Leo and Bane: A Tale of Two Dogs in the City
by Christie Keith
Note: Since the initial publication of this article, the owners of Bane and Hera were found guilty of manslaughter, and one of them of second degree murder as well, for the dog mauling death of Diane Whipple, and Andrew Burnett, the man identified as a suspect in the killing of Leo, was convicted of animal cruelty and given the maximum sentence, three years in prison.
Anyone hoping to understand the role of dogs in our culture would have gotten whiplash in the San Francisco Bay Area in recent times. The media was full of reports on the horrible death of Diane Whipple in a dog attack, efforts of the National Park Service to keep dogs out of a recreation area previously known as "off-leash dog heaven" for urban hounds, the dangerous dog hearing against Hera, the surviving dog involved in the fatal attack, the bizarre twists and turns of the DA's attempts to make a criminal case against the dogs' owners, and capping it all off, the announcement that a man alleged to have killed Sara McBurnett's Bichon Frise, Leo, last year was in jail in Santa Clara County.
I was born and raised in San Francisco, and lived there with dogs for many, many years. It was once the best city in the world for dogs, blessed with plenty of wonderful, under-utilized, legal off-leash areas, and many de facto ones as well. Dog lovers in general policed their own, problems were rare, and Fort Funston, the Presidio, Land's End, and Ocean Beach all appeared to be safely the domain of Bay Area dog owners and their canine friends. Today, only Fort Funston remains an off-leash area, and it's current status can best be characterized as precarious and threatened. (Although San Francisco officials bluntly informed the National Park Service at the time that if they ban off-leash dogs from Fort Funston they'll go to court to rescind their donation of the land, saying it was meant to provide recreation to San Franciscans, not be a nature preserve.)
I am not quite sure what happened in San Francisco, but I suspect it's at least partly something I see happening all over the country. Dogs, it seems, really cannot be dogs anymore. Running after a ball, splashing in the surf, flying over the sand dunes, and playing tag with other dogs is just not something we have room for in our world anymore. Dogs should be well-trained little automatons at all times, heeling neatly and quietly on a four- or six-foot leash at their owners' sides, sitting quietly when told, never barking, digging, or jumping.
There is nowhere this trend is more apparent than when we are faced with a dog who bites or attacks a human being. I do believe there are some dogs who are insane, unstable, and dangerous. But I also believe that most dog attacks are provoked, and if we were not so incredibly cut off from the animal world, and could get inside the head of the dog who bit or attacked, usually their actions would make perfect sense to us. There's a French saying that roughly translated means, "That dog is vicious; if you attack it, it defends itself."
Excluding the kind of attack that killed Diane Whipple, there are many instances when a dog bite is well and truly the fault of the person who gets bitten. Writer Vicki Hearne points out in Bandit: Diary of a Dangerous Dog that most dog bites happen to young boys, and speculates as to why that might be. Poking with sticks and acting "tough" by beating up the dog come to mind. Is such a dog "dangerous"? Well, I guess so, the way I would be dangerous if you poked me in the eye with a coat hanger. Is such a dog "bad" or "vicious"? In my view, not at all. It's just a dog.
Dogs are a window on the wild. Dogs are beasts. Dogs are wolves come to live among us. Dogs are majestic and amazing creatures who joined us at the dawn of civilization, to keep us company at our campsites, protect our families, guard our livestock. They guide the blind, herd sheep, fight wars, capture criminals, find people trapped in the rubble of a bomb or earthquake, rescue people who are drowning, pull sleds, give warning of epileptic seizures and heart attacks, keep your feet warm on cold nights. And yes, some kinds of dogs will bark at strangers and bite or even attack to protect their homes and families. They are DOGS, not robots and not people in fur coats. They have their own destiny and their own reasons, and there are times when our ways and theirs diverge. Will it make us richer or poorer to muzzle dogs in public, eliminate off-leash areas, restrict the size or breed of dogs that can be kept as companions? To automatically conclude that any time canine teeth meet human flesh, the dog was in the wrong?
Is there such a thing as a vicious dog? Like Hearne, I don't think so. Dangerous, yes. But viciousness is a human trait, the kind of human trait that caused someone to throw a little white dog out under the wheels of an oncoming car to hurt the dog's owner.
Faced with the two kinds of horror, I have to think that the one represented by Bane is the less troubling to me, despite the fact that it had worse consequences. Bane and Hera might have been aggressive and dangerous, and were certainly untrained and uncontrolled by their owner, but they weren't evil.
The ugly rage that sent McBurnett's little white dog to his death in oncoming traffic was a face of evil. There are those who argue that ignorance and stupidity can be instruments of evil, too, and there is no shortage of either in the actions and public pronouncements of the attorneys who owned Bane and Hera. There are those who will become outraged that I could even equate the death of Leo the dog with a human being. The $120,000 reward that was raised to find Leo's attacker aroused a certain amount of resentment and even fury among those who felt there was more sympathy for a dog than for humans who are killed. And that's not my point at all.
All I'm saying is, if you're looking for a ravening beast, you're much more likely to find him in a state of rage behind the wheel of a black SUV, than at the end of a leash.