Dogs, Ebola, and Excalibur’s undoing

Excalibur in quarantine at his owner’s apartment in Spain; the dog was euthanized after his owner, Teresa Romero, contracted the Ebola virus.

I’m no fun at parties, some people might even consider me a buzz-kill. When heated discussions get going about popular political topics, I have a tendency to ask the question that gets both sides rolling their eyes — “Where’s the scientific proof?” I don’t want to hear what news station you heard it on, I want real research that doesn’t start and end with “just because,” and “everyone knows that.” Because if everyone knew it, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

I know many people have an idea in their heads and cannot be swayed, no matter how convincing the evidence to the contrary. Maria Konnikova’s column (“I Don’t Want To Be Right”) in the New Yorker earlier this year gave depressingly detailed accounts of this, but still, I wish we could take the time to think about the terrifying consequences of fear-based opinion forming, which eventually turns into fear-based policy-making.

Last week’s euthanasia of Excalibur, the Spanish dog exposed to Ebola, was one of those exact moments I wish people had stopped and done their homework.

Ebola is a disease with potentially fatal consequences for humans and I fully recognize that. But, as with most diseases, exposure does not equal infection — especially when we’re talking cross-species. The only existing study looking at Ebola in dogs showed that, while dogs can contract the disease (primarily from eating other infected animals), they do not appear to spread it to humans, and they are seemingly able to overcome the disease without medical intervention. The uncontrolled infection in Liberia and neighboring countries is likely due to a combination of many factors, including unsanitary burial practices, inadequate medical facilities, and the consumption of infected meat. But, last time I checked, these conditions do not apply in Spain and Spaniards are not routinely eating their pet dogs, so why was Excalibur euthanized?

Like so many dogs punished unfairly around the world, Excalibur’s undoing was fear by the masses.

Fear is a powerful tool, and has been used throughout history to control the masses, including laws and policies revolving around pets. Consider the following:

In 1665 London, cats were believed to be associated with the devil and witchcraft, and 200,000 felines were killed. As the rodent population exploded in their absence, bubonic plague took the lives of over 100,000 people in the city.

In 1886, following years catching of runaway slaves and escaped Civil War prisoners in the southern United States, Massachusetts banned Bloodhounds and Great Danes. No reports exist of either breed causing harm to Massachusetts citizens.

In 1925, following their widespread use in World War I by the German military, the German Shepherd Dog was said by Queens, New York Magistrate James J. Conway to be, “…savage, vicious and bred from wolves… The dogs should be barred from the city.”

In 1989, after tragic incidents involving dog attacks, Denver, Colorado, enacted a ban on dogs officials consider to have the “physical characteristics of a Pit Bull,” regardless of whether or not the dog is friendly, or is even a “pit bull.” The language of the law enables them to seize and euthanize mixed breeds with no trace of American Pit Bull Terrier in their heritage. The ban is still in effect, and although thousands of dogs with the “physical characteristics of a Pit Bull” have lost their lives, Denver residents still have a higher rate of hospitalization from dog bites than other neighboring counties without the cruel law.

So, if fear-based policy on dogs has been around for generations, and we still haven’t learned that fear isn’t keeping our human citizens safe, why are we still making animal laws based on our hearts and not on our heads?

I know Ebola is a threat to public health and safety — just like plague and slave-hunters were considered to be during their respective years of terror. But we need to realize we cannot create laws based on emotion alone. Our pets are voiceless, and we are the ones responsible for working through logic and science to keep them safe. Excalibur’s death can give us something to fear, or something to learn from. Which one will it be?

Note: After this column was written, it was publicly stated that Bentley, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel belonging to Texas Ebola patient Nina Pham, was removed from the home by hazardous materials professionals and will be kept in quarantine. At this time there is no further information, but I hope Dallas public health officials will base their decisions on this case, both human and canine, in sound science and that Bentley and Ms. Pham will be reunited upon her recovery.