On Monday, August 19, nine-year-old Emma Hernandez was killed by three dogs on Detroit’s southwest side. She was simply riding her bike in the alley near her house when the dogs got loose from their yard and attacked her. Neighbors and family tried to stop the attack but were unable to intervene and save Emma’s life.

Tragedy is unfortunately commonplace in today’s world, but this strikes close to home for me. As a father of four, I cannot fathom the pain her family is experiencing. You want to drive this from your memory, to entirely block it out, but you can’t. And as someone who has dedicated their life to animal welfare, I feel a personal obligation to take action.

It is natural to isolate an incident and point to a single cause. The owner of these dogs failed to secure violent animals properly. The owner should and, by all accounts, will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law. What is doubtful is whether anything meaningful will come from this. Can this be the foundation for meaningful change?

There is no one, singular solution to fix the problem. It is deep and layered. It has been reported that the owner of the dogs has had issues in the past. Detroit Animal Care and Control confirmed that they received a call last year about two dogs that were running loose and thought to be from that address. When the animal control officer arrived, no one answered the door. The dogs were not seen near the house nor around the neighborhood. A notice was posted for the owner, but there was no follow up. The proper procedure was followed, but the mechanism meant to keep everyone safe failed.

This incident is just one example of a much larger problem — the avenues that we rely on to help us in times of distress are inefficient or, in the worst cases, do not exist at all. People all over our city have been working diligently to improve these conditions in their neighborhoods and communities — establishing neighborhood watches, banding together to ensure children have a safe route to get to school — and so many more folks are simply keeping an eye on their neighbors and lending a hand when needed.

But, more comprehensive and wide-sweeping changes are sorely needed. Those changes are not just in legislation or law enforcement — they are in the very way we look at, and treat, the animals in our lives.

The Michigan Humane Society looks at pets as a window into the lives of the people we serve in our communities. We look at how people connect with animals and the role they play in their lives. We’d like to believe that every pet owner views their pet as a family member, but that is not the reality of the world in which we currently live. That is aspirational and generational change. We know that owners may see their pets as tools for protection. Many residents do not feel safe enough in their own homes and resort to having dogs as a security measure. How can we shift this mindset to one that sees a pet as family and not as a commodity? What about those instances where we cannot?

This is not a pit bull issue — it is a quality of life issue. In fact, the Michigan Humane Society advocates strongly against breed-specific legislation and policies. However, let’s be honest: in homes where dogs serve no other purpose than security, they are not pets — they are weapons. In these instances, dogs, like pit bulls, do pose more of a threat because of their capabilities. This man had an obligation to prevent this from happening, and he failed. However, meaningful change requires us to recognize this as a systemic issue in our city.

Michigan Humane Society investigators handle thousands of reports of neglect and cruelty each year. Much of these interactions are educational, where owners are provided with knowledge and tools needed to become responsible pet owners. This is integral to creating safer environments for everyone — people and pet. Our work is critical in creating a community with more socialized and healthier animals less likely to display aggressive behavior. But, our team is only successful when we have engaged neighborhoods where citizens are reporting possible dangerous animals to proper authorities like Detroit Animal Care and Control and the Detroit Police Department. Even here, there are significant hurdles: funding, staffing and resources for the agencies charged with our safety.

It is easy to scream that we have “been here before” and nothing has changed. Maybe so. However, we cannot look ahead while looking behind. As a community, we must set aside past experiences and be able to work collectively towards addressing the bigger issues in our neighborhoods and in our city. If I look at animal welfare organizations, for example, there are so many incredible groups doing great work. But, they are doing it independently. They are doing it in isolation. In that, we lose the power of scale and a unified voice.

In response to that fragmentation, the Metro Detroit Animal Welfare Coalition was formed in late 2018, consisting of the Michigan Humane Society, Friends for Animals of Metro Detroit, the Michigan Anti-Cruelty Society, BarkNation, the Michigan Animal Rescue League, Detroit Animal Care and Control, and members of Best Friends Animal Society and the Michigan Pet Fund Alliance. We are currently developing plans and projects that will work collectively to help pets and their owners in Detroit right now. It is in its infancy. But it is a start.

There are things we all can do right now. If you see something, say something. If you do not see progress, keep saying something. The agencies responsible for our safety need to know the reality of our neighborhoods. If you can do something, do it. If you can talk to someone, have a conversation. Support organizations and groups in your community that work to make life better for everyone. Perhaps most importantly, if you find yourself in need of help, reach out.

We will not reach the greatness that we all know is possible overnight, but we can be better today than we were yesterday. And, we can move toward addressing the conditions that led to this tragedy in the first place. Emma, and her family, deserve at least that much.

We need to maximize the opportunity for agencies assisting people and agencies assisting pets to come together to see how we can help each other. We need to work together and solve for DACC operating a shelter that was meant as a temporary home and is not adequate to the needs of our city. We need to solve for a lack of police officers and animal control officers being available to patrol neighborhoods. The city needs to solve these issues, but right now the city cannot do it alone.

We have already seen the phenomenal things that our city can accomplish when we work together toward a common goal. The word “humane” is about the quality of life for everyone — people and pet. There is no reason that Detroit cannot become the most humane city in the country.

Photo credit: Michigan Humane

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