Dog trains man

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Open letter to Mette Gjerskov

Balder's Wake-Up Call

Denmark anno 2012. Balder, the 10-year old yellow lab, was executed at gun-point. His crime was trespassing. The shooter goes free, protected by a property law from 1872 that allows the shooting of trespassing pets.

The Balder incident sends Denmark into turmoil and overshadowed all other news for almost a week. When one article sparked a national cry of public outrage, every paper, TV-station, talk-show, etc., started featuring the story of Balder to feed their hungry public. To a point where even journalists who never spelled the word "dog" before, couldn't hide their obvious discomfort having to report on something so far away from what they considered important news.

I am sure the old law will be changed, and shooting a dog for merely trespassing becomes illegal. But there is more to this. I wondered. How can one dog spark such an outrage in a country where so many more dogs are euthanized just because of the breed they belong to, without drawing any attention? Did Denmak become concerned about animal welfare over night?

What Balder and the breed ban have in common, is fear. And how we in our modern societies deal with that fear. Fear sparked a rally behind Balder, as it could have been anybody's dog. But fear for "dangerous" dogs was also the driver behind the breed ban. Fear must work in strange ways, as it seems to make us want to save dogs with our left hand, and execute them with the right.

I decided to write an open letter to Mette Gjerskov, the Danish Minister of Agriculture and Animal Welfare:

Dear Mette Gjerskov,

I write to you in the aftermath of the Balder incident. Of course I am sad and it is wrong what happened to Balder, but that is not why I write this.

Now all the dust from the media around Balder has settled the question remains why we, the public, reacted so strongly about Balder's peril, yet seem not to care about dogs that suffer under the breed ban.

What makes Balder different is that he personified a dream in which there is only room for dogs that fit into a Disneyfied ideal we have crafted ourselves. In that dream a dog can be walked off leash and wouldn't harm a living soul. A humanized form of dog. A dog like Balder. Once a prey-driven carnivore, now the furry family pet that only uses its teeth to display the cutest of smiles. An ideal dog that frees us from our responsibilities as a dog owner.

Balder, as a harmless yellow lab, was an involuntary ambassador of that dream. He sadly became the national wake-up call. When Balder was shot we realized our dogs - as harmless as Balder - could become victims too. It was not safe inside the bubble after all. And that is why we screamed outrage. Not because of our concern for the welfare of all dogs, but because Balder made it personal and the welfare of our dog was threatened.

It was the same fear-based thinking that gave us the breed ban, as it allowed us to label a whole group as "bad". Even when statistics showed these dogs were not dangerous, we acted on stereotypes and emotions. Dogs belonging to the banned breeds are now sacrificed on our altar of fear, so we can live our dream in which our dog is safe. But our dog can never be safe if we don't start to take responsibilities for our actions.

Fear is the result of our own failures and the labels we give others. We have not a clue what it entails to care responsibly for a pet. Dogs do roam if not contained and entertained. Dogs do bite when provoked enough. The false safe-heaven created by our own expectations of how a dog should act and look like was exposed once more by Balder.

What will happen now? How will we use Balder's legacy? You have rallied to change the law. Again Denmark is on a cross-road. If you would only change the law so dogs like Balder can roam free, would that not re-establish the dream that will send us all asleep again until we wake up in fear once more?

Or do you launch an initiative that takes a broader perspective and have a look at what responsible ownership requires? Making Denmark a place where we take our own responsibilities more serious than our neighbor's and drive out fear. Balder leaves us with the opportunity once more, to do what is right.

I wish you a lot of wisdom.

Kind regards,
Leo Scheltinga



  1. Good letter, a worthy cause, and some ridiculous legislation. I hope you have success!

  2. I long for the day when everyone understands that "bad" dogs come from bad owners not bad breeds.

  3. Well done. So important how you saw this sad event, and looked even deeper.

  4. Great letter! Be careful, you're going to end up on the talk show circuit. Or someone will try to get you to run for office...

    1. LOL! I agree with Edie on this one. :)

  5. i shared this blogpost on severel pages on facebook. and yes denmark really need a wakeup call
    ty for fighting with us

  6. Well said, Leo. You nailed when you said "Fear must work in strange ways, as it seems to make us want to save dogs with our left hand, and execute them with the right."

    I signed and shared on BTC4animals' Twitter stream. We'll be repeating posts on our Facebook page throughout the week, too. Hope it helps!

    Thanks for Blogging the Change!
    Kim Clune

  7. Good for you, Leo - and so right about the factor of fear. May enlightened days come soon to Denmark (the world for that matter) on behalf of our dear animal friends.

  8. I think your comment "it seems to make us want to save dogs with our left hand, and execute them with the right." pretty much says it all. I know this is a particular issue for you in Denmark, but I have to say that this problem is everywhere.

    We had a man shoot a pitbull here in MN after letting his kids play with the dog and befriending and feeding it. The dog chased the guy's cat after it got out, and voila, shooting the dog was the only next option, because after all, it was JUST a pitbull. I wonder if this incident would have received more attention if it had been a Lab?

    I'll be interested to see of you get a response to your letter Leo. But, either way, I admire you for bringing attention to a much larger issue. Killing dogs for how they look or what they have, or might have, in their DNA.

  9. You've done with your letter what journalists should be doing - taking the story and analyzing for the connections to other issues - smaller and larger - and where to go from here. As it is, the same footage, the same surface story gets repeated with no real meaning. Thank you for your efforts to forward the discussion.

    -Chandra at Daley's Dog Years

  10. You make a really good point - it's the "that could be anybody's dog" aspect that grabbed the public's attention. It's simple (and maybe natural?) for people to ignore things that don't directly impact them, but it's very easy for people to picture themselves in this exact situation.

    Your letter was spot on.

  11. So well written and so very insightful. Keep up the good work, Leo. I swear, you're respectful and thoughtful prodding will result in the removal of Denmark's breed ban.


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