When I was in seventh grade, the big project of the final quarter was to create a magazine. We’re not talking crayon doodles on construction paper bound with yarn here; we’re talking an actual magazine. The project stretched across all subjects. In English/Language Arts, we learned about writing articles and essays. In math, we were given Monopoly money to use for purchasing articles from authors, designing the layout, printing, advertising, etc. In social studies, we practiced analyzing current events that we could write about, and in art, we practiced drawing, both on paper and on the computer, as well as worked with layout. They wanted us to be well rounded, educated, individuals. The idea was that we would help each other; we would use the fake currency to buy articles, art, and other things for our magazine.
I don’t remember a lot of specifics about the project. I think the magazine layout board I turned in on the last day, when we all presented our projects, was neon pink? It may have been green. But at any rate, it was done. The articles on it? They were all mine. The art? That was mine too. When it had come time to buy things for my magazine, no one would sell to me. No one would buy from me.
I can’t say I was surprised.
A few weeks ago, I read about a dog named Hank. Hank was happily living with his family in Ireland, enjoying snuggles, squeaky toys, and long joyful walks, when the government seized him because he “looked like a pitbull.” They cited their local “dangerous animals law,” coining Hank as dangerous simply because of his looks. A simple Google search makes it obvious that Hank is anything but dangerous (unless you’re a stuffed toy!). Hank was a victim of his breed, his label. He’s not even listed as a pitbull—on paper, he is a lab mix.
Hank’s story has a happy ending. His owners went to bat with him, and after several weeks apart while Hank was quarantined in a shelter, he was reunited with his owners and they’re a family again.
Unfortunately, that’s not the story for many dogs.
Middle school was pretty much the worst. Things went along fine, and I did pretty well socially, all things considered, until about fourth grade or so. Fourth grade was the year that practically the entire school got head lice, myself included. Rumors circulated that I had started the head lice epidemic (I had not), and I tried to discourage those rumors by saying that I hadn’t had lice at all (I had), and that my itchy head had been from an allergic reaction to shampoo. After that, not only was I the head lice queen, I was also a liar—the entire school was at lunch the day the school nurse marched me out of the building to meet mother to get my lice treatment. Everybody knew.
The cafeteria each day was a nightmare. I would take my tray on the days I got hot lunch, or my little brown bag on the days I carried something from home, and stand on the outskirts of everything, staring. Wondering where to sit. Dreading going to my so called friends’ table and finally hearing “You can’t sit with us.” I was constantly waiting for the day when they would see me the same way that everybody else did, for the day when there would be no more chair for me at the table. I elected to lunch in my English teacher’s room each day so that I could read rather than negotiate middle school politics and try to be something I wasn’t.
BSL, or breed specific legislation, is a set of laws that restrict and/or ban certain dogs because of their appearance, or because they’re commonly thought to be a “dangerous” breed. Breed restrictions can require owners to muzzle their dog in public, spay or neuter, contain them in a kennel, keep a leash of specific length or material, maintain liability insurance, and post vicious dog tags and signs on both their property and the dog itself. Breed bans are even worse. A breed ban will mandate that all dogs of the specified breed have to be removed from the area. After the “by-when” date on the ban, any dog not removed can be killed by animal control.
These laws simply look at the dog as they are on the outside, without consideration for things like the way they were raised, trained, and handled by their owner. These laws do not look at the actual behavior of the dog in question, rather, they look at what they imagine that dog to be, the worst case scenario.
BSL has a lot of issues. For one, it’s prejudice. There is no such thing as a bad dog. Bad owners? Yes. A dog is the result of how it is raised. Dogs want nothing more than they want to please their people. BSL does nothing to improve safety; it punishes people who are responsible dog owners and does nothing to hold irresponsible owners responsible. It requires that each and every dog have a label, a breed, something is pretty much impossible to do accurately. Dogs that are targeted become more desirable to irresponsible people simply because of the bullseye on their back. Dogs of any breed can be great dogs. Dogs of any breed can be dangerous dogs. BSL is the worst. I don’t understand it.
And yet, I do.
High school was better for me. There were still people who dropped the usual insults—“Her cats pee on stuff,” “She smells like fish,” “Her clothes come from Walmart,” but I was old enough to better know how to deal with it. My haircuts when I got them weren’t cutting edge. My sneakers actually came from Kmart. I didn’t do brand names. I didn’t mind. I liked who I was, but the world told me not to.
I was in an acapella group with (I think) seven other people. They never wanted me to be part of the circle, and I struggled to stick up for myself even though I was just as good a singer as the rest of them. It was such a little thing, but so telling. I let them circle by the piano; I let them whisper about me. I always stayed slightly behind.
We have to talk about Lennox. Hearing his story was the first time I really became aware of BSL. It was 2010, I believe. Lennox, a lab/bulldog mix was five years old and happily living with a family in Belfast. (The same area where Hank is from…hmmm….). Lennox did nothing wrong; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time with a head that made him look like a “pitbull type.” The government went so far as to measure the size of his snout in order to declare him a pitbull, and then they seized him and sentenced him to die. His family fought for two years to get him back, to save him, or even to send him to America where dogs who look like pitbulls are allowed. But when all of their appeals expired, Lennox was put to sleep.
Lennox, the bulldog/lab mix, was put to sleep because he LOOKED like something else. Lennox, the family dog, a child’s pet. A good boy. Dead.
I walk a dog now named Tubs. I see almost every day. She’s grown a lot since I first started walking her. In the beginning, we couldn’t even walk in the direction of the dog park without Tubs displaying crazy aggressive antics. Tubs was never socialized with other dogs, so they were a terrifying prospect. Now though, after over a year of training and love and many, many walks, Tubs can walk by a dog on the path in the park and not care. That dog will never come over to her. She will never be friends with it. But the dog can exist and not be scary.
Tubs is a pocket pitbull. She is the sweetest pitbull with humans and wants nothing more than to sit in your lap and cover your face in slobbery kisses. But when we’re walking on the street, people move out of the way as we come close. They cross the street. They avoid her, just because of her breed. Because of what she looks like. And if she barks at another dog, it’s all over. “Look at the pitbull,” they say. “She’s so mean.” No. She’s not.
I’m convinced that, like Tubs, the world set me up to be in the place I ended up. Christianity told me that I had to be married. My social education told me that I would never be married because no one would love me because of how I looked and who I wanted to love. I learned to shut up, be quiet, do what I was told.
I ended up in a adult relationship that clearly didn’t fit me. I came away more demolished than I came in. But I don’t think I would change it. Trying to fit the mold made me realize that the mold isn’t real, that it’s a cat eternally chasing a tail it will never catch. I had to be in the mold to break the mold, and I wonder if that’s not my job here as a writer—to break the mold. To show there is no normal. To dismantle our own human forms of BSL.
I was bullied as a kid, and I let that define a lot of who I was for a long time. I’m a lot of things, but I’m more than what you see when you look. I still don’t wear brand names, but that doesn’t make me bad. I like it this way. I don’t always brush my hair, but I walk dogs all day and there’s really no point. I don’t have a lot of money, but I have enough to live and have a little fun. I don’t talk a lot, but I want to make what I say matter. I’ve been hurt, but it doesn’t last forever. I’ve been raped, but I’m not a victim. I’m a survivor. The world says I should look a certain way, that I should be broken. I say differently.
As I try to find more ways to write about my life, I’m realizing that I am more than my surface appearance. And so is Tubs. And so is Hank. And so was Lennox.
So let’s end all BSL, okay? Both the human and the dog forms.