The mutt, part American bulldog and part who-knows-what-else, was scooped up off the Detroit streets and kept in a small animal control enclosure. There, he waited. And waited. For nearly 100 days, the pooch had little new to explore except different corners of his cage.
Enter a no-kill animal shelter, Detroit Dog Rescue, which transferred the dog out of animal control in March and gave him his first name, Sir Wiggleton. “He had a sparkle in his eye that he needed to get out,” Kristina Rinaldi, Detroit Dog Rescue executive director, told the Detroit News. “I definitely did not want to see him euthanized.”
The group posted a picture of Sir Wiggleton to its Facebook page at the end of May, and almost immediately his future seemed to change. In the photo — the kind of picture social media gurus might describe as “highly shareable” — a goofy grin splits Sir Wiggleton’s face, revealing a long tongue as pink as a fresh tuna steak. His friendly visage accrued genial anthropomorphism and likes aplenty.
To one particular Facebook user, the animal’s smile evoked a fellow mammal with an equally goofy grin. The man passed Sir Wiggleton’s photo along to a local musician named Dan Tillery, citing the similarity in their smiles. In Sir Wiggleton — renamed Diggy, post-adoption — Tillery saw the very animal companion he had been looking for.
“It was like, ‘We need this guy. He looks like he has a lot of personality,’ ” Tillery said to the Detroit News.
On their first day together at Tillery’s home in Waterford, Mich., Tillery and Diggy took a goofball selfie and gave it to Detroit Dog Rescue. The group, which understands that photos of well-groomed men and cute animals have great power, decided that the joint Tillery-Diggy snapshot was destined for nothing less than breaking the Internet, putting Diggy in the same company as Taylor Swift, color-changing dresses and Kim Kardashian as would-be destroyers of the delocalized communications technology.
The Internet remained intact, but the photo caught social media fire, as fans shared it thousands of times. The duo scored celebrity treatment by People magazine and wound up on ABC News, with Tillery on the guitar and Diggy chewing on a stick.
“Every time I see him, I get a big dumb smile, and every time he sees me he gets a big dumb smile,” Tillery told ABC on Tuesday morning, which filmed the musician singing affectionate pop tunes to his new pooch.
“I’ve only had him one night,” Tillery said, “but he’s totally cool.”
Such total coolness was, unfortunately, not destined to last. As the photo gaveth — skyrocketing Tillery and Diggy’s relationship into the animal Facebook exosphere — it threatened to taketh away, once the news of the pooch landed in the hands of the Waterford Township Police Department.
Waterford, Mich., is a township where certain dog breeds are outlawed, under a type of ordinance known as breed-specific legislation, or BSL. The Waterford ban has its roots in a 1988 incident in which a pit bull pair severely injured a woman’s arm and killed her pet Airedale terrier. A few months afterward, the township passed its first ban on pit bull terriers, eventually prohibiting dogs with characteristics that “substantially conform to the breed standards established by the American Kennel Club for American Staffordshire Terriers or Staffordshire Bull Terriers.”
Supporters of BSL argue that some dog breeds are inherently riskier to own than others, because of their size or propensity for aggression. In a 2014 interview with Time, Colleen Lynn, the creator of DogsBite.org, an organization that aims to reduce dog attacks and advocates against pit bull ownership, blames human selection of certain traits. “Why do herding dogs herd? Why do pointing dogs point? They don’t learn that behavior, that’s selective behavior,” Lynn said. “Pit bulls were specifically bred to go into that pit with incredible aggression and fight.”
Pit bull defenders say that reports of the animal’s death-lock jaws are exaggerated and that its bred-for-violence history is a recent invention. In fact, one WWI-era depiction shows a pit bull defending an American flag chock-full of kittens, as The Washington Post reported in May; in her new book, “Pit Bull: The Battle Over An American Icon,” author Bronwen Dickey interviews a geneticist who argues that, even if the dogs fought in pits a century ago, claims that fighting DNA remains baked into their genomes are “ludicrous.”
Other dog breed experts note that too many dogs are painted with the “pit bull” brush; one study of four Florida shelters determined that every other pooch labeled a pit bull had no such genetic ancestry.
The Waterford Police visited Tillery at his home on Thursday, asking if Diggy was friendly. Tillery said yes. “When they went to the gate,” Tillery told CBS News, the pooch “was very kind” and licked the cops’ faces. “They said, ‘we’re dog lovers, that’s cool, he seems like a good boy.’ Took some pictures of him.”
An hour after that, the police told him Diggy was unwelcome.
Neighbors had complained, the police said, that Tillery had violated the pit bull ban. Per a statement via the Detroit Free Press, Waterford Police Chief Scott Underwood said that, “Based on their observations, it was determined the dog was part pit bull/pit bull terrier.” The police department did not cite Tillery — violations of the pit bull ordinance come with up to a $500 penalty — but insisted that, by Monday, Diggy would have to go. If a court hearing were to agree that Diggy is a prohibited animal, according to the ban, he would be “subject to destruction.”
Rinaldi described the ordinance as “the craziest” in an interview with the Huffington Post. Detroit Dog Rescue had called Waterford Township prior to Diggy’s adoption, to make sure that an American bulldog would be welcome in Tillery’s home. And the veterinary assessment determined that Diggy was an American bulldog — distinct from a Staffordshire terrier. Town officials, she said, told her that only dogs determined to be pit bulls are forbidden.
Tillery may have to relocate Diggy if the township does not budge. “I don’t like controversy,” he wrote on Facebook on Friday. “I hate it actually. I just love dogs. I just wanted a dog. This feeling in my stomach is awful. I hate this.”
By early Monday morning, an online petition to overturn the ban had roughly 49,000 signatures.