‘Dangerous dogs’: code for underclass Britain

Behind the headlines about crazed pitbulls there's a salacious contempt for certain sorts of people.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

The horrific mauling to death of Merseyside five-year-old Ellie Lawrenson by her uncle’s pitbull terrier on New Year’s Day has sent shockwaves through Britain.

Following on from the killing of five-month-old Cadey-Lee Deacon by two Rottweilers in a Leicester pub in September, it has also led to demands that the government ‘beef up’ the Dangerous Dogs Act. The act was passed by John Major’s Conservative government in 1991, outlawing possession of four types of dog: the Pitbull Terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentina and Fila Brazliero. In today’s Mirror, columnist Sue Carroll says the government must control the ‘nasty people responsible for nasty dogs’, and says it should start ‘by giving councils the power to prosecute owners of vicious dogs and making it a law to keep dangerous ones muzzled – permanently’. Such action is ‘essential’, says Carroll, in order to avoid more deaths like Ellie Lawrenson’s (1).

Reading the shock headlines over the past two days you might be forgiven for thinking that dangerously demented killer-dogs are stalking Britain’s streets. In fact, dog-attack fatalities are extremely rare, roughly on a par with being struck by lightning. What really seems to be driving the obsession with dangerous dogs today is a fear and loathing of the kind of people most likely to own them: young black men and working-class families. ‘Dangerous dogs’ has become code for ‘underclass Britain’, and fretting over the aggressive and vicious tendencies of pitbulls and other horrible mutts has become a convenient way to slate certain communities without being accused of racism (or ‘underclassism’). It’s old-fashioned snobbery let off the leash.

There is a lot of bite in some of the barking commentary on dangerous dogs. Some commentators discuss ‘dangerous dog owners’ in the most vituperative terms. The headline to Sue Carroll’s article was ‘Muzzle dangerous dogs and their vile owners’. She described the average pitbull owner as a ‘swaggering youth more interested in where he might find his next joint than animal welfare’. They are ‘feckless Neanderthals’ on ‘inner-city estates’, with ‘no concept of restraint or judgement’ (2). Hold on: how did we go from shock over a rare kind of death on New Year’s Day to disgust for the Neanderthal residents of inner-city slums and their apparent inability to control themselves? For anyone who was thrown by Carroll’s subtlety (hmmm), Steve Purcell, editor of the Mirror’s website, spelled out her point in an introductory blurb to her column online: ‘These dogs are…clearly seen as a must-have accessory by a certain underclass.’ (3)

There’s clearly more to this public discussion than fear of dogs; try fear of people instead. Indeed, outside of the tabloids some serious commentators have defended the dogs against their owners; apparently these mutts are only an extension of their owners’ own animalistic tendencies. In the Guardian, columnist Michele Hanson claims the problem is that ‘too many people don’t know how to look after dogs properly’. And she isn’t talking about Guardian readers with cute labra-doodles, but individuals with a ‘hoodie or shaven head’ and ‘hanging-down trousers’, for whom Staffordshire bull terriers are a ‘macho status symbol’, a ‘dick on a string’ (4). So the problem is not that very occasionally some dogs go crazy, but the culture of arrogance and sexual bravado that exists in parts of London (5).

Twenty-four hours after Ellie Lawrenson was bitten to death by her uncle’s dog, Channel 4 newsreader and celebrated liberal Jon Snow argued that, ‘It is one of life’s great unexplained peculiarities that people like to provide a home for violent uncontrollable animals as if in some way these beasts fulfil some animal instinct of their own’ (6). Perhaps Ellie was really done in by her uncle’s ‘animal instinct’, his possibly brutal, feral streak as represented in his choice of pet. Whatever the truth of the claims that Ellie’s uncle is a drugdealer who liked to parade his pitbull around town, that is a strikingly cruel and crude thing to say about a family still in shock and mourning.

This is characteristic of the coverage of dangerous dogs fatalities: a lack of sympathy for the bereaved family. Sue Carroll says of Ellie Lawrenson’s death, ‘My heart goes out to the Lawrensons. But the question remains: what on earth were they thinking letting their daughter stay in the same house as a menacing dog?’ (7) The fact that the girl was in her grandmother’s house, and was familiar with the dog in question, is overlooked in this search for blame within the family. Similar questions were asked of the parents of five-month-old Cadey-Lee Deacon, killed by Rottweilers in Leicester in September. One respectable blogger described Cadey-Lee’s parents as being ‘so moronic that they left her where…froth-mouthed hounds could get at her on a sink estate in Leicester’ (8). Yet these were tragic, unpredictable accidents; you could just as well ask what the hell the parents of a child killed by boiling water or a collapsing bookshelf were thinking leaving her in a house full of dangerous objects?

The criticism even of grieving parents shows that the dangerous dogs agenda is driven by perceptions of moral failure, by the idea that it is the morally bankrupt – those with ‘hanging-down trousers’ (blacks) or with ‘animal instincts’ (the underclass) – who own these beasts that apparently endanger their own children.

As in most public debates these days, the most vituperative commentary about ‘dangerous dog owners’ has appeared in the Blogosphere – that unregulated world of unguarded comment. One writer on a website called The Dog Community argues that the violence of pitbulls is symbolic of the violent underclass: ‘Pitbulls have become enmeshed in the brutality of underclass culture, magnifying the breed’s predisposition to aggression.’ (9) In a post titled ‘My definition of a chav’, one blogger describes ‘Britain’s peasant underclass who have taken over Great Britain’ and their penchant for ‘vicious dogs’. The website Chavscum says dangerous dogs are favoured by the ‘truly filthy chavster’. One blogger says these dogs ‘are nothing more than fighting dogs that the underclass keep as status symbols. And they are a dead giveaway of their origins: you can take the scum out of the slum, but not the slum out of the scum.’ Following the death of five-month-old Cadey-Lee, a blogger declared that ‘in an attempt to secure their pathetic premises [with rottweilers], the grandparents of Caydee-Lee [sic] contributed to her tragic death’. ‘I pity them’, he said, before adding: ‘Why the Super-Chavs of Leicester should be allowed to name an innocent baby Caydee-Lee [sic] is altogether another matter.’ (10)

Those ignorant scum in Leicester, thinking they can make a living from running a ‘pathetic’ pub and giving their offspring stupid, pretentious names: who do they think they are? In many ways, this kind of disgusting blogging is only a more outspoken version of what has appeared in the mainstream media, where the talk is of ‘animal instincts’ among the ‘underclass’ and their ‘growling beasts’.

Behind all the hysterical headlines and poisonous chav-baiting, it should be noted that dangerous dogs are not that dangerous. Killings by dogs are very rare, even in ‘underclass’ Leicester and Merseyside. During the period 1999 to 2004, there were an average of 2.3 fatalities a year due to being bitten or ‘struck’ by a dog – compared with 63 people who died from suffocation due to a plastic bag in 1999, for example, and 20 deaths that resulted from being thrown from an animal in 2003. So plastic bags are far more dangerous than ‘dangerous dogs’, and so, it would appear, is riding animals such as horses – a pastime beloved of some of the children of those middle-class commentators who mock the owners of pitbulls and Rottweilers (11).

One study of dog bites in Britain showed that 24 per cent were by German shepherds, 18.2 per cent were by mongrels, and 6 per cent were by ‘dangerous breeds’ such as pitbulls and Rottweilers. As one veterinarian commentator said, ‘This study also showed that typical family breeds, such as Labradors, collies, Jack Russell terriers and cocker spaniels, were biting at higher rates than the “dangerous dogs”’ (12). In 2004, there were no recorded fatalities caused by dogs in England and Wales, though one person died after being struck by lightning (13).

The ‘dangerous dogs’ issue has become a scare story for our times, expressing the political and media elites’ innate distrust, fear and loathing of working-class and poor communities. These teeth-bearing, broad-shouldered beasts are seen as being symbolic of sections of society that have no moral anchor or self-control, communities that are selfish, uncaring, beastly. This follows a historical trend where middle-class do-gooders have tended to fret over the behaviour of the lower orders through the issue of animals; they worry that the ‘underclass’ treats animals barbarically, whether it’s by sticking fireworks up cats’ arses, organising dogfights or cockfights, or making the torture of animals ‘part of their culture’ (as one RSPCA officer said of residents of an urban housing estate in London) (14). This is little more than salacious gossip about the weird goings-on in apparently exotic communities in rundown areas of Britain, as if the people who inhabit such areas are savages.

Of course, maybe some people do acquire these dogs as ‘status symbols’, as symbols of ‘power’. As Helen Birtwistle has argued on spiked, this means we should have a proper debate about why individuals feel the need to achieve status through their pets; perhaps other avenues for self-realisation are closed off to them (see A ‘dick on a string’?, by Helen Birtwistle). Instead, we have a scurrilous public discussion of people as ‘slum scum’ who apparently warp their dogs to be violent. It says a lot about today’s political class and commentariat that they seem to sympathise more with dogs than with dog owners, and even look down their noses at families who have been the victims of tragic dog attacks.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) Muzzle vicious dogs and their vile owners, Mirror, 3 January 2007

(2) Muzzle vicious dogs and their vile owners, Mirror, 3 January 2007

(3) Put the bite on danger dogs, Mirror website, 3 January 2007

(4) Beware of the dog, Guardian, 28 September 2006

(5) Beware of the dog, Guardian, 28 September 2006

(6) Snowmail, Jon Snow, Channel 4 News, 2 January 2007

(7) Muzzle vicious dogs and their vile owners, Mirror, 3 January 2007

(8) Bicycle thieves and flat-roofed pubs, Devil’s Advocate, 30 September 2006

(9) Scared of pitbulls? You’d better be!, The Dog Community, 17 June 2006

(10) Dangerous dogs, Da mihi sis cerevisiam, 26 September 2006

(11) Statement by the Endangered Dogs Defence and Rescue Organisation, October 2006

(12) Bite Prevention and Bite Statistics, Best Friends Animal Society, 2005

(13) Statement by the Endangered Dogs Defence and Rescue Organisation, October 2006

(14) See Wolf in sheep’s clothing, Brendan O’Neill, LM, November 1999

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