As a practicing veterinarian in Baltimore, specializing in house-call appointments for time-pressed and senior "pet parents," I travel throughout the city. I go into neighborhoods, many under-serviced by the veterinary community, and sit with pet parents of all ages, races and religions. While treating their pets, I listen to their stories, many of them compelling.
I've walked in as worried family members — two or three generations' worth, some with tears in their eyes — exclaim with joy that I showed up, because they didn't want to subject their pets or themselves to sideline glances and furtive behaviors from wary staff in a veterinary hospital. They often tell a story about being made to feel "less than" because they own a pit bull that was injured or un-neutered.
I grew up far from Baltimore in San Diego. My first dog, a dachshund, was poisoned by a hateful neighbor. My parents, too stunned for words, decided on something big and strong to protect the household and their young children. My dad came home with a purebred German shepherd, statuesque, with a commanding presence. We named him Sargent. (This was the early 1960s, and popular television shows at the time were "Rat Patrol," "Sea Hunt" and "Hogan's Heroes.")
Much as pit bulls are now, shepherds were considered "dangerous" dogs in those days. Bull Connor was using them to control nonviolent protesters in Birmingham, Ala., In our family's case, owning a well-behaved shepherd was a statement from my father that this family was off limits for harm and intimidation.
Baltimore residents are often judged by an ever-expanding list of identifying markers. What high school did you attend? Do you live on the Eastside? Westside? How do you dress? Is your dog named after popular movie characters in a churlish show of machismo, or did you pick a generic name that could be ascribed to any breed?
Frightened people often select a breed and name a dog to reflect an attitude. Strong names engender a false sense of control.
Practitioners sensitive to these markers know how to communicate with these pet parents. We understand why some men won't neuter their dogs, and we do all we can to educate and inform. (I am sometimes asked whether my colleagues would use a gruff or patronizing tone when the owners of a $3,000 Afghan refuse to neuter or spay their bitch. Of course not; we know that that some owners want to breed their dogs as a way to recoup the cost of raising a prized pet.)
As one of the few practitioners willing to volunteer their time to vaccinate pit bulls in neighborhood parks and rec centers throughout Baltimore City on a quarterly basis, I can attest to the loving care, concern and adoration that is exhibited by pet parents of these "bully breeds." These owners — mostly black and male, many with young children in tow — have dogs that are no different than my shepherd: protective, loud and full of energy.
They listen politely to the caring volunteers associated with B-more Dog, a local pit bull advocacy group composed primarily of white, female pit bull owners who raise money and awareness for this much-maligned breed.
We veterinary practitioners will continue to volunteer our time with advocacy groups and educate pet parents, one family at a time, about how to approach and train a dog in a town full of loud noises and distractions like helicopters, gunshots, firecrackers and children racing down streets on loud dirt bikes.
We don't want people to succumb to fear and abandon the "hairy" family members they've loved for generations.
Will there be unfortunate circumstances? Of course. But with patience and training, they will eventually subside and go away.
Johnny Slaughter is a veterinarian in Baltimore. His website is http://www.travelvet.org. Twitter: @drjohnnydvm.