Owning a pit bull is hard enough on a day-to-day basis -- fighting all the misconceptions of the breed -- but in the aftermath of the tragic mauling death of Diane Whipple, anti-dog sentiment in the city seemed to skyrocket. And it was no longer just pit bulls that were the object of fear and loathing, it was every dog next door.
There was this letter to the editor sent to SF Weekly by Jill Haley: "This goes out to my fellow Mission District neighbors. For the last 10 years I have been walking my dog Frazier up and down 20th Street to Dolores Park. ... Frazier is a 130-pound black Lab mix.
"I've said good morning and chatted with many of you. Your children have hugged and petted my dog many times.
"But now you look at us with fearful eyes. Some of you have said rude things. You actually walk out into the street to avoid passing us closely. Please don't condemn all dog owners for the recent tragedy in Pacific Heights."
Last week a Marina woman I spoke with while strolling in the Presidio commented that when she walks her two Portuguese water dogs people "flatten themselves against buildings."
And of course there has been the average, everyday fear of pit bulls. For example: Shortly after Whipple was killed, I was walking my leashed pit bull when I came across a man stretching on the sidewalk before a run. His position, crouched down, seemed suspicious to my dog, who barked. The man was startled. I apologized and offered to introduce the two to show that my dog is friendly. The man declined. My dog wanted to say hello anyway, and was pulling on the leash. The man said, "Are you sure you can hang onto him?" "Yes," I replied, exasperated. The man said, "You heard the news reports right?" (This was the second time someone had mentioned the Whipple incident in reference to my dog.)
Frankly, I'm tired of people demonizing dogs, and I don't think I'm alone.
The circumstances surrounding the dog attack on Diane Whipple are bizarre to say the least. We've all heard the news reports: Pelican Bay prisoners running a dog breeding ring from behind bars, the lawyers who had custody of Bane and Hera adopting one of the prisoners, who belongs to the Aryan Brotherhood, and so on.
These people -- and certainly these dogs -- are not your average citizens. To view every dog through the prism of Bane and Hera does an injustice to all the friendly canines (including pit bulls) and their responsible owners out there.
"I'm hoping and praying things will get back to normal, because as tragic as this incident was it's really an isolated incident," says Carl Friedman, the director of San Francisco Animal Care and Control.
Though you might not have believed that by watching all the overwrought news reports in the weeks following Whipple's death. It seemed as though dogs had become the new breed of criminals.
"All the fear that's been manufactured around this is directly related to the media's portrayal of it," says Shane Mullan, co-owner of Blue Collar Pet Services, a dog walking business. "The more often it was on TV, the more negative occurrences I would have with people. ... Several times a day people used to come up and say, "How cute. Can I pet the dogs?' Now it's more like a dirty look or they cross the street."
However, Friedman and Mullan both agree that the concern over dogs has begun to subside. Perhaps the slight decrease in canine phobia is because the media has had a new tragedy to focus on: the school shooting in Santee.
Tied up in all the dog controversy is pet owners' concern about the Golden Gate National Recreation Area's proposal to rescind its pet policy, which for 22 years has allowed off-leash walking at beach areas such as Fort Funston and Crissy Field. Three days before Diane Whipple was killed, there had been a meeting of the Citizen Advisory Commission, which advises the GGNRA superintendent on policy matters on behalf of the public. Word was the commission had already made up its mind to recommend rescinding the policy. So many pro-dog protesters were at the meeting that the final vote was postponed for 120 days.
But some pet owners are now worried that the dog attack that took Whipple's life will also be the final nail in the coffin of off-leash walking in the GGNRA.
"I just can't believe that one bizarre, extraordinary incident is going to change our livelihood, our personal lives, our future," says Jeanie Mullan, co-owner of Blue Collar Pet Services. "If we lose those off-leash privileges, the only ones that suffer will be the dogs."
"And the people," continues Shane Mullan, Jeanie's husband. "Because there will be more unruly dogs since they won't have the safety valve we provide of the dogs blowing off steam."
Linda McKay sees things in a more positive light. The chairperson of Fort Funston Dog Walkers, a "friends of the fort" group that counts both pet owners and non-pet owners among its members, had this to say via e-mail: "I am of the minority who think we will not be adversely affected by the tragedy. It has started a very healthy public dialogue, and I think this has to be good for us. Maybe if non-dog people felt OK about expressing their concerns they would not feel they have to bar dogs from public places." (Full disclosure: I'm a dues-paying member of FFDW.)
According to Rich Weideman, chief of public affairs and special park uses for the GGNRA, "There's definitely a heightened awareness of other users as to their rights to use the park in a safe manner. We're getting letters on both sides of the issue, and they're running about 50/50."
Personally, I see off-leash walking as an important form of recreation not only for dogs, but for their owners too. I'm a taxpayer. Aren't I entitled to engage in my form of recreation, the same as hikers and bicyclists and picnickers and other visitors to GGNRA lands? We're already restricted from off-leash walking on most of Ocean Beach, a portion of Crissy Field is closed to dogs altogether, and areas of Fort Funston are off-limits to both dogs and people.
As the population in San Francisco increases, so does the competition for open space. We're all going to have to learn to share. So how about, instead of paranoia and divisiveness, we start practicing a little common sense and neighborliness around here?