As I boarded the train to the New Statesman office this morning I made sure to reserve a seat for Spitty, my Mozambique spitting cobra. He’s a beloved member of the family and I take him everywhere because it is my right to do so. Sadly my fellow passengers reacted to the presence of a three-foot long venomous snake with ignorance and, it has to be said, prejudice, backing away from Spitty in horror. “Don’t judge him on appearances!” I pleaded, as Spitty reared up, seeking a pair of human eyes to hose with his burning venom. “He’s just being friendly!”
Many readers will have experienced a similar situation, although perhaps with a different – and much more dangerous – animal: the dog. While there hasn’t been a fatal snake bite in the UK for 50 years, 2022 is now the worst year on record for fatal dog attacks. Nine people have been killed this year by dogs, while the number of people, mostly small children, who have been injured and disfigured is also at a record level. A week ago a surgeon at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital told ITV News he sees new victims of dog attacks on a daily basis.
Last month a five-year-old girl was playing outside her home in Croydon, south London, when a bull terrier pinned her to the ground, inflicting “life-changing” injuries to her face. Of the nine fatal dog attacks in the UK this year, six were by bull terriers and four were by one breed, the Bully XL. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Veterinary Medical Association found that bull terriers and rottweilers accounted for more than two thirds of fatal dog attacks in the US in one year.
This is a controversial thing to point out, however. A well-funded charity lobby, led by the RSPCA, Dogs Trust and Blue Cross is calling for the repeal of the Dangerous Dogs Act (1991), which bans certain breeds. They say this “breed-specific legislation” is discriminatory and unjust. While the charities themselves are careful to avoid making an offensive connection between the law as it applies to dog breeds and the racism experienced by millions of human beings, it seems to be a widespread view among activists, expressed in blogs, news interviews and petitions to parliament, that it amounts to “breedism”, “dog racism” and “basically racism”.
It’s important to weigh up the two sets of rights being debated here. On the one hand you have the right of five-year-olds not to be disfigured and traumatised for life; on the other, the right of adults to own certain breeds of dog.
The RSPCA claims that the Dangerous Dogs Act hasn’t prevented dog bites from more than doubling in the last decade. A similar argument could be made about tax evasion, or speeding, or burglary – laws that so many people get away with breaking – but all this means is that the law is unenforced. It does not mean the law is wrong.
The charities opposing the act encourage a focus on “deed not breed”, which presumes that dogs are full citizens with the right to commit a “deed” – mauling a child with their teeth and claws – and then rehabilitate. The price of extending those rights to a dog is the safety of vulnerable humans.
Oddly enough, while the RSPCA campaigns against law that discriminates between dog breeds, it isn’t bothered about discriminating between species. Each year, thousands upon thousands of pigs (which are widely thought to be more intelligent than dogs) are electrocuted, minced and made into tasty, RSPCA-approved sausages. But then, the RSPCA is also very much the Royal Society for Getting People to Bequeathe it Money, and if you’re going to persuade the nation’s elderly to include you in their wills, a big-eyed pooch is just the job. Under capitalism, charity is as much a market as anything else.
This is the grim truth of the pet industry: in a country in which 3.9 million people live in poverty, the UK spends £10bn a year on dogs and £8bn a year on cats. The cats don’t care and the dogs, given half a chance, would eat us. The government should expand and enforce the laws that protect us from them.
[See also: Sylvia Plath’s 90th birthday party]