinance would force all owners of these dogs to build 6-foot fences around their property. Then they'd have to keep a secure, locked pen on the property if the dog is going to be outside. Oh, and also, the dogs can't leave the property for any reason, except to go to the vet or to be permanently banished from the city.

Ridiculous enough for you? Wait -- there's more! You also can't sell a pit bull or Rottweiler anywhere in the city.

Whitty has told this newspaper that he's looking into "tweaking" the measure before it goes up for a vote. However, "tweaking," Whitty said, does not mean making it less restrictive. I'm wondering what he does mean by "tweaking." Adding commas? Printing it out on the good paper?

I'm an animal lover. I own two dogs. Neither one is a pit bull or a Rottie. Someday in the future, some blithering idiot in city government might start suggesting that border collie/lab mixes and/or pointers are "killer canines," too. So I have a vested interest in this.

Nobody wants kids to be mauled, but this measure has key flaws that you can't "tweak" away:

-- You can't tell the viciousness of a dog by its breed. The two breeds responsible for the most dog bites every year are labs and golden retrievers.

-- Which is not to say that labs and goldies are vicious. Even if you could generalize a dog by its breed, dogs are individuals. Their personalities are defined by their environments. I recently met a Rottie that had to be at least 90
pounds, named Diesel. He was a huge, lovable ball of mush. I know a Boston terrier. About five inches tall. It used to break out of its yard and nearly nip my wife's ankles while she jogged by. It ran into the street to get me once. Which one's the
vicious dog?

-- If you can't take your pit or Rottie off your property except in the two cases of vet or exile, that means you can't take it for a simple walk.

-- You also can't take it to the park. You can't take it to somebody else's house for a visit. You can't take it to be boarded at a kennel. You can't take it for a drive to the country. You can't even take it to obedience classes.

-- It's all in how you raise the dog. A pit bull that's taught to live in the house and snuggle on the couch will generally not eat your children. A pit bull that's caged outside with no room to move, nowhere sanitary to relieve itself, that's not given any positive attention, that's kicked and beaten and fed gunpowder to keep it in pain so it'll watch your meth lab -- that one probably will eat your children. There's already a way to protect people from these kinds of dogs. It's called "calling the cops."

-- Off the top of my head, I can think of five reasons dogs become aggressive. They're (a) badly bred; (b) not trained; (c) not exercised properly; (d) not socialized; and (e) mistreated by their owners. If you keep a dog in a cage all day behind a large fence, it's going to be impossible to train it, exercise it and socialize it. All of which adds up to (e). A mistreated dog becomes much more likely to eat your children. So if your purpose is to prevent kid-eatings, you're just making it much, much worse.

-- About that fence. If you have a pit bull or Rottie, and you rent an apartment, does the landlord have to build you the fence and outdoor pen?

-- If you live in a condo and you have a pit bull or Rottie, where do you build the fence? How about if you live in an apartment complex? Do you put the fence around your apartment door?

-- City Councilor Leo O. Pelletier, in an effort to be helpful, suggested that the measure could be changed so pit bulls and Rottweilers can be walked as long they're muzzled. Thanks, Leo, but it's not a perfect solution. Muzzles are mostly for short periods of low activity. Like, if you take a snappy dog to the vet, you muzzle it so it doesn't nip the vet's fingers when the vet jams medical objects into uncomfortable places. Dogs that are exercising have to pant so they can keep their bodies cool, which is hard with a muzzle on. It's sort of like asking a person to do aerobics with a pillowcase over her head. There are breathable muzzles, but they can make dogs feel vulnerable. A better solution is to promote dog training classes.

-- About those breeds. If you have a dog that's half pit bull and half poodle, is it a pit bull or a poodle?

-- If you have a dog that's three-quarters poodle and one-quarter pit bull, is it still a pit bull? How about one-eighth? What's the percentage where we're still talking about a pit bull here?

-- If you have a mastiff and boxer mix, or some kind of dog that isn't a pit bull but just looks a lot like one, is that dog now a pit bull? How about a Heinz 57 mix that you know nothing about?

-- Will this ordinance apply to all dogs, or just licensed ones? Because people who own vicious potential kid-maulers don't tend to line up at the City Clerk's office for dog licenses. Sorry to cast doubt on the reach of city government, but they just don't.

-- When you rescue a dog from Faxon or Forever Paws animal shelters and pay a nominal fee for it, isn't that technically a "sale"? Because then the shelters would be breaking the law by giving up abandoned pits and Rotties for adoption. Is that really what we want to do?

-- If it is a sale, where would these dogs go instead? Just rot for life in the shelter? Be exterminated? Given bus fare and escorted to the city limits?

-- Even if you do tweak the ordinance so the animal shelter could adopt out a pit bull or Rottweiler legally, who the hell would want one after that? Adopting one would mean building a fence and a locked pen, and not ever being able to take the damn thing for a walk. Some companion.

The councilor who's been most vocal about this bafflingly ill-conceived measure is Whitty. So I'm blaming him for it.

You, sir, stink. I came up with all the above reasons to torpedo this idea in about six and a half minutes, and I don't write ordinances for a living.

I'm not letting Casey and Kozak off the hook, either. You two should know better.

How about this to protect kids instead? Promote responsible ownership. Enforce the dog laws we already have instead of making new, unfair laws that criminalize large groups of people who might otherwise be law-abiding.

Here's how to do that. Dear public: If you know of a dog being abused or you know of a dog that's always vicious and loose, call the cops. Dear cops: Continue to take these calls seriously. Dear dog owners: Don't mistreat your dogs.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The sweet science

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These kids today. They're so high-tech I was worried that they didn't get into good old-fashioned food fights anymore. Some day soon, I'm sure, Verizon will figure out a way to have a food fight by cell phone, but for now it's still low-tech, fistfuls of mediocre cooking hurled through the air.

I was put in mind of food fights, and indeed the Food Wars of the early 1980s, by a story I read about Indiana's Chesterton Middle School. Last week, the eighth-grade class had a food fight so spectacularly destructive that it made national news. Chew on that for a second while I repeat it. A cafeteria food fight made national news.

"The fight involved as many as 50 people," reads the Associated Press story, with the vague numbers so common when the fog of war descends. "The school suspended between six and 10 students for two or three days for launching the day's menu of chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes and milk into the air."

Those were excellent choices. Mashed potatoes are your Toyota of food-fight food, a bit bland, but always dependable; and chicken-fried steak is what we food-fight aficionados call a "collateral weapon," in that the meat provides the heft necessary to cause damage to anyone directly hit and then the breading sprays everyone else nearby on contact.

But what made the food fight so memorable is that the kids were forced to pay up to $1,000 in damages to clean up afterward. They damaged ceiling tiles. That's the kind of food fight a kid never really recovers from.

A good food fight -- I mean a really good one -- is a marvelous thing to behold. It transcends gender and class. It turns an ordinary meal into an extraordinary meal, once you discover that a slice of pizza can be spun like a Frisbee for distances of 15 feet or more with the right wrist English.

A food fight's beauty is in its spontaneity. Most start by accident, a stray pea that bounces off a spork into someone's eye. There is the inevitable retaliation and escalation of arms. Negotiation is no use. Somebody sounds the war cry -- "FOOD FIGHT!" -- and les jeux sont commences.

Not all situations are the same. I'm looking at you older people here. This is just a kid thing. Try this at the Capital Grille someday and see how far you get.

The best food fights need just a little planning. Simply get your friends together and say, "Hi-ho and chirrup, chums! What say we liven up lunch this afternoon?" Next step: get everyone on the same page. "At exactly 12:24, we roll," you say. And then you realize nobody wears a watch. So you go back to the spontaneity thing.

But the minimal planning is necessary so you have your food fight on a day when there's actually decent food to throw. Few things are more embarrassing than starting a food fight with salad.

Sloppy Joe day is a good day. It is perhaps the most noxious of food-fight prdnance -- the kind that stains. It's also easily overloaded into a spoon and catapulted, and depending on the consistency can even be flung by hand.

Other good weapons of choice include your burger patties, your pizza, your shepherd's pie -- that little doozy saved my skin in the November Massacre of Seventh Grade -- the aforementioned mashed potatoes and plastic cups of fruit salad. The latter is particularly good at dispersing shrapnel over a wide swath of territory. Plus, it's wet.

Bad weapons: Lasagne is so messy you usually end up a victim of the blowback. Cookies are not a good idea. Too hard -- they cause bloody noses if you don't aim with caution, and generally you’re just firing at will in all directions. Creamed corn is utterly useless. Creamed anything, actually, pretty much sucks. Regular corn niblets are rather a nuisance, although they can be devastating if spiked into mashed potatoes. Corn on the cob is used only by bullies and the truly mean.

Would you mind terribly if an old war hero showed you how we did it in the old days?

It was fourth grade. Small School. It was March -- a day much like any other, but for the overwhelming political tension charging the air like the 12th hole at Pebble Beach just before a retired investment broker is struck by lightning. All of us, from kindergarten to fifth grade, were cheerlessly hoisting sporkfuls of underheated gruel under the eye of the largely ceremonial authority -- substitute teachers, lunchladies, the principal.

Suddenly, and without provocation, little Ermenegilde Cardoza was hit with a softball-sized clot of American chop suey directly to the facial area. Standing proudly 20 feet away with a spoon -- an actual metal spoon he'd pinched from home, just for this -- was Leon Trotsky Oliveira, 6-foot-4 and lavishly bearded, the only Azorean kid whose parents emigrated from Siberia.

Leon soon found himself peppered by an onslaught of sugar snap peas, the pods breaking upon his spiked leather jacket like a swarm of locusts. He fell buried under them, and from there history makes no more mention of him.

What followed was the most wasteful expense of meat and drink I've seen. Trays were upended, hungry stomachs forgotten as food of all colors and textures flew into the air. Slices of bread passing overhead obscured the fluorescent lights. Macaroni whistled as it traveled by at great speed, making unpleasant sculpture as it caught in the hair of small, roaring children. Pudgy faces became streaked with gravy and tomato sauce, dotted with hunks of near-meat. The doors flew open and teachers -- grown men and women -- fled with peach segments like leeches covering their clothes.

Some of the more proper girls screamed with excitement as they found a trough of apple brown betty and dumped it over eight first-graders at a time. A boy with a peanut allergy succumbed to a homemade PB&J and was carried off the field as a second-grader careened into them with an entire cooked chicken jammed on her head.

I had been pitching cauliflower at anything that moved until flak from a chourico roll flew in my eye and I ducked under the table to cry it out. Just before I passed out from the pain, I saw that my best friend, George W. Barboza, had somehow gotten suspended inside a giant vat of Jell-O. He later ate his way out -- didn't take much effort at all. But to this day, the guy can’t eat dessert of any kind. Apple crisp, pudding, ice cream -- anything soft that comes in a bowl. Some hurts just never heal.
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