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Dogs simply being dogs, not murderers'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When I saw the headline, "Dogs and cats are murderers," I almost burst out laughing.

Headlines like that have been all over the Internet lately, in the wake of a published study that focuses on dogs' role in killing billions of birds and small mammals.

Yes, dogs kill birds and small mammals. So do cats. It is, after all, the nature of predators and carnivores to kill and consume other creatures.

Does this make them "murderers?"

No. They are animals doing what animals do.

Merriam-Webster defines murder as "the crime of killing a person, especially with malice aforethought."

Last I checked, there is no law against a dog or cat killing a chipmunk or a starling. Last I checked, animals are incapable of malice. And last I checked, birds and small animals are not considered "persons."

Granted, the people who conducted the study aren't the ones who wrote the lurid headlines. After 33 years in the newspaper business, I've learned that some of the most sensational (and misleading) headlines are written by people who: a.) wish to put their own slant on the story, or b.) don't fully understand what they're writing the headline about.

I suspect many of the copy editors who wrote the lurid dog and cat headlines fell into one or both of those categories.

It's not hard to imagine an avid bird watcher, for example, writing such a headline. Birders tend to be acutely aware of the number of avian deaths attributed to domestic and feral cats.

It's also not hard to imagine someone who has no earthly clue about the ways of nature equating animals' instinctive behavior with humans' conscious behavior. So a cat that kills a bird - or a dog that kills a rabbit - becomes a "murderer."

The study itself, by two Oxford University researchers, didn't involve any direct scientific research on the authors' parts. Instead, it was a review of other scientists' published papers. The authors based their review on 69 peer-reviewed studies found, as they put it, in "seven online databases and other sources."

The studies primarily focused on "conservation issues with domestic dogs ... from around the world, both on islands and continents." Issues included predation, disease transmission, wildlife disturbance, hybridization and predation of dogs by wild carnivores.

OK, fair enough. The review was published last month in the journal Biological Conservation, and that's when the fun started.

Media outlets, both in print and online, cherry-picked the most dramatic data from the reviewed studies and used them to paint the grimmest picture possible against dogs.

Some of that is understandable; in the news biz, it's standard operating procedure to focus on parts of a story that stand out from the others. At the same time, though, it's important to paint an accurate picture.

Somehow I don't think focusing on one German shepherd dog's killing of 500 flightless kiwi birds in New Zealand's Waitangi State Forest paints an accurate picture. After all, how many places on Earth have populations of small, flightless, slow-moving birds?

And concentrating on how a dozen feral dogs were "thought to be wiping out populations of the endangered Fijian ground frog" on tiny Viwa Island was a bit over the top when one considers that the islanders solved the problem by domesticating 10 of the dogs and killing the other two.

I don't doubt for a moment that these things happened; I just wonder how they reflect accurately on the worldwide, broad-picture ability of dogs to have significant, lasting impacts on animals that move more quickly than kiwis or frogs, and are located in environments that aren't as confined.


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