Short Cuts

Colin Dayan

In April this year the New York City Housing Authority issued a ban on pit bulls (also identified as Staffordshire terriers), Rottweilers and Doberman pinschers – ‘all of these either full breed or mixed breed’ – or any full grown dog over 25 lbs. That means almost any dog bigger than a dachshund or corgi. Tenants feared eviction if they kept their dogs. An exception was made for those registered before the policy was implemented on 1 May. But many dog owners weren’t notified and learned of the new pet policy from the TV or fliers from community organisations. Some heard nothing at all.

A few days after the ban was announced, a woman named Iris posted on the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals blog to complain of what she called ‘this pit bull discrimination war’:

I got a notice by the new york city housing authority that they are banning pit bulls from public housing. Me and basically all of the people where I live have pit bulls … What I would like to know is if what housing doing legal? And can they do this? … They are just basically saying since pit bulls have a reputation as being so called dangerous dogs. That they have to blame all pit bulls. I am not any good at expressing myself in writing. But is there anyone out there that can help me save them from being taken away from loving home.

Five months later, on 22 September, the New York Times announced on its front page: ‘Large Dogs in Public Housing Are Now Endangered Species.’ Since April, the article reported, at least 113 dogs have been surrendered to shelters run by Animal Care and Control of New York City, a non-profit group that takes in unwanted animals. ‘Of the 113 dogs,’ according to the Times, ‘49 have been euthanised, because of illness, behaviour or lack of space.’

The NYCHA considers the possession of large dogs, especially breeds categorised as ‘dangerous’, to be ‘lease violations’ or, with a nod to ex-mayor Rudolph Guliani, ‘Quality of Life infringements or crimes’. No country kills more dogs or imprisons more people than the United States. Dogs left behind in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or taken from the arms of their owners as they got on buses to flee the drowning city, are evidence of the way prejudice against the disenfranchised is made real in the fate of their dogs.

Breed-specific legislation or canine profiling supplies the terms for inclusion and ostracism. The ‘dangerous’ classification of dogs, like that of ‘security threat’ for prisoners or ‘terrorist’ for detainees in the ongoing ‘war on terror’, is arbitrary. What is decisive is the status of the dog – or its owner. A suspected ‘innate character’ or ‘vicious propensity’ stands quite handily for actual wrongdoing. Throughout the United States, hundreds of towns large and small have adopted breed-specific bans. Regulations vary from one city to the next, but once a ban has been enacted, any dog considered a threat to public welfare can be summarily seized and put down. In May 2005, animal control units, ‘dog catchers’, began to round up all pit bulls within the city limits of Denver. Dogs were taken from their homes and put down regardless of their disposition or demeanour.

Dog involvement in the lives of humans is documented, questioned and defined by law. Legalised violence against dogs and their owners has a brutal history. English common law, reinvigorated in the United States in the 19th century, turned to old legal conceits about dogs in modern judgments on dog stealing. A statute of George III explained that a dog could not be stolen, for a dog was not considered property. A late 19th-century case in South Carolina summarised the statute: ‘It was larceny to steal a tame hawk, but not larceny to steal a tame dog, although it was larceny to steal the hide of a dead dog.’ It is disturbing to think that the skin of a dead dog is worth more than a dog alive, but perhaps this is not surprising. Dogs were legally considered no different in terms of property from human corpses. Stealing a corpse, as Blackstone wrote, was not a felony, unless ‘some of the graveclothes be stolen with it’. There is property in the skin of a dog as there is in a winding sheet. But a living dog, like a cadaver, was res nullius. It belonged to no one; no one had any right in it.

The modern conception of dogs as personal property has done very little to advance their position. They remain subject to the same repressive treatment as others targeted for coercion and control. They have taken their place alongside vagrants and criminals. Out of the maimed right of property in dogs has come a familiar deprivation of persons considered either too servile or too poor to count. The New York ban not only sustains harm against dogs but further disenfranchises those thought unfit for ownership.