The frightening countenance of pure terror. In a rhinestone tiara. (Not pictured: Her mermaid dress) Photo by Dr. Tony Johnson.
Oh, yeah. It’s “prejudice.” Last I checked, it’s fallen out of style and is generally frowned upon.
Prejudice (noun): prej·u·dice | \ ˈpre-jə-dəs \
(1) Preconceived judgment or opinion
(2) An adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge
(Adapted from Merriam-webster.com)
So, what sent me running for the dictionary?
You see, I got a tiny puppy. And my neighbors hate her.
They have never met, never even set eyes on her.
Clearly, elaborations are in order.
I was working a fill-in shift last week at a veterinary ER, as I do from time to time. My ER tech that day, Ashley, was fostering a 4-ish month-old pit bull named Lady Guinevere (Gwen to her many, many friends) and had brought her into the clinic to socialize her and keep her near while she worked.
Wee Gwen sat calmly in her cage, an array of dog toys at her disposal and watched all the mayhem and drama of the ER unfold before her. She was quiet and polite, usually only offering up a smallish bark when she saw Ashley, her foster mum. Most puppies have to learn manners, and usually put up quite the ruckus when confined. But not Gwen.
She seemed to be born with good manners. She’s still every bit the puppy, though (she’s chewing on my office chair as I write, and finds her tail quite fascinating), but she is not what one would describe as crazy. When I pick her up, she puts one paw over each shoulder and hugs me. She also can just sit for hours, hugging me, as I watch bad horror movies late at night or attend an online work meeting.
But that day in the clinic, my tiny, black heart cracked a little and some puppy love crept in. The abridged text messages to my wife looked like this:
ME: (sent three pics of Gwen wearing a dress that says “Merbabe”) “She’s so cute!”
MY WIFE: “She’s adorable! Who is fostering her?”
ME: “Ashley. The one we had drinks with in Orlando."
ME: “She’s crazy cute. And very well-behaved. The puppy – not Ashley.”
MY WIFE: “She’s adorable. Bring her home for a trial”
MY WIFE: “I showed the puppy to the kids. They like her.”
…later, after I vented about cases for a bit…
ME: “I’ll pick her up tomorrow”
MY WIFE: “What? For real !?!?!”
And so it goes.
After my shift the next day, I picked her up. Ashley was thrilled to have her in a home with two veterinarians and other dogs and kids to play with. Gwen was good with dogs, cats and kids, so it seemed the perfect match. Ashley had vetted her well.
On our way home, she slept beside me on the passenger seat and stretched languorously in the winter sunshine as we drove home and listened to podcasts and music. We shared an apple, her taking it out of my hands very gently, as if to say “You sure about this, boss?” I sang out loud to bad 80s hits and she watched me with a smile on her puppy lips and seemed to agree that we all should, indeed, Wang Chung tonight. And also maybe Safety Dance, time permitting.
The next couple of days were pure bliss for the kids and for Gwen. Our other dogs, Dax and Turley, were a little put out at the new arrival, and Joseph and Captain Jenks the cats took a few paws to the face when Gwen wanted to play with them (Gwen got a few swipes to the muzzle, too) but within a day or so everyone had settled in and peace more or less returned amongst the forest creatures. They all get along now. She still needs some house-training, and there have been a few puddles to clean up, but at night she calms down after a few whines and token barks and sleeps through a goodly portion of the night in her crate at the foot of our bed.
The neighborhood kids (most of them our kids’ classmates in the 6- to 10-year-old range) came by in waves and showered her with love, dressed her in the Merbabe dress and just generally basked in the glory that is Gwen. No growls, no raised lips, nothing but butt wiggles and happy, sloppy kisses.
Yesterday, on perhaps Gwen’s 4th day here, our daughter returned from playing outside in the unseasonably warm weather and announced gravely that our next-door neighbors had issued a fatwa to their two daughters: no playing with Gwen, no coming over to our house. Ever. Full stop.
Is this puppy who is currently chewing on her foot and has been known to playfully chase a windblown leaf in the driveway a threat to any kid’s safety?
We don’t know the neighbors that well. Their daughters are good friends of our daughter and their son is one of our son’s best friends, but we have never really gotten past the “wave while snow blowing” phase. We haven’t really put the work in to make friends with them – we have not yet participated in the usual Midwestern bring-a-plate-of-cookies-over ritual - but with most of our other neighbors and kids’ friends, we’ve just organically grown to include them in summer pool parties and barbecues, while this couple just hasn’t quite clicked. We’ve had no bad blood, just a very neutral relationship.
This…might change that.
I don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill, and it is early days yet, but maybe there’s more at stake here. At the risk of being judgmental myself, I can’t help wondering if someone who would disallow their kids from playing with a puppy that weighs less than some hefty cats I’ve treated – and one they themselves haven’t even met – merely on the basis of her breed, might be intolerant of other things.
Could they be harboring other pre-conceived notions about people? Other animals? Do they secretly hate llamas or plaid shorts or people from Malaysia? Do they run and clutch the pearls when they see certain models of car pass by or smell boysenberries?
In all seriousness, I have close family members who are part of a group that has historically been victims of uninformed, “adverse opinion … formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge” as our definition above states. Without trying to seem paranoid, could their knee-jerk reaction to Gwen extend to my son, who is black, while my wife and I are white? Or am I the one jumping to a conclusion without sufficient knowledge?
Something tells me this is borrowing trouble, and there’s been no indication that they harbor any ill-will towards my family – they’re just worried about a sweet-faced puppy.
There’s no skirting, however, around the fact that pit bulls can be killers, and there are plenty of media reports to back it up. In a sense, I can understand their fear. I hate it, but I get it. Sorta. But far, far more pit bulls are excellent, loving family pets than the vicious, mindless killers propelled purely by bloodlust that are often portrayed in news reports. And many other breeds of dog can harm or kill people.
You can make a pit bull, or really, any other breed of dog besides a teacup poodle, into a killer by mistreating it. Pit bulls are strong dogs with strong jaws who can do a lot of harm when they bite. But a pit bull raised with love and discipline to learn limits and rules, who is not subject to abuse, violence and deprivation poses no more threat to any human than any other breed. Some folks have now taken to calling pit bulls "Pibbles" in an effort to cut away the negative connotations.
I should probably go talk to them. I don’t want to, but I should. Maybe bring Gwen over in her tiara and Merbabe dress and hope that her sheer loveliness and good nature will win them over. Show them her already learned skills at sitting and giving up toys gently. Maybe, as with most prejudice, it is easier to hate an abstract idea than a living, breathing, licking example of what it is easy to hate in the dark.
Maybe I’ll bring some cookies.