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Opinion | After Detroit child killed by dog, a call to boost animal control services

In October, we learned of another tragic death in Detroit due to a dog attack. Though the details remain sketchy, we know that a four-year-old lost his life and surely experienced horrific pain and fear during his last moments. And a family is now grappling with the worst trauma and grief imaginable. All of whom now deserve an open and honest examination of the system that may have failed them and how we can better protect others. 

Immediately after a severe injury or death by a dog, there are calls to ban "pit bulls." We should search for solutions, and this answer seems so simple. But it's driven by misunderstanding and clickbait headlines and is much more complicated than it sounds. 

Woman holds cat
Tanya has been president and CEO of the Humane Society of Huron Valley (HSHV) since 2005. She has a master’s degree in social work administration and public policy from Wayne State University. HSHV is a multi-service, no-kill organization serving nearly 25,000 animals a year.

For the sake of argument, let's entertain the notion of eliminating all dogs considered "pit bulls" from Detroit. 

But first, two undeniable facts.

One, all animal shelters are bursting at the seams. The only way to eliminate thousands of dogs is to kill them. 

Two, the term "pit bull" does not represent one specific, easily identifiable American Kennel Club purebred. Rather, it is a broad term referring to a few different breeds but is mostly just mixed breed mutts with a certain popular look. 

With that, let's consider some key questions:

According to national statistics, approximately 40 percent of households own one more dogs. With 270,000 households in Detroit, there are likely over 100,000 pet dogs, with pit bull types/mixes a leading favorite. So, how will possibly tens of thousands of dogs throughout the city be located? Do we believe pet owners will voluntarily report their suddenly banned dogs to the authorities?

To round up all these dogs, will the Detroit Police Department be entering yards and busting down doors to seize owned pets?  

What happens to all those overtly friendly "wiggle butts," as they are known, who wouldn't hurt a fly and those who act like any other faithful family dog? Do they die as collateral damage? 

What about the people who love and care for their dogs responsibly? And what of the trauma done to the children and elderly whose canine companion may be their best or only friend? More collateral damage?  

What to do with most "pit bulls" who are genetically just mutts? Will each be DNA tested and killed based on a percentage of certain breed types? Or do we go by looks alone, knowing scientifically that this is hogwash? 

What becomes of the other breeds likely to replace them – the bulldogs, Rottweilers, huskies, Dobermans, mastiffs, and German shepherds?

How many lawyers will be lining up to sue the city for any of the above?

Love or hate them, a closer look at a few details shows banning "pit bulls" is not a fair, humane, logical, or feasible solution. 

Instead, let's explore what experts agree creates dangerous dogs and the real solutions needed for safer, more humane communities for everyone. 

The root of endemic community dog problems is not different from that of human struggles: poverty and its heightened intersecting social perils. Despite revitalization in some regions of Detroit, 31 percent of households still live in poverty, including 43 percent of children. Lack of access to resources, unemployment, housing instability, and family violence and neglect harm the healthy development of dogs like they do kids.   

For dogs, this translates into several conditions that lead to more bites and attacks. These include dogs living outside on a chain, dogs allowed to run at large, unneutered males, backyard breeding and puppies weaned too early, and dogs poorly socialized, physically abused, or intentionally made vicious. 

Of course, the best answer for everyone is to end poverty. Barring that, we need sound public policy, adequately funded and well-managed animal services, and pet owner support. 


  • effective field enforcement of city ordinances
  • protection from animal cruelty
  • robust lost and found services
  • humane sheltering and adoption
  • free spay/neutering
  • pet food, veterinary care and behavior assistance
  • public education
  • restrictions on intentional breeding (not breeds)

Unfortunately, economically distressed communities that need these services the most often have the least. In part because some wrongly think animal control is only about animals. This has been painfully true for Detroit. 

It's no secret that aside from one bright blip of progress (when the department was overseen by Detroit Health Director Dr. Abdul Al-Sayed and an expert shelter director) Detroit Animal Care and Control has been severely neglected and underfunded for decades, suffering under unaccountable leadership marred by inertia, apathy, incompetence and misconduct. 

Small private not-for-profits have jumped in to try to fill the gap. Though the effort is mighty, it's not nearly enough, and the duty of public health and safety should never be abdicated to the capriciousness of charity. 

The good news is many want to help, and Detroit already has some strong ordinances, including a dangerous dog ordinance and an anti-tethering ordinance, in place to start making a real difference. A few others are needed, as are more services and effective leadership and real financial investment from the city government. 

Most Detroiters love their animals like family. But you don't have to be an animal lover to value these services. We know they save more tax dollars than they cost, reduce risks to community health and safety, and have immeasurable intangible benefits. 

Sound public policy and high-quality, comprehensive services led by dedicated experts do not make exciting headlines. But they are core to preventing tragedies and protecting people and animals. 

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