On Self Defense
Much has been made of my position on self defense, mostly based on bits and pieces of my story taken from spoken interviews. But what actually happened to my family in New Mexico? I've never gotten to lay down all the facts, so I'll do that now.
First of all, why did we ever move there? To summarize, we had to leave our five-year home in Potsdam, NY because our house had an extreme moisture and mold problem that Lauren ended up being severely allergic to. The high property taxes in the village prevented us from buying a better house there (for most of our friends, the property taxes were more than their yearly mortgage payment---like having two mortgages, but one that you will never pay off). Since we had to move away, we might as well try the polar opposite, climate-wise. From damp and freezing to dry and boiling. And also still cheap! New Mexico.
Visiting Las Cruces by plane and driving around in a rental car, it seemed like a pretty nice place. Palm trees, cacti, and stunning views of the mountains from almost everywhere in town. A solid food co-op and a thriving farmers' market. A good library with a huge selection of films. A low crime rate (something like half that of Albuquerque). So, we bought a house with three pecan trees in a nice little neighborhood. We could see the mountains from our front yard.
Shortly after moving there, we had our first dose of culture shock: A guy in the shopping mall just walking along with a semi-auto pistol on his hip.
Next, the owner of the reptile store is nonchalantly wearing a .38 revolver on his hip. I'm standing there talking to him, and this guy's right hand is inches away from potentially blowing a hole in my chest. Weird feeling. I said something like, "Wow, you're, um, carrying a gun." He was friendly about it, explaining that lots of "crackheads" are into snakes, and he's gotta be careful. He also recounted that his store had been robbed in the past for a few $2000 snakes. I'm imagining a burglar running out the door with a pillowcase full of pythons.
Second culture shock: driving around Las Cruces is very different from walking and biking. When you're driving, you don't notice the trash that is blowing around everywhere. You don't notice the crumbling cement blocks or the rotting fences. What looks like a blur of palm trees, pastel houses, and navy-blue skies by car starts to look more like a sun-scorched wasteland when you're on foot. Most importantly, when you're in a car, you don't notice the dogs.
Now, I'm a dog lover. I grew up with dogs, so I generally know how to read them. I have no problem going up to a strange dog and introducing myself, because I can tell when a dog is friendly and open to that kind of interaction. But the dogs in Las Cruces are... different.
First of all, every block has at least one pit bull. When I say pit bull, you're probably thinking that I'm peddling over-hyped, negative stereotypes. This is a breed that has received all sorts of undue, negative attention in the media, right? I mean, we all know cute, gentle, lovable pit bulls:
But it's hard to sufficiently convey how different the dogs in Cruces are from the ones that you know and love. I wish I could show you a picture, but no image search turns up anything close to what I saw there. This is the best picture I could find, but it pales in comparison to what they've managed to breed in Cruces:
The most impressive specimen that I ever saw lived on our street just two blocks away. He had a head the size of a watermelon (the head pictured above is only 23 inches), an enormous jaw, rippling muscles, girthy, uncut testicles, and weighed well over 100 pounds. I'm not sure how they grow dogs to look like this, but I suspect some kind of hormone injections are involved. Still, the dog itself wasn't so much of a problem.
The problem was the manner in which the dog was kept: in the front yard all day behind a three foot high, broken cyclone fence that was right next to the sidewalk. That's the standard protocol for housing an animal that essentially looks as capable as a small lion. In the case of our neighborhood champion, his fence was bulging out, over the sidewalk, from years of him ramming against it.
And what is it like to walk on the sidewalk next to such a fence? Have you ever been actively stalked by a predator from inches away? These dogs are lightning fast, and some of them growl aggressively, but even more unnerving are the ones that silently pursue you. A few are behind higher, more reasonable walls, but that just proves how capable they are as jumpers. I've seen one dog in our neighborhood regularly get all four paws on top of five foot high wall before not quite making it over and falling back down. It would perform this trick repeatedly as you walked by.
Okay, so, obviously you just need to learn which side of the street to walk on. You switch sides a lot, as you start to remember which dog is where. For me, walking on the scary side of the street was always something of a heart-pounding thrill, but keep in mind that I was walking with a 6-year-old and a 1-year-old.
Contained dogs like these might frighten people who aren't used to them, but they generally aren't dangerous. A much bigger problem in Cruces are the dogs that escape.
No bicycle trip in Las Cruces can be completed without encountering a loose dog of some kind. For the most part, though, they come in the form of yapping chihuahuas, often running in a small pack, and comically brave for their size. Cute enough, and harmless.
Occasionally, though, you see a bigger dog on the loose. It turns out that bored dogs in front yards and insufficient fences don't mix well. Dogs squeeze under, push through, or jump over. Occasionally, we'd see a skimpy pit bull out, or maybe a rottweiler. We hadn't seen one of the aforementioned impressive specimens out, though. Still, the presence of these intimidating dogs, plus the frequency of dog escapes, seemed like a problem waiting to happen.
Our neighbors had a scrawny, nervous boxer named Ziggie living in their backyard. She would bark her head off whenever we came home, and she never seemed to get used to us. She also had a habit of jumping the five-foot wall that separated our backyards. She seemed mostly harmless, but when you have a one-year-old toddling around in your backyard, surprise visits from an unfriendly dog are nerve-wracking.
Still, we were navigating this place without serious incident, at least so far. Maybe it wasn't as dangerous as it seemed.
After living there for a while, though, we began hearing of stories from other cyclists. Most people had at least been chased by a pit bull while biking. One of our friends had been bitten on her shoe, and another fellow was tackled completely off his bike.
Our mail carrier, clearly a nervous wreck of a man after years of service in this environment, was armed to the teeth with anti-dog equipment. Sprays of various kinds (including official-issue from the Post Office), clubs, prods, and pipes. And did he have stories to tell? Dogs on top of him, pinning him to the ground, while he emptied entire cans of pepper spray in their faces to no effect.
And you'd rarely see people out for a walk, but occasionally, an older gentleman would stroll by. These guys would invariably be carrying a golf club with them on their walks. After asking around, we learned that this was to fend off dogs. Hmm...
Okay, but these were all just scary stories, right? Just other people's collective fears getting to us. Dog fatalities are exceedingly rare (something like 30 a year in the US), and while the majority of deaths are at the jaws of pit bulls, most of the people killed are the owners of those dogs (a nice parallel with gun fatalities there).
Still, the local wisdom was, if you're going to bike in Cruces, you're an idiot if you don't carry spray. So, we went down to our neighborhood self-defense store (yes, this is New Mexico) and bought ourselves a can of Saber.
Months went by, and we'd see loose dogs, but nothing would happen. So our can of Saber started sliding from our minds. First into a coat pocket, then into a bag, then left at home most days. Of course, only until the day came where we wished we had it out and ready.
We had seen and heard these two dogs before, many times. Every Saturday morning, we'd bike to the Farmers' Market together as a family, with Mez (7) on the back of my tandem and Ayza (2) in the baby seat on Lauren's recumbent trike. This trip would take us up Espina Street, a well-traveled through-street for cars. We'd pass a house with two huge, muscular boxers blocked in on their front porch. They kinda looked like this, but with more ear tissue cut off:
These two dogs would always bark to beat the devil at the sight of us, and they were pretty scary, but they were behind two fences (the porch fence and the yard fence), so they weren't exactly on the verge of escaping. It's funny that, given how they were pretty much always out there, the Google street view car managed to snap a picture of one:
One Saturday in May 2010, when Lauren was four months pregnant with Novy, the morning was unseasonably chilly, so we were slightly bundled up as we made our usual trip. As we biked up Espina, we saw a guy on the sidewalk ahead walking two dogs---guess which two dogs? We had never seen them off that porch before, but here they were. As we got closer, the dogs were jumping around him frantically and barking, trying to get away from him.
(Wow... three years later, my heart is pounding and my hands are shaking as I type this.)
Just as we passed by, one of them slipped off the leash and ran out into the busy street toward Lauren, coming face-to-face with her and tiny Ayza (on her recumbent trike, Lauren's shoulders are only three feet above the ground). After a brief encounter with them, the dog turned and ran at me and Mez. As it came toward me, it's face had a blank expression, and the cut-off ears made it even harder to read. Feeling totally helpless, perched on my bike in my shorts, I stuck a sandaled foot out to deflect its head away as it came near. At that point, it ran back to it's owner on the sidewalk. I just sat there for a moment in shock.
Then Lauren turned toward the owner and screamed, "YOUR DOG JUST BIT ME!" Her voice was strained and panicked.
And then irrational adrenaline kicked in and shook me out of my stupor. Mez was strapped to the back of my bike, and I was keeping him upright from my seat in the front (a rather committed, helpless position for me), but the owner was still struggling with his dogs on the sidewalk. I laid the bike down in the middle of the street with Mez still strapped in place and put myself between the dogs and my family.
The owner was still trying to grab both of them as they leaped around him. As I came closer, I saw that he didn't have leashes at all. Each of these formidable dogs had a thin loop of blue, frayed twine around its neck, and the owner was struggling to put the twine back on the dog that had escaped. Not rope. Not clothesline. Twine. What you might use for lashing a bundle of newspapers together.
I shouted over to Lauren, "Where's your spray? Give it to me!" She didn't have the spray with her. At that point, the owner pleaded, "Oh no, sir, there's no need for that." I'm not sure if he thought I was going to spray the dogs at his feet, or spray him, or what.
A woman was hanging out with her two small children in her driveway nearby, having a yard sale. I shouted over to her, asking her to call the police. "He just lives right over there, we don't need to call the police." I asked a few more times, but she was still trying to talk me out of it. At this point, more people had started to gather at the scene. A young man stopped to direct traffic around Mez, who was still stranded in the street. An old man on a Jazzy Scooter pulled up and offered us his cell phone. I used it to call the police.
We were pretty close to the center of town, so the response was quick and ridiculously overblown. Fire trucks arrived first (yes, the full hook and ladder), then some EMT vehicles, and finally animal control. The owner seemed to have more of a handle on the dogs and was starting to lead them away toward home, so I went over to Lauren with the EMT people. The dog had bitten her on the upper arm, but fortunately, her thick, padded coat had absorbed most of the impact. Her skin was bleeding slightly, and she had a huge red welt, but that was all. The EMTs were trying to take her to the hospital anyway, especially after she told them she was pregnant, but she explained that we were uninsured, and she refused to go. They examined her wound closely, and determined that no dog saliva had contacted her blood. At some point, she looked up at me and asked, "Is Mez still in the middle of the street?" Oh gosh! I ran over, unhooked him, and helped him up.
After that, Lauren and I were interviewed by the animal control officer. It turned out that, because no saliva met blood, the dog wouldn't be taken in (they are quarantined for 7 days of observation only if they could potentially infect someone with rabies). The officer was going to issue the owner a ticket for having the dog off-leash.
What?! Yes, the officer explained, there's no law against dogs biting people. I had a long discussion with him about this point. What if a dog severely mauled someone? Well, only if they mauled people several times would they be labeled by a judge as "vicious," at which point the owner would be required to keep them in an approved fence and walk them with a muzzle.
I could not believe what I was hearing. If the human owner had bitten Lauren, he'd be arrested, tried, and likely put in jail for assault.
After we headed home, we had additional contact with Animal Control by phone. It turns out that the guy walking the dogs was the owner's brother, and he had very little experience with these dogs, because he had never walked them before, so he didn't know how to control them.
Later that day, Lauren was telling our family about what had happened by phone, when I looked out the window and saw Ziggie, the neighbor boxer, in our yard again. Lauren had just been bitten by a boxer, and this was too much. I crept out the side door with the spray and tried to corner Ziggie before she could make it back over the wall. I was way too slow, but tried to spray anyway as I ran after her. Ziggie made it back over the wall unscathed, but running while spraying is a bad idea, and I found myself running right into a huge cloud of brown mist. I had a split second to think, "Oh no!" before my eyes slammed shut in pain.
I crawled my way back into the house, totally blind and whimpering. "Lauren, help me!" She told our family that she'd have to call them back, came out to see what had happened, and found me writhing in a pathetic heap on the kitchen floor.
But this was not the only time the spray backfired. Another time, a particularly aggressive dog was sticking its head over the top of it's wall (which was alarmingly taller than my head, putting the dog's snapping jaws above me). After having this dog scare the crap out of us on multiple occasions, I'd had enough, so I decided to test out the spray a second time. The dog didn't seem to mind, but the slightest breeze blew the stuff right back at us, this time blinding both me and 7-year-old Mez.
These ridiculous anecdotes highlight two important points about self defense weapons. First, there's the strong possibility of blow-back (or, shooting yourself by accident). Second, having the weapon at the ready increases the chances of you using it when you're simply "fed up," even though it's not justified. Neither of these attempted dog sprayings were true, immediate self defense. At best, they were marginally preemptive.
These anecdotes also made us aware of one more, very important point: pepper spray sucks when you're in motion or it's windy. Maybe, as the package shows, it works wonders in nighttime parking garages. But on a bike? Even if it doesn't blind you into crashing, it's likely to be totally off-target. And even if you score a direct hit, the dogs don't seem to mind it. Humans are left sobbing in the fetal position, but dogs just snort a few times before going about their business.
But here we are, biking in a place where dogs are loose all the time, and now the threat is not just hypothetical, because Lauren has just been bitten, and it obviously could have been much worse (why it bit her instead of tiny Ayza, we'll never know). And Lauren was often going out with the kids alone, taking them here and there by bike and on foot. After she was bitten, she was even more afraid of all the dogs she had to pass every day. And now we realized that the weapon she had been carrying was probably not going to help.
Furthermore, the prevalence of pit bulls adds to the concern. You can say that it's just paranoid media hype, but if you crack open any pet-store book about the breed, you'll find a discussion of the necessity of "break sticks" for pit bull owners:
So, what's a break stick? It's a pry bar that the owner must carry at all times to get the dog to let go if it bites another dog or person. A pit bull's jaw can apparently be difficult to open without one. So far, we'd only been attacked by a boxer, thank goodness.
Back to the neighborhood self-defense store, this time for one of those extendable police batons for Lauren. Maybe bonking one of these dogs on the head would dissuade it from attacking. The baton opens via centrifugal force and gravity if you swing it downward with a violent flick of the wrist. Lauren had some trouble getting the baton to extend fully, because it was pretty heavy. We even had a practice set-up, where she'd sit down in her bike, and I'd kick a cardboard box toward her in place of an attacking dog, and she'd whack it. When she was sitting down low, opening the baton was even harder for her, because she didn't have room to swing it downward with the help of gravity.
Regardless, she thought that she might not be able to club a dog in the heat of the moment, and that it might just make the dog mad. Also, the dog had to get uncomfortably close before it was in reach of the baton. Still, it seemed better than nothing, so we built a makeshift holster for the baton on her bike.
But what else could we use to defend ourselves? What about a gun? When in Rome, right? So, I headed over to our local gun shop:
The guys running the store, of course, had huge revolvers strapped to their belts. I asked for their advice about attacking dogs. One of the customers in the store was a retired cop who'd had his share of run-ins with dealers' guard dogs while on duty, and he warned that very few low-caliber handgun bullets would stop a determined pit bull. There was also the concern about being on a bike in a public street and being unable to aim very well. And what about a ricochet off the concrete and into a neighboring house? One guy suggested "rat shot," which is like a mini shotgun shell filled with tiny pellets that fits in a handgun. It's non-lethal to larger animals, it's harmless from more than a few feet away, and it spreads out as it shoots.
I had never spent time in a gun shop before, nor had I checked out prices. Guns are reassuringly expensive, even the used ones. Like, $400 for a tiny one---you don't just buy one of these on a whim. If you're trying to get your hands on a "Make My Day" type gun, you're looking at $1000 or more.
I held a small, .38 Special Ruger revolver in my hand and dry-fired it. This was the first time I had ever touched a handgun. Heavy, with a solid, determined clunk at each pull of the trigger. Alarmingly, 7-year-old Mez grabbed the gun out of my hand and dry fired it too. He argued with me when I tried to get it back from him. Did I mention that I had Ayza asleep on my back in the sling? Yeah, we were probably an unusual sight for this particular gun shop.
When you hold a handgun, there is a frightening feeling of power. Power to end someone's life, with all that entails, in a split second. Power to end your own life in a split second.
I left the gun shop without buying anything, and Lauren ended up talking me out of this idea. Did I really want to live my public life with a gun at my side? How would I keep it away from the kids while I was out? Where would I store it while I was browsing the library----in my bike trailer? What if I tried to shoot an attacking dog, but hit a bystander instead? Thinking back to the time Lauren was bitten, there was a woman with her kids standing right off to the side, right in the potential line of self-defense fire.
So, with just the baton and the spray, we kept on walking and biking, trying to steel our nerves against the various dogs that would stalk us as we passed. Lauren had a painful bruise on her arm that healed with time. The two boxers on Espina Street seemed to go away for a while.
Then one day, again on our way to the Farmers' Market, we were passing that same house on Espina. The boxers were there this time, but they weren't on the porch like they used to be---now they were running freely behind the short fence in the front yard. As we passed, they barked and chased us intently. As Lauren neared the far edge of the yard, one of the dogs started squeezing underneath the edge of the fence, getting to the point where his head, front legs, and front half of his body were fully out, on the sidewalk, just a few feet away from Lauren. I saw Lauren ahead of me frantically try to extend her baton, but she couldn't swing with enough force to open it. I screamed at the dog with my deepest, loudest voice, and at that it squeezed back under the fence into the yard.
At this point, I was determined to have a word with the owner. Lauren pedaled ahead and waited with the kids, while I got off my bike and headed back to the house. The dogs leaped and howled at my presence. Of course, the front door was inside the fence with them, so I pounded on the mailbox and shouted for the owner to come out. I stood there for several minutes before he finally heard me and appeared.
I told him that his dog had almost gotten out, and he seemed unphased by this news. I explained that his dog had bitten my spouse a month ago.
"My dog didn't bite your wife. He just scared her," he said.
"But the EMTs came and everything. She had a big welt on her arm," I insisted.
"Nah, he didn't bite her. If he had bitten her, you'd know it, bud. There'd be nothing left of her."
At that point, he told me to get the fuck off his property, even though I was standing in the public street, and I walked away, telling him that I was calling animal control.
"You do that bud, you do that," he said as he went back inside.
From a pay phone across the street, we called animal control. Then we waited. We called again and waited some more. The owner came out, tucked the bottom of the fence back into the edge of the grass, and then drove away. We called again and waited more. After about 90 minutes, animal control pulled up. The dogs were on the porch this time, and the officer nervously examined the fence as they lunged at him. To his view, the tucked-in fence looked sufficient, and my report of a dog half-way out did not change his opinion. The dog wasn't all the way out, so it wasn't off leash. Later, the officer called us and reported that the dogs are usually kept on the porch, but that the latch was left open this time by accident, which let them get into the yard, and that the owner's friend had recently been mowing and had left the bottom of the fence untucked by accident.
This was the last time Lauren rode a bike in Las Cruces. She reverted to taking the bus everywhere instead. Our family trips to the market came to an end, though I still braved the streets on a bike with the kids whenever I went out with them. This worked out okay for a while. Lots of loose dogs sighted, no dog attacks.
Then, in December of 2010, two months after Novy was born, we had our final encounter. We were at the park watching the sunset, having a lovely time. As dusk stared to settle, we crossed the park to head home. Novy was asleep in the sling, and in the chilly night air, I had him zipped up under my hoodie. Ayza, almost three, was in a stroller, and Mez, now six, was holding my hand.
A guy was playing catch with his dog, one of these aforementioned impressive pit bulls---gigantic head, rippling muscles, the whole package. As we came closer along the footpath, he threw the ball again, and the dog caught it again, but instead of running back to him, it dropped the ball and started running toward us. "Oh.... god," Lauren muttered. I saw this happening and took out the spray. As the dog came closer, the owner started chasing it, and he jumped on its back to stop it when it was less than ten feet away from us.
At that point, I made my big mistake. I said, "Keep that dog on a leash. I've got my spray."
The owner went ballistic. I didn't know his dog, and his dog would never hurt anyone, and how dare I even think about spraying his dog. His spouse, who was pushing their toddler on the swing nearby, got into yelling at me too. At this point, he was so flustered that he let go of the dog, and it ran off. "It's illegal to have dogs off leash in the park," I told him. He's a member of three kennel clubs, don't tell him what the law is, and so on. The whole time, he's screaming. Periodically, he looks like he's about to punch me. Other times, he reaches into the back waistband of his pants, but then calms himself down and reconsiders. (Reaching for what, we wondered afterward. Imagine me being punched in the chest with a sleeping infant under my hoodie, we realized afterward.)
I tried to explain that I carried spray because my spouse had been bitten by a loose dog earlier that year. "I don't care if she was bitten! I don't care if she was raped!"
At that point, Lauren started tugging at me to get out of there, but I was still trying to explain, trying to get the guy to understand our position. She ended up walking away with the other two kids without me, all the way out of the park, before I caught up. As I walked away from the guy, I told him that I was calling animal control. "You go ahead and do that. I'm a member of three kennel clubs," and so on.
But as we stood there at the edge of the park, losing sight of the owner in the twilight, we realized how futile calling animal control would be.
When we got home that night, we reflected over all the close calls from the past year, and we decided to leave Las Cruces. Not prove that we were right. Not stand our ground. Just turn tail and run away. Yeah, you can't run away from an attacking dog, but cities are much slower than dogs.
And dogs are what brought self defense into focus for me. Yes, there was other stuff that happened around us in Cruces, from drive-bys, to burglaries, to police raids, and those things were scary, but the only things that ever happened to us directly involved dogs.
Yes, dogs are living creatures with feelings and rights, quite a bit like humans, but when attacking, they are way faster than humans and much less amenable to discussion and reasoning. They are explicitly after your body, not your stuff, so the strategy of "just give them your stuff and run away" doesn't work. In fact, running away is the worst thing you can do. Furthermore, if a dog has been bred or trained as a weapon by a human, both you and the dog are the victim of this practice. But still, there it is: a living, breathing weapon coming at you.
What is the passive, loving, Gandhi approach here? Maybe curl up in a ball and protect your jugular?
Okay, fine. But having small children with you during a dog attack makes the self defense question uniquely pressing. You are responsible for the safety of these other, small, helpless people. These people who have jugulars right at dog level.
"Self defense" sounds like a selfish justification for hurting someone else to prevent yourself from some perceived, potential hurt. But when you're dealing with small children, there's nothing selfish about it, and it becomes much harder to "wait and see" whether the threat is perceived or real.
What used to be simply a juicy, philosophical discussion for me was now a question in need of an immediate answer. What did I believe about self defense? Was I really a pacifist?
In the end, I decided that, though I believe strongly in non-aggression (as in, I'm never going to attack you, no matter what), I believe that I'm doing no wrong by defending myself. Furthermore, if force is helpful in preventing what seems to be a likely attack (like, your dog is charging at me growling), that force is warranted, and I'm doing no wrong by using it.
In other words, I don't have to wait until your charging dog is tearing up my child's face before I bonk it. The charging and growling part is sufficient.
Even so, I'd rather not have to face this question on a regular basis. I joked before about the Gandhi-esque response to a dog attack, but Gandhi would probably offer far more effective advice: "The world is vast, and surely these dogs are not everywhere upon it. Go to a place where these dogs are not."
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