If you had told me on April 25, 2007 when I decided to start a documentary about dogfighting, that I would still be investing all my time 14 years later on issues related to dogs labeled “pit bulls” in the year 2021, I probably would have called you crazy. Sure, I was a massive dog-lover for my entire life – born into a home with a dog, but to use a common (but horrible) expression – I simply didn’t have “a dog in that fight”.
While I was obviously opposed to this barbaric and illegal activity towards (hu)man’s best friend, the dogs I previously shared my home with didn’t fit the generic description of those exploited for this purpose, so it’s easy to distance yourself from it.
Over the next few months I stumbled upon laws called breed specific legislation (BSL), which target the ownership of certain types of dogs – namely “pit bulls”, where I read accounts of family dogs being dragged out of their homes with crying children losing their beloved pets simply based on their generalized appearance and not their behavior. I sympathized with these traumatized families, who were victims of a callous and cruel law, but still I could not personally relate to their anger and hurt.
That all changed on May 15, 2008.
A week or so before, I reached out to the Cleveland-based rescue – For the Love of Pits, in an attempt to seek credible information on dogfighting and hopefully be able to get some b-roll footage of “pit bull” dogs for my year old documentary. Their founder, Shana Klein, was hesitant at first to comply with my request, because at this time the plight for dogs with this label were overwhelmingly villainized by news media and politcos across the country and even around the world, and she didn’t know if she could trust that I’d do right by the dogs.
At this point, the state of Ohio had a restriction of “pit bull” dogs for 21 years and counting that was originally passed in 1987, and forced owners to abide by a list of pre-requisites in order to share their home with one. This law wasn’t unique to Ohio, but we had the only statewide law regulating their livelihoods. Thankfully, Shana did end up agreeing, but I was firmly told to leave my video equipment at home. This would just be a meeting to talk, and for her to get to know me and my intentions better.
I left my small Lakewood (OH) apartment on Cleveland’s near west side and arrived at her house around 10am that morning, completely oblivious to what would soon transpire. The moment I walked through the doorway, I was greeted by five or six one year old puppies leaping over a child gate meant to partition them off to the kitchen. Tails were wagging and tongues were flicking kisses everywhere! It was pure bliss.
We chatted for a few minutes in the foyer of the house, before eventually moving the conversation to the kitchen…and, that’s when it happened. A little black dog, who wasn’t able to make the leap over the gate, walked up, sat down at my feet, and looking up at me with the most soulful brown eyes I had ever laid mine on.
As I bent down, I remember asking him – “And, what’s your name?”
Just as I noticed healed slash mark wounds across his front legs, Shana chimed in – “That’s Preston. He’s our victim of dogfighting.”
There were many emotions I may have felt when she said that. Should I feel sympathy for what he had to endure. Should I fear him for his past? But, the truth is, I don’t remember what my immediate reaction was when she said that, because it just felt like life was moving in slow motion, where processing information was on some form of delay.
What I can say is, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. I felt a connection that I previously only ever felt with another human of the opposite sex. It obviously wasn’t sexual, but it was impactful and profound.
After a while, we yet again moved our conversation to the back deck. I chose a chair to sit on, and again Preston sat at my feet as if to ask if he could join me. Of course, I obliged, patting my lap encouraging him to make the leap. He jumped, spun around to find a comfy spot and fell into my left arm resting his head on my shoulder. I instantly melted, and spontaneously blurted out – “Did you teach him that to get adopted?”
Before she had a chance to respond, I proclaimed – “I’m going to adopt this dog!” I quickly found out that it wouldn’t be that easy.
Just four days later, on Monday, May 19 (2008), Lakewood City Council announced a proposal to ban “pit bull” dogs from city limits. Four. Days. Later.
My initial reaction was a sense of defeat, because I really enjoyed Lakewood, and wanted to stay. It was everything a 30 year old, single man looked for in a city to call home. It sat on Lake Erie, was close to downtown, and had all the other amenities – tons of bars and restaurants lined up and down the main streets, a friendly atmosphere where dogs and their people were always out walking. It was ideal for me.
To make matters worse, the following day after Lakewood proposed their ban, Ohio State Representative, Tyrone Yates, out of Cincinnati proposed House Bill 568, which upped the ante and would ban “pit bull” dogs statewide, if passed. I remember calling my mom on my way home from work feeling even more defeated, telling her I’m going to have to move out of state if I am going to adopt Preston. She thought I was crazy, but I was prepared to do just that.
At this point my film was still focused on dogfighting, but I was going to include a chapter on BSL, because the two completely separate issues seemed to be synonymous with dogs labeled “pit bull”. So, I attended the first council meeting with a couple friends, and decided to sign up and give testimony to council about why they should choose an alternate way in dealing with the problem. The only problem is, I really didn’t know what I was talking about yet. I just knew I opposed the law, because it would affect my abilities to adopt Preston.
The good that came out of attending was I met many people that would become longtime friends to this day, who also spoke to oppose the proposed ordinance. After leaving that council meeting, I decided I would not only do one documentary, but two…the second being a short film about breed specific legislation in hopes of finishing before Council came to a conclusion.
I must laugh at myself now, because who did I think I was? I had no prior experience with film… I didn’t go to film school. I wasn’t a skilled, or even competent, video editor…I didn’t even own professional video equipment until a few months earlier…and the Lakewood City Council meetings were the very first time I used it. But, that was the plan.
When Council passed that legislation in July (2008), I immediately put the dogfighting film on indefinite hold, and focused my attention on breed specific legislation, titling the project – “Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent“.
This issue has taken over my life. I have led and/or been a part of numerous repeal efforts with some success. In my time spent in advocacy, I have seen a massive shift in attitudes towards dogs labeled “pit bull”. The emotion and controversy still exists – on both sides of the debate, but most people oppose the law nowadays, because its ineffectiveness in accomplishing the stated intended goal of keeping the public safe from dangerous dogs has proven to be a misdirected and a misguided fallacy.
After Preston passed last year on March 16, 2020, I began this doc-series – “Once In A Lifetime” to honor and pay my respect to the dog who turned my world upside down, and finish what we started during our 12 beautiful years together, which is to see every last one of these laws repealed not only in Ohio, but worldwide.
It’s an incredibly unpopular law now, so this is the time for it to die like the dinosaur it is. Over the next subsequent weeks and months, a plan will be introduced to start a global movement in uniting dog-lovers worldwide in tearing this archaic system down. I’m doing it for Preston. And my hope is you join us and do it for your Preston.
To see additional ways to support this doc-series project and this BSL repeal initiative, go to How To Help.
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