Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: No pitbulls on WRAL: Dallas denied spotlight on “Pet of the Day”

Dallas, the pit bull who was turned away from a Pet of the Day segment at WRAL-TV.
Dallas, the pit bull who was turned away from a Pet of the Day segment at WRAL-TV. Courtesy of Brittany Carpenter

Anyone who has ever wielded a ballpoint pen and scribbled news for public consumption will confirm this truth: Nothing gets people riled up more than a dog story.

People can shrug off elections, ignore a murder trial and shrug their shoulders at shenanigans at City Hall, but put a pooch in the news and everybody pricks up their ears.

This explains why the saga of Dallas, a 2-year-old Raleigh pitbull, has reached across oceans, inspiring supporters from England, Canada and Klamath Falls, Ore. – all of them united behind the canine world’s most vilified breed.

It all started when Dallas, a rescue dog with Cause for Paws NC, arrived in late February for his appearance on “Pet of the Day,” a staple on WRAL for the past 20 years. Other recent beasts featured for adoption include Maverick the ginger-colored cat and Luna the smooth collie mix.

But Dallas never got his close-up. WRAL has a longstanding policy: no pitbulls on the air. About 10 years ago, the station had a pitbull incident that inspired the rule, said Steve Hammel, vice president and general manager. He did not know if the incident involved a bite, a jump or just a spooking, but it involved a WRAL employee and the rule has stuck ever since. Shelters around the Triangle all know about it, he said, and though the policy stands for now, he’s listening to all sides while he considers a final decision.

“We’re trying to do a good thing for thousands of adoptable animals,” Hammel said. “But the long and short of it is, it’s a clear policy.”

A campaign to end breed prejudice soon followed. Cause for Paws launched a petition on that has garnered nearly 3,000 signatures worldwide, all of them asking that WRAL feature all breeds:

“No human or animal should be judged by breed or race,” wrote LeeAnn Trautman of Apex.

“Dallas has four paws, a wagging tail a wet nose and floppy ears. Last time I checked that’s called a DOG,” wrote Crystal Kelsoe of Evansville, Ind.

Nicole Horabik, the assistant program director and “rescue ninja” for Cause for Paws, noted that American pitbull and Staffordshire terriers are the breeds now cramming the Triangle’s shelters.

“These dogs really need a voice right now,” she said. “The shelters are flooded with them. If people continue this breed discrimination, more and more of them are going to be put down.”

She also noted that WRAL has featured many pitbull mixes in the past, and that Dallas just “looked scary.” I asked Hammel if the policy applies to mixed breeds, and he told me, “We don’t take their paw prints.”

If you’re looking for me to referee this furry disagreement, I’m going to disappoint. You can easily check the statistics for dog bites, which pitbulls tend to dominate. And you can just as easily read how biased and misinformed those statistics are, driven by media reports rather than any kind of objective numbers. I’m sure you’ve heard the argument that dogs are the products of their owners more than their breeding, and you can decide for yourself.

But I will say this: I am the former owner of Zoe, a pitbull mix I adopted in Texas, and that dog wouldn’t bite the mailman. I am also the former owner of Senora Wences, a 6-pound Chihuahua from the same Fort Worth neighborhood, and she bit me so badly on the face I thought I’d need stitches.

For me, the bottom line is that animals are unpredictable and involve a certain risk. If it were my TV station, I’d let Dallas march around and drool for the cameras. But it’s not, and I have to at least respect the station for listening to its employees’ fears, founded or not.

So having thoroughly equivocated, I’ll finish by saying that I asked Hammel if this policy will apply to any other breeds that cause an incident, and he told me it would be reckless not to review it in that case. So watch out, stray Dachshunds, and keep your nibbles to yourself.