Unlike the French, with their fondness for poodles, Germans prefer canines to be a bit more imposing. This is, after all, the country that bred German Shepherds, Rottweilers and Doberman Pinschers. But last week, after a pit bull terrier and a Staffordshire terrier jumped into a schoolyard in Hamburg and mauled to death a six-year-old boy, Germans were forced to focus on the sharp distinction between family pets and, in the words of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, vicious "fighting machines."
The debate over dangerous dogs has been growing for months. In March, in the town of Gladbeck, a Rottweiler killed an old woman outside her home. In May, officials from all 16 German states met with Interior Minister Otto Schily to address the issue, but accomplished little. At the time, Schily said that regulating house pets was not the responsibility of the federal government. But the Hamburg mauling finally spurred Schily to intervene: last week he quickly secured agreement from the state interior ministers for an immediate import and breeding ban on pit bulls and related breeds. The local response was equally swift. While Hamburg authorities arrested the owner of one of the killer canines and held him without bail, the city senate voted to ban the ownership, breeding, training and trading of "dangerous" dogs. That law, which requires the now contraband dogs to be destroyed, is the toughest so far, but other localities have enacted measures ranging from mandatory leashing and muzzling to sterilization.
The problem is not limited to Germany. In France, two recent attacks have drawn renewed attention to the issue. A law that went into effect earlier this year places severe restrictions on certain breeds. But such measures have proved difficult to enforce, in part because even professionals can have trouble identifying the prohibited purebreds. A 1991 British law that was passed in response to an attack on a six-year-old girl restricts the ownership of pit bull terriers, Japanese Tosas, Fila Brasileiros and Dogo Argentinos. Spain's list of suspect breeds includes 12. But Spanish dog psychiatrist Alberto Arquero says that "the problem with Ôproblem' dogs lies not so much with the animal but with its owner ... Most breeds can be dangerous if they are not cared for properly or if people encourage them to attack."
That view is increasingly in the minority. Animal researcher Gudrun Beckmann is among the more than 70% of Germans who believe the only way to prevent deadly canine attacks is to ban specific breeds. "The tendency toward aggressive explosions is born in these animals," he says. "You'll never get a poodle to jump onto a man's face no matter how hard you train it and you'll never prevent an attack dog from at least thinking about it." In other words, some of man's best friends are just a whole lot nicer — and safer — than others.
— with reporting by Steve Zwick/Cologne and other bureaus