Thursday, February 17, 2011

Animals, journalists and press spokespersons behaving badly

Looks like it's "humans behaving ignorantly about bad animals in print" week here on the blog.

There's no way I couldn't be attracted to a headline like this one:

Small dogs chew off elderly man's toes

But little did I know I would find such riches in this report by Fox News in San Diego.

First, to get the facts out of the way: Yes, the evidence seems conclusive that two cute little Cavalier King Charles Spaniels ate three toes off a 72-year-old man with neuropathy, a condition that left him with no feeling in his feet.

As a person with two cute smush-faced dogs myself, who certanly will eat anything, I want to state this as decisively as possible: THIS IS WRONG. DO NOT EAT YOUR OWNER'S BODY PARTS.

But there's plenty of blame to go around in this report, and the offenses go from one extreme to the other.

On the one hand we have the elderly victim's caretaker making excuses for the man-eating pups:

But Chilson said he believes the dogs were trying to heal a sore.

"Occasionally he can get a knick on his foot, and I think what happened is they found a scab on his toe and began licking and chewing."

Oh, sure. Just trying to help him out, they were.

At the other extreme we have the animal control department's spokesperson:

DeSousa said he had never heard of a case where dogs had gnawed off someone's toes before, but he said fatal dog attacks are relatively common.

Now, I'm all for exposing the under-reported bad behavior of animals, and I'm perfectly happy to put a spin on a story to make a point. But fatal dog attacks are only "relatively common" if you think it counts as "common" that you have a one in 18 million chance of being killed by a dog. You're five times more likely to be killed by lightning. Dogs kill more children than they do adults, but even children are more likely to die in an an accident involving a party balloon.

I feel we should also place equal blame on the reporter for the inclusion of this statement, since it's totally unclear how it is relevant - after all, even I find it hard to believe that chewing off toes is the first step on a slippery slope to a fatal attack. If that was the intent, it is seriously not a very efficient way to go about it.

However: While we should admit that animals are bad but dogs are not likely to kill you, that doesn't mean we should go to the other extreme - and in the very next sentence - where the spokesperson appears to make a complete turn-around and come down on the side of the excuse-makers:

"Accidents happen all the time, and in most cases we'll never know why, because we can't talk to the dogs," DeSousa said.

OK, anyone could take a taste of a motionless digit by "accident." But when THREE human toes are totally consumed, someone knew exactly what they were doing.

Cavalier contemplating turtle soup by Flickr user colorblindpicaso.

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