So last Friday I had the opportunity to attend the Animal Rights 2014 National Conference where Merritt Clifton, former editor of Animal People and current editor of Animals 24-7, was set to co-present on a panel entitled “Moving away from shelter killing.” I know… It seems contradictory to have such a person speaking on such a panel, considering Clifton is a pusher of BSL and the concept of eliminating all Pit Bulls. Anyways, after the panel wrapped up numerous people (including Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent director Jeff Theman and Kim Wolf from Beyond Breed) had an opportunity to engage Clifton on some of the questionable claims that his “statistics” aim to support.
During a downtime in the panel Kim interjected to ask him a question about his statistics and why they haven’t been peer-reviewed in scientific journals, to which Merritt said that he has “more than 100 peer-reviewed publications.” That’s a dubious claim, at best. Being quoted in a printed or online publication by a source unaware of your lack of credentials doesn’t exactly count. Clifton then claimed that the JAVMA publications, which is a scientific journal that is peer-reviewed, are authored by “paid, professional Pit Bull advocates,” who he claims he’d be happy to debate at any time in a public forum. Um, okay. I’m certainly not a “paid” advocate but I chimed in from the crowd that we’d be attempting to hold him to that. He asked me what my name was, and I told him, and then he called me a heckler who hollers anonymously from the back of the crowd. I repeated my name again, so I don’t know, apparently we have different definitions of the word anonymous.
After the panel wrapped up I approached him and apologized for being a “heckler,” introducing myself and asking him what his deal was against our dogs. He claimed that “you’re not going to reduce the shelter killing of Pit Bulls unless you have breed-specific legislation.” Holy crap. That’s not true. To his point about “needing” BSL, Merritt gave no acknowledgement to the perpetuation of harsh, negative, inflammatory and untrue stereotypes that his cherry-picked (and often unverified) data tries to promote. He paid no attention to the lack of housing, renter restrictions, insurance restrictions, and so on that that stuff constantly feeds. He gave no acknowledgement to how these laws are often actually used as end-arounds to human being profiling. And he paid no attention to the shelter system structure, many of which practice (off the books) in-house BSL, which obviously feeds the shelter killing of Pit Bulls. All of these quite necessary elements were conveniently left out of his explanation as to “why” we need BSL. Not very genuine, to say the least.
At 1:48 Merritt says “when you consider that there are around 150 recognized breeds, for any 1 breed to make up more than 1% is actually significant.” Wow, well that’s odd. Because when dog-banners talk about Pit Bulls they always say that “Pit Bulls ONLY make up 4-6% of the total dog population.” Key word: Only. First of all, that claim is totally untrue and most definitely dwarfed by reality. But even if it was true, Merritt just said that it’s significant for any breed to be over 1% of the dog population, right? But then that rhetoric is conveniently flipped when it needs to serve another purpose, and in an effort to try to claim that there’s not a lot of Pit Bulls that exist in the country. See, if dog-banners admit that there’s a lot of Pit Bulls in existence then they ultimately have to admit that there’s a lot of Pit Bulls that have never harmed anyone. That’s the reality, to the 99.99999 percentile, and no matter the numbers that you want to work with.
At 3:44 he says “very often, a breeder, if a certain dog becomes dog of the year, they’ll just change which dogs mate, so they’ll turn out Goldens 1 year and Chocolate Labs the next, and out of the same mother.” See the dilution of breeds taking place in just that example? I bet if you saw those dogs most people wouldn’t even be able to tell. Just think about that for a second, and how dogs are clearly dogs. Yet Golden Retrievers are held up on their own, and Labradors on their own, and so on and so forth. But what if a Golden Retriever or a Labrador is mixed with a mixed dog, or is mixed with a random dog that someone considers to be a Pit Bull? Is it now a Pit Bull? At what point does it become a Pit Bull? Dogs are dogs folks.
At 4:38 Clifton starts to talk about high-volume, low-cost spay and neuter programs in a way that implies that it was being tried and done in all of these states (he gives both Ohio and New York as examples), but that nobody seemed to want to take advantage of it. This is just fundamentally not true! Kim Wolf, who resides in Brooklyn, intervened to state that in NYC people actually line up at 5am for the clinics but that 2/3rds of those people are normally turned away due to the demand not being able to be met. Her point is that it was incredibly difficult to access these things, and these are the people with the means to access them! Much more pertinent are the lower income folks who may not have the appropriate information or the transportation to get to such an event. Kim’s point aligns pretty well with what I’ve come to understand and see when talking with different communities from California who are being focused on by animal control without being given access to proper resources that would make voluntary compliance far more likely to happen. For instance, in the city of Indio a 2013 spay and neuter clinic which had 40 spots available saw over 500 residents come out in an effort to get their pets sterilized.
At 10:08 Merritt claims that “media reports are the most accurate.” In comparison to what? I then try to ask him why breed remains the primary focus in the face of reckless circumstances like loose dogs, chained yard dogs and unsupervised children. Based on those “media reports” that he claims are the most accurate, 26 of 31 dog-bite related fatalities from 2013 and at least 15 of the 21 from 2014 have involved 1 or more of those 3 reckless (human controlled) circumstances. I tell him that he chooses to focus on breed, which “can’t even be determined.” Obviously I meant that it can’t be successfully determined simply by a media report mention. He says this is not the case. I try to explain that there’s not even a specific or consistent definition of what a “Pit Bull” is, to which he asks me if I can identify Santa Claus… This brings to mind Riverside County’s veterinarian Dr. Allan Drusys and his comparing Pit Bull breed identification to watching pornography, meaning that “you know it when you see it.” Total insanity. Numerous scientific studies reject this notion, including a 2012 study completed by Dr. Victoria Voith. Geneticist Kristopher Irizarry tried to explain this to the Riverside County Board of Supervisors back in October, and they, already having their minds made up prior to even entering the meeting, totally ignored his information.
At 12:00 Clifton makes it seem as if certain dogs come out of the womb pointing, retrieving, fighting. Dog men have stated openly how difficult it is to find a true fighting dog, no matter how they are bred, but Merritt Clifton wants you to believe that every Pit Bull that is born is basically a “fighting” dog. This is a massive load of crap. At 13:22 Jeff directly asks him if he is stating that these dogs were specifically bred for fighting and fighting only. Merritt’s answer? “Basically fighting and baiting.” This, while 99.99999% of all dogs neither fight nor bait in their actual lives. Should I start calling all Latin people reflections of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, just because they may look alike or have the same physical characteristics? Or are people individuals with their own track records and behaviors? This same premise applies to dogs. Dogs are not objects coming off of an assembly line. They are individual dogs!
At 14:31 I ask him if he believes that dogs are individuals, just as a basic principle… Clifton doesn’t really answer, opting to say that “dogs have extremely strong breed-specific characteristics that have been bred into them for years” instead. He then says that people don’t, which makes us all “mutts and mongrels.” He then says that “characteristics and behavior go together,” to which I’d immediately say, well, how do you then account for the actual positive behaviors of the many millions of Pit Bull-type dogs that exist in the country today? He can’t talk out of both sides of his mouth.
At 15:19 he states that he’s been talking to a geneticist that believes that she’s identified the gene that carries the trait for “idiopathic rage,” which they’re now going to try and pin on all Pit Bulls. Clifton states that it “occurs in roughly 1% of the dog population at large, but that it occurs in over 90% of Pit Bulls.” Wait, what? Alert the math police! First of all, based on Merritt’s own 2014 report, Pit Bulls and their mixes make up 6.7% of the dog population. This can in no way be proven, and in reality is likely triple or quadruple that, especially when taking into account how the mainstream media identifies dogs… But anyways, based on Merritt’s 6.7% and a dog population of 70 million, that produces 4.69 million “Pit Bulls.” 5.025 million based on a dog population of 75 million and 5.36 million based on a dog population of 80 million! Now look at their “idiopathic rage” claim again… 1% of a dog population of 70 million dogs is 700,000 dogs (750,000 out of 75 million, 800,000 out of 80 million). Based on Merritt’s own research there’s 4.7 million Pit Bulls in that same 70 million population group. Yet they are trying to pin “idiopathic rage” on Pit Bulls, and stating that it occurs in 90% of Pit Bulls, while at the same time stating that it only occurs in 1% of the total dog population. Using Merritt’s population claim: 90% of Pit Bulls in a total population of 70 million dogs would equal 4.22 million Pit Bulls. 1% of that same dog population equals a total of 700,000 dogs. Their math is ludicrously flawed. Even if every single dog from the “idiopathic rage” group was a “Pit Bull,” that still leaves 3.99 million Pit Bulls! It’s junk science. It’s crap. It’s lies. Just for fun, if we quadrupled Merritt’s estimated amount of “Pit Bulls” from a dog population of 70 million dogs (which is probably far more genuine and honest), that equals 18.76 million Pit Bulls. Now run that number through the same formulation from ^above. You get the point.
At 16:10 Jeff references a behaviorist that appears in his film, and how he states that “we have a lot of genes in our hand, but does it make my hand ball up into a fist and hit you?” Merritt says “if you were better qualified than someone else to be successful, as a behavioral strategy, to ball up your fist and hit somebody, uh, that could evolve the ability to do that successfully, which could evolve into a successful trait.” Keep in mind that Merritt’s claims are based in his belief that all Pit Bulls are dog fighting dogs… Now he’s trying to say that if you were “better qualified” to punch somebody in the face, that that could evolve into a successful gene or trait? I know a lot of people that are “better qualified” to be able to knock someone’s block off if they were to get into a physical fight! Does that mean that they are a fighter? Does that mean that they are a vicious person? Does that mean that they are a detriment to public safety? I mean, where does this type of crap lead? Think about The Rock, think about Jon “Bones” Jones, think about Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao, think about Karl Malone or Ray Lewis, think about any professional athlete, think about any athlete at any level whatsoever! What about anyone over 6’5″, or anyone over 225 pounds? Where does the profiling end? This is all profiling pseudoscience!
At 18:25 Jeff talks about how his dog Preston loves to retrieve (my dog Neola also loves to retrieve). He asks Merritt “is my dog a retriever because he displays that trait, or is he now a Pit Bull because he looks like something?” Based on the road that we’ve been going down, this leaves Clifton kind of flustered. We then get back into his data, which he says comes from “classified ads,” but he leaves out the part about it never being made available to be publicly vetted in any way. I ask him how many dogs are not fatally wounding or mauling someone? He knows that the answer is 99.99999% of them, and no matter the breed or type, but I don’t get that answer. He instead claims that 1 out of every 107 Pit Bulls kills another animal each year. I ask him where that data comes from. He tells me to go to his website. How in the world can anyone even attempt to claim that they know this to be true? There’s literally no possible way to know such a stat, and for numerous reasons. None.
At 20:28 a lady who had been standing around the entire time that we were talking to Merritt chimes in and implies that I don’t want to protect these dogs. Protect them by passing BSL and/or phasing them out/killing them? Very PETA-ish of her. I try to explain how breed-specific mandatory spay/neuter is always rhetorically pitched. She doesn’t care. She says that I “agree with breeding,” and in a way that’s surely meant to make me seem as if I’m anti-spay and neuter. I’m not anti-spay and neuter! I just don’t think it should be mandated upon people (especially in a breed-specific fashion), and for a lot of different reasons that go well beyond a soundbyte or a statement that I could just flippantly toss out. I actually believe in voluntary spay and neuter, and making resources available and accessible, and educating people about those resources. My own dogs are sterilized. So put your simplistic breeder-related stuff back in the drawer. I’m not a breeder. I again try to explain how breed-specific mandatory spay/neuter is rhetorically pitched, which is the main reason why I don’t support it. It’s not to get at shelter killing, it’s not to get at overpopulation. It’s to criminalize the dogs as a whole and phase them out by circumventing state law. Look at California for the finest example. Somehow she doesn’t find any of this relevant. She claims “that’s not a good reason to fight it.” I’d strongly disagree! She says that we should be focused on stopping them from being killed. I’m trying to tell her that they are being killed mainly because of the perpetuated stereotype that continues to exist. At 21:45 Clifton tries to claim that the Pit Bulls coming into shelters are coming in because they’ve “had some kind of an incident.” There he goes again, speaking on behalf of countless individual dogs without having a damn clue about any of them. Unreal. We then get into landlord/tenant issues that are far more complicated than Merritt leads on, but that’s another discussion for another day. Merritt totally misses my point about renting and insurance blockades.
At 22:36 I ask him about a debate for a 2nd time. I’m certainly not a “paid” advocate, like he alluded to earlier, but I’ve publicly (and respectfully) debated in the past. I can’t get him to commit to anything. I offer to fly to Washington. He tells me to send him a “proposal,” but won’t just commit to the premise of at some point doing it. The other lady then interjects and makes a point about why a law is needed, while at the same time admitting that the BSL from the town in which she lives isn’t even enforced. Kim points out that if they won’t enforce that then why/how do you think they’d enforce a mandatory sterilization law?
At 26:15 Clifton basically admits that MSN-BSL and bans are both used for the same purpose, stating that “I don’t see any reason at all to breed Pit Bulls, or any other dog who is inclined or produced to kill or injure other animals.” There he goes again, condemning a massive group of dogs for things that the vast majority of them haven’t done. I try to explain this to both Merritt and the lady, but they state that if it isn’t born then you aren’t condemning it. Um, but you’re not having it be born precisely for the reason that it’s a condemned dog in your own mind! Hello!
This then delves into a side conversation between myself and the lady over dog fighting. She believes that if Pit Bulls cease to exist then the concept of dog fighting would cease to exist. That basically equates to blaming the dogs and ignoring the actual human being and their criminal behavior of illegally fighting dogs. I state that they’d probably just do it with another dog. She says “are you telling me that they’re going to fight Beagles?” Sidebar, but have you ever noticed how often this type of a tactic is used by proponents of regulating dog breeds? For example, if we are talking about fatalities, someone might say “well, is a Chihuahua going to kill somebody?” Um, are Chihuahuas (and in this case Beagles) the only other dogs available to make a valid comparison with? It’s funny that someone picks the tiniest dog in an effort to make their counter-point. There’s about 50 breeds of dog that are LARGER in physical size than a Pit Bull and just as (if not more) capable of killing a human being. That’s a fact.
At 29:59 the lady asks me “what are you looking to see in the end?” She, like PETA, views the concept of dogs as human companions as dogs being exploited. She admits that she wants to end dog companionship, and that that’s the “only” animal rights position. Yikes.
At 31:51 Kim asks Clifton if he has any peer-reviewed research that’s been published in the United States. He claims that he does. He states that he has an award from ProMED. He does, and it was given in 2010 regarding the controlling of the rabies virus in Asia. It’s not for anything relating to dog-related human fatalities, breed-specific legislation, or Pit Bulls, which is what she was specifically asking him about. Clifton explains why he doesn’t publish in JAVMA, but that he does provide data to them as a supporting writer, and states that he doesn’t make his living writing for journals. Kim asks him that if his data is so good then why isn’t he trying to get it published in peer-reviewed journals. He doesn’t really answer her directly. He justifies his publishing decisions by stating that he simply wants to reach the most people. But what if what he’s writing about is flat out wrong, unscientific or not able to be proven? Isn’t that relevant? He doesn’t seem to care much about having his information vetted in these ways, just that it reaches who it reaches. Okay, fair enough. But that’s kind of an incredible evasion of Kim’s point.
At 35:17 I again ask him about a future debate, because at this point my battery is about to die. He again tells me to send him a “proposal” (which I’ve since done).
At 36:23 the lady who had been talking with us brings up PETA. She doesn’t believe what Jeff and Kim are trying to tell her so I try to hand her a sheet of 40 sourced PETA quotations since the year 2000 which have been used to promote breed bans, all forms of breed-specific legislation, and the no adoption policy for shelter Pit Bulls that Ingrid Newkirk has lobbied for. She refuses to take, or even look at, the paper.
At this point we are out in the hallway, and the lady who had been engaged in our conversation for the last 30 minutes incredibly asks me if I’d been videotaping her. She knows that I had been, as any time I would address her I would physically turn in her direction and point my open video camera at her, but she strangely starts to play dumb. She then asks me for my name, and I give it to her, and then she runs off to get staff members in an effort to have them strong-arm me into giving up my memory card so that it could be erased/destroyed. I told them that that wasn’t happening, and that she was watching me record the conversation for damn near 40 minutes! She could have left the open room at any time. Also worth note, she opted to join the ongoing conversation that we were already having with Clifton, not the other way around. She goes on and on about them taking my camera, which they don’t try to do. Now this lady comes unglued and threatens to sue me. You’d think that if people were knowingly being recorded, and chose to stay around, that they then wouldn’t try and pull this type of crap after the fact. Stand on your information/pov! What are you afraid of other people hearing? If you’re correct then I/we should be looking like fools on my own video, right?