If you are in the market for a new pet you might find yourself googling the explosively trendy American XL bully – a relatively new breed that is a rough permutation on the pitbull (a restricted breed in Ireland). You will be greeted with a slew of claims about this dog’s “goofy” disposition and “eagerness to please”. The United Kennel Club in the US even tells us that this breed “makes an excellent family dog”. So far, so convincing.
That is, of course, until you learn that these supposedly charming beasts are responsible for 44 per cent of all dog attacks in Britain and a wildly disproportionate number of deaths. One report suggests that – since 2021 – these dogs have been responsible for 75 per cent of dog-related fatalities in the UK. One activist tells me that since 2022, death rates from dogs have tripled, roughly in line with the bully’s increasing popularity. Whatever you might make of the breed, it is rather obvious that claims about their family friendliness – a term more often reserved for labradoodles and cocker spaniels – are rather spurious.
Given the XL bully’s apparent proclivity for mauling people, the UK government has moved to ban them. In Ireland there are no banned dogs – but 11 “restricted” breeds. The restriction list stipulates that these dogs must be muzzled, on a short leash and handled by an adult in public. That a nine-year-old boy was mauled by an XL bully in Enniscorthy in 2022 suggests that these rules may not go far enough.
The question has been simmering away for a while now. But one video in particular thrust the issue into mainstream consciousness in the UK two weeks ago: a muscly and angry dog attacks an 11-year-old girl on the street in Birmingham as nearby pedestrians flee into the road, one man is chased and pulled down by the animal, with its gaping maws clenched around his arm.
For reasons that beggar belief this breed is still open for purchase in Ireland. In fact, you can buy a male puppy for €2,000 and a female for €2,500. And you can do this fully in the knowledge that in 2022 a 65-year-old woman was killed breaking up a fight between her American bully dogs in Liverpool; and that in the same year a toddler was mauled to death by the same breed in Merseyside; that in 2021 10-year-old Jack Lis was killed after an attack; that earlier this month a man in Staffordshire, England, died after being set upon by two suspected bullies.
If Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil wish to fashion themselves as clear-eyed, non-ideological pragmatists, then the American Bbully XL is the perfect litmus test
But people are fervent about their pets in Britain and Ireland. It is, for some reason, a trait that seems deeply ingrained in both nations’ psyches. So of course we should expect this breed to come with its raft of ardent defenders. Their reasoning pinballs between jargon about the technicalities of dog breeding and emotive appeals to the loveliness of dogs: bans are ineffective; my dog wouldn’t hurt a fly; it is the fault of the breeders; no dog is born violent; this is a classist attack on the poorer in society; bullies are genetically hard to define; data on their proclivity for aggression is inconclusive.
Of course the cognitive dissonance required to maintain such a position is vast. They are sweet and gentle, they say, as another news story rolls in about the latest mauling. All dogs have the capacity to be aggressive, they say, conveniently forgetting that cocker spaniels don’t have a history of maiming children. Little dogs bite all the time, they say, refusing to acknowledge that I – like most – prefer my chances against a snappy corgi than a 100lb bully.
But it is hardly unpredictable that a row over dogs has been dragged kicking and screaming into the culture war, chalked up as just another bipartisan proxy for deeper political divides. In fact, US conservatives in particular have latched on to the emerging debate with passionate intensity. The bully argument is, so they claim, the perfect vehicle to test our political disposition. Should the state be able to litigate the minutiae of our pets’ genetic makeup? Or is this an intolerable intervention from the overweening Big State into the lives of normal people?
This debate has yet to fully rear its head in Ireland, but when it does the Government’s approach to the question ought to be predictable. A state that is hardly anxious about intervention – as we saw with Covid-19 travel bans and lengthy lockdowns – should really have no awkwardness about banning an obviously dangerous dog. If Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil wish to fashion themselves as clear-eyed, non-ideological pragmatists – free from emotive bias, motivated as evidence-based policymakers – then the American bully XL is the perfect litmus test.
The central tension of liberal politics – as exposed during the pandemic – has found a new front. The Government can opt for law and order, banning and enforcing the ban of the aggressive breed. Or it can advocate for something more complicated: that to live in a liberal society naturally comes bearing risks. A cursory glance at the data suggests the answer is a very straightforward one.