By J.M. Ream

Meryl Streep claims, “Dingoes ate my baby!” in the 1988 film “A Cry in the Dark.” Although many can see the humor in that line, aggressive dog attacks are no laughing matter. What may not be as obvious is the aggressive worldwide campaign being waged against those considered responsible for these tragedies— literally hitting dog owners where they live.

In 1997, while living in Rahway, NJ, my husband Mike was contacted by a former girlfriend regarding custody of her Rottweiler, as she was financially forced to move to an apartment complex that did not welcome pets. The last thing this world needs is another junkyard dog, and, despite many hardships, we have never regretted the decision to take Apollo into our home.
Rottweilers are beautiful, engaging animals, descended from mastiff-type dogs used to herd cattle for those pesky Romans stomping all over Europe. These mastiffs bred with farm dogs in the southern German town of Rottweil, giving us the breed we know today. Sleek, shorthaired, black and tan Rottweilers are classified as “working” dogs— give them a task, and they go to it. Extremely trainable, they were recognized as police dogs in 1910. Modern times have found them excellent pet therapy candidates, and many are trained for service to the disabled.

Yet, the breed is intimidating— well, if a 27-inch, 100 lbs muscular beast with huge jaws makes you nervous. Friendly Apollo made Mike’s landlord so nervous, the boy and his dog were thrown out in the middle of the lease, prompting the first of many mad scrambles to procure living quarters. We finally landed a run-down flat a few blocks away, with an ostensibly flexible landlord who, unbeknownst to us, had just sold the building. Our new landlady was not amused, but by the time we relocated in 1999, Apollo often played with her children in the backyard.

We welcomed Mike’s job transfer to the Tidewater section of Virginia for a number reasons, not the least of which was the possibility of gaining financial ground. Through a generous relocation package, we expected red carpet treatment and smooth passage into unknown territory. The carpet, however, was ripped out from under us when Mike told the relocation agent we had a Rottweiler. A few weeks prior to the September move we deduced that we had been blown off. I spent six straight hours on the phone calling every apartment complex in Tidewater, and got my answer— the ominous voice from “Snoopy Come Home,” intoning “NO DOGS ALLOWED.” Or, more precisely, OUR dog was not allowed, and what kind of people were we to own such a dog? “Oh, NO,” the abrupt, judgmental, uptight voices said, “we don’t allow THOSE dogs.” I tried the state and local government, the real estate consortium, and was left cold. Each click of the receiver left me feeling more and more like a criminal.

Close to tears, I finally connected with a sympathetic real estate agent who owned a Rottweiler. She explained that since Rottweilers, along with other “aggressive” breeds such as German Shepherds and Doberman Pinschers were commonly used in local drug trafficking, they were unofficially blacklisted. She told me that most renters lie about owning a pet. How do you hide a huge black dog? The thought of moving all the way across country just to get evicted did not appeal.
Every divination we performed on the matter, nonetheless, pointed south. Stifling raging doubt, we dutifully climbed into the car on a sweaty August day and drove to even sweatier Hampton to survey the landscape. Mike left a message for our useless relocation agent, letting him know we would not be ignored. That, however, made it all the easier for him to be out of the office when we arrived. His frightened young secretary thrust a copy of the relocation folder at us and backed away. We spent the expense-paid evening at the Hampton Holiday Inn pondering our existence.

Morning dawned, along with the realization that we had run out of options. Frustration transformed me into a shrew by the time Mike pulled up to the 7-11, to get more and more rejection from local newspaper classifieds. Pacing the steaming asphalt, I heard a ringing in my ears— Mike’s phone. “Sure,” the man told Mike, “pets are ok, as long as you’re not talking about a horse!” Rottweiler? “I had a Rottweiler,” our future landlord said.

We drove through the scariest, seediest section of Newport News to a sprawling two-story house, with a spacious yard fringed by a grove that would make any Druid proud. The street was quiet, the landlord eager, the rent more than reasonable. We spent the night at the very scary King James Motel, and signed the lease the next day. We thought the rest was history. Moving day landed us in Newport News with a crash— a beer bottle slammed to the sidewalk in front of what proved to be a crackhouse across the street, now filled with an audience for our dog-and-pony show. Step right up, folks, see Whitey in captivity.

Surely nothing so far in this tale would encourage gentle readers to embrace this noble breed. Indeed, it begs the question— why own a dog at all, much less a Rottweiler? That should raise the hackles of animal lovers everywhere. I can’t explain my love of creatures, great and small, to the rest of the population. I can only tell you why I love Apollo. I treasure the memory of our first meeting, when he recognized me from some previous incarnation and promptly settled all 100 lbs of himself into my lap. I thrill to the freedom from social restrictions that allows me to wrap my arms around something lifesize, warm, fuzzy and solid, other than my husband. I delight in the goofy antics and facial expressions resulting from Apollo’s utter disregard for his own size— he once nuzzled Mike’s glasses clear across the room, and was so overjoyed to see my pregnant friend Yvonne that she hit the floor hard. She cracked up, in a good way. I encourage our psychic bond— although early experiments left Apollo a little confused when I mentally called him from his warm spot on the bed and didn’t have a task for him to perform. Most importantly, he kept us safe during our year-and-a-half in hostile territory, earning the designation “ghetto dog.”

The United States Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Disease Control records an annual 334,000 victims of savage dog bites annually. This statistic competes with the proliferation of breed-specific rescue organizations. Check any resource at your disposal for the Rottweiler Rescue organization near you. I recall sitting in a restaurant looking at photos of our overgrown puppy. A waitress caught sight of Apollo’s huge head and spoke of driving 40 miles one way to rescue, sight unseen, a Rottweiler bitch who had been beaten, shot twice and left chained to die in a snowstorm. It was the waitress’ second Rottie rescue. Oh, there’s a reason why these dogs were ranked second most popular by the American Kennel Club in 1996, sadly in spite of fellow bleeding-hearts. Rottweilers are favored by less-than-committed dog owners, abused until they are just the right shade of nasty.

All of this should be enough to raise ire. My naïve response— if owning a Rottweiler is a crime, come an git me, coppers. Surprise— in a parallel universe, I’d be wearing a fashionable neon orange vest and stabbing litter outside the Eiffel Tower. France enacted breed-ban legislation in 1998. In 2000, dog-loving residents of Portland, Oregon wore red and black ribbons as part of a campaign opposing Germany’s breed bans. England and Canada are following suit.

Only a matter of time before Mike and I become guests of the state of Virginia? The American approach is far more insidious. Money talks in this country, notwithstanding the value of human life. As a 10-year veteran of the insurance industry, I can tell you that the cost of a bodily injury claim will reach the $1 million mark before the victim gets into her semi-private room. Ah, we are litigious! Insurers don’t want to pay those claims, so pressure is brought to bear on the lessors. No, the Ream family is far more likely to end up homeless.

Nothing written here is meant to desensitize the horror and tragedy of being torn limb from limb. I fully agree that wild things should not be roaming the streets. May I have the sheer hubris to assert that animals are not the only predators we have to fear? Our children are attacked, kidnapped, murdered while they wait for the school bus, our elderly, in their homes. While responsible pet owners are vilified and harassed, is enough being done to eliminate the element which makes it necessary to employ a crime deterrent? All dangerous two-legged creatures should be taught to sit, stay and fetch, since no restriction has been placed, thus far, on breeding them. Until that happens, dogs have it all over them. I have been biting my tongue on this issue for a long time, and now I can taste blood. We all know what that’s supposed to mean.

The prospect of homelessness again reared its ugly head this May when our landlord informed us of his plans to sell the house. We looked into apartments again, claiming we had a Labrador. They wanted a note from our veterinarian— would a note from my mommy suffice? “Apollo is a very nice doggie.” Hmmm. Surely, renting another house— filling out form after form in triplicate, asking for everything from my mother’s maiden name to my political affiliation, only to get turned down because we were not on welfare or in the military. By this time, we were willing to sign a blood oath and hide Apollo in the closet. The logical conclusion - jump ahead on our financial timetable and purchase a home. Immediately affordable— pre-fab modular. Approved for house but not land— it would have to go in a park— NO DOGS ALLOWED.

I came home after the initial meeting with the pre-fab dealer to a sight that frightened me more than any threat yet encountered - my broad-shouldered, big-hearted husband reduced to tears. “The gods demand a sacrifice,” he said repeatedly, staring at me with vacant eyes. As a child, Mike had yearned for a pet. As a grown man, he was still being denied. “Our family has to come first,” he explained, convinced we would have to find a home for the dog.

Mike was right. The gods did demand a sacrifice. Our family does have to come first. Our family consists of myself, Mike, Apollo, and kitty-cat Agnes. I explained to my husband that we would not be buying a home at this time. We would live in a cardboard box if it came to that, wherever we could stay together. That was the sacrifice. My description of the curtains I would draw around our cardboard box windows finally evoked a smile. We choked back our fear and kissed the matter to the Gods.

It can be argued that owning a pet before owning a home is irresponsible. No disagreement here— I had to hunt for my first few pet-friendly apartments, and when my English Springer Spaniel went to another plane of existence I decided not to own another dog unless I owned a home—and then Apollo romped into our lives. From where we stand now, it would be more irresponsible to give him up.

According to the 1990 U.S. Census Supplementary Survey, there are 35,435,515 renter-occupied housing units and 69,288,326 owner-occupied housing units in this country. The CDC estimates 53 million dogs owned in the U.S. Not all homeowners have pets. Some four-legged tenants are enjoying the view from the balcony. Thus, we finally found a place to call home, through fellow dog-owning Pagans. When we cased the apartment complex, we saw people walking Mastiffs, Rotties, German Shepherds— all living together in harmony. It’s a “don’t ask— don’t tell” kind of deal. We signed a lease that allows the complex to throw us out with five days notice for any reason. The only time we have to hide Apollo in the closet is when the dishwasher breaks down.

Homeowners, beware— as reported May 1, 2001 by The Daily Press of Southeastern Va., a homeowners insurance safety inspection was conducted for the Dodson family of Newport News. One month later they received a letter from their insurer, Nationwide, advising coverage would be discontinued unless they got rid of their mixed-breed Rottweiler, Hope, who was inside the house at the time of the inspection. Martha Dodson had adopted Hope after finding the malnourished dog tied to a tree. Nationwide backpedaled and the Dodsons’ still have their dog, insurance and mortgage. “Insurers refusing to cover certain breeds of dogs,” published Feb.1, 2001 in The Boulder News, makes interesting reading, as does the June 1, 2001 report, “A community approach to dog bite prevention,” the American Veterinary Medical Association, Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions’ proposed media campaign— watch for it! At this writing, the list of insurance-blacklisted breeds includes American Staffordshire terrier, boxer, pitbull terrier, chowchow, Doberman Pinscher, Great Dane, Rottweiler, Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute, Akita, wolf hybrids, and, of course, Dingo.

I submit that pet restrictions, blacklisting and breed-bans are discriminatory. It’s the stuff class-action lawsuits are made of. Or am I barking up the wrong tree?

For now, the living is easy. Apollo spends time with the love of his life, Yvonne’s new baby, Alana, being careful not to slap her silly with his huge tongue or knock her over with his big butt. If ever again faced with homelessness, a change of haircolor, a case of Miller High Life, a few packs of Camel non-filters and some Dinty Moore stew, and we can go on the lam in style, blasting “King of the Road” from a hot-wired RV like true enemies of state— or, maybe, invoke squatters’ rights on the far side of the moon. Mike has dubbed Apollo “the Anne Frank of Virginia.” Hey, we thought the Dingo line was funny.

Websites of interest:
Articles – Pro – Con –
Info – American Rottweiler Club
Discussion –
More sarcastic than my story – Wolfe’s Lodge Letter to Ban Rottweilers