WE ARE CONDITIONED from a young age to think of humanity as somehow separate from Nature. Nature is the blank slate against which humans define themselves, from God’s command in Genesis that humans “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth,” to modern environmentalism’s call to preserve it. Nature is the passive recipient of our actions; we are the active, vital force that exerts ourselves on it.
Dogs trouble this duality: they are of nature but no longer belong to it; they are part of human culture and yet remain wholly alien within it. If, as Georges Bataille once wrote, “every animal is in the world like water in water,” this does not apply to the dog, who exists on the borderlands. We still don’t know for sure when and how the wolf became the dog — the dog’s origin is lost in the same mist of time that is our own. It’s almost as if both human and dog appeared at once — as though each depended on the other for its existence. And yet their place will always be at the edge of the camp, or on the doorsill: protective and loyal, and yet steadfastly never quite one of us. You can never hope to maintain a hard and fast distinction between humanity and nature so long as there are dogs.
Every few weeks I’ll see some video on social media with a tag line like “World’s Most Patient Dog!” in which a toddler sits astride the family golden retriever, yanking its tail, slapping its head, the dog silently enduring all these indignities without so much as a yawn. These videos horrify me, and I can never make it through one. Even knowing full well they wouldn’t be shared if they weren’t heart-warming, my mind always goes to how quickly it would all be over if the dog snapped — a quick turn of the head, a snap of the jaws, and that would be it. To own a dog is to bring wildness into your home. No matter how well trained and docile it may be, the dog will always retain something for itself, a place you cannot reach.
Writing on the borderland between memoir and academia, Colin Dayan’s book With Dogs at the Edge of Life attempts to mark out the territory of dogs in our lives, specifically by looking at those places where they are most imperiled. The book moves through scholarly argument, personal reminiscence, and reportage, bringing us close both to individual dogs she’s owned through her life and dramatic court cases that have shaped the legal contours of how dogs exist in human culture. Repeatedly the book asks, why do we kill dogs, and what does this say about us, and them?
It is, from the outset, a difficult book, emotionally; it opens with a discussion of the arrest of a man named Leon Rosby by the Hawthorne Police; during the arrest, Rosby’s pit bull Max got loose and began barking at the cops, who responded by fatally shooting him. The video is on Youtube and it is impossible to watch — the first shots push Max’s body backwards into the air, he leaps and jolts in agony as he’s shot again, falling to his side as his hind legs kick furiously, the cop’s gun still trained on him, as though at this point he might still be a threat. With Dogs at the Edge of Life is filled with reports of this kind of senseless destruction of animal life, and for anyone who remotely cares about animals, it is a brutal, if necessary read. In each case, the question arises again and again: in what category do these animals exist? As companions, with the rights and responsibilities of humans? As property, subject to protection as well as confiscation? As a wild menace, to be controlled and contained? To follow the logic of the title: when we are with dogs at the edge of life, just where exactly are we?
The liminal state of dogs is most apparent when they enter the realm of law, which is the subject of much of Dayan’s book. Dayan plunges in-depth into the story of Boudreaux, a Louisiana breeder of American pit bull terriers whose blood-line went back a century and were renowned as fighters before dogfighting was outlawed in Louisiana in 1982. Boudreaux continued to breed his dogs even after the ban, mainly as show dogs, but in 2005 his entire stock was confiscated and he was charged with facilitating dogfighting. Even though Boudreaux was ultimately found innocent, the Louisiana SPCA still killed all 57 of his dogs — a precautionary measure they’d taken the day after Boudreaux’s arrest, long before his guilt or innocence was decided. The same happened to Mahlon Patrick and Emily Dennis in Pima County, Arizona: arrested for selling dogs for fighting, they were later acquitted, but not before over 100 of their dogs had been euthanized.
The pre-emptive killing of dogs that may be involved in dogfighting speaks to the uncertain legal status dogs occupy: a strange status in which they are both more and less than property. Nor is it just the dogs: despite Patrick’s and Dennis’s acquittals, Pima County officials still moved two years later to seize Dennis’s property, claiming it a nuisance property used for dogfighting. Merely being accused of harboring a vicious dog, it would seem, is enough to have one’s rights suspended.
There are immediate, and disturbing parallels, to the regular and often wanton killing of dogs by cops, as happened with the shooting of Leon Rosby’s pit bull Max. Like stop-and-frisk and countless other invasions into the dignity, privacy, and humanity of people of color, the killing of dogs without recourse is meant to drive home a salient point: whether they are family members or property, we can take them from you whenever we want, and you are powerless to stop us.
Writing of the aftermath of the merciless slaughter of Max, Dayan comments, “Rosby never gets to hold his dog again. He is pulled away and shoved into the police car. Care and grief are no longer allowed in this America.” But of course, she means that care and grief are luxuries: they are available to many of us, but pointedly not available to poor rural whites, and most explicitly black families. “Nothing seems to enrage the police these days more than a black man who owns a dog,” she concludes, “and it is worse for the black man who loves a dog. It is almost as if somewhere in the minds of these police they believe that dogs were made for hating blacks, not for loving them.”
From a law enforcement perspective, dogs are a tool: they are for sniffing for drugs, or for crowd control. Dogs are what we make them; it’s how they ingratiated themselves to our company so many millennia ago, and it’s also their curse. They have so readily molded themselves to our needs and whims that when they assert themselves our first instinct is to kill them.
They are, Dayan writes, “captive in the yoke of care and cruelty that defines our status as humans,” a point she repeatedly illustrates through her discussion of the legal and cultural construction of the pit bull. Technically, these dogs are known as American pit bull terriers (and sometimes Staffordshire terriers), but the “pit bull” is something else altogether — less a dog than a concept. We think of the wolf as the wild counterpart to the dog, and that which lurks in every dog — the wildness that can’t quite be bred out. The pit bull is the flipside of the wolf — an aggression and violence that’s explicitly bred in, cultivated through training or abuse, the manmade monster inside the dog.
What emerges in Dayan’s writing is the concept of a pit bull not as a dog breed but as an ephemeral quality of viciousness in a dog. It is a thing that cannot be quantified in any meaningful measure: in 2012 Maryland’s Supreme Court decided that American Staffordshire terriers and American pit bull terriers, along with any mix containing pit bull genes, are “inherently dangerous” dogs, but as dissenting judge Clayton Greene suggested, such a ruling was untenable — “How much ‘pit bull’ must there be in a dog,” he asked, “to bring it within the strict liability edict? How will that be determined? What rationale exists for any particular percentage of the genetic code to trigger strict liability?”
And yet, while it cannot be quantified, it can still be legislated against, codified and regulated. Though the criminal case against pit bull breeders Patrick and Dennis was dismissed, the state nonetheless instituted a civil suit that led to a seizure by the state of Dennis’s home — despite the fact that there was no legal case against her.
Pit bulls are dogs that can be destroyed without trial or remorse; or, put another way, dogs that can be destroyed are — proactively or retroactively — labeled “pit bulls” as an excuse and justification for their destruction. “In the twenty-first century, the dogs worthy of such preemptive strikes are known as pit bulls,” Dayan writes, noting ultimately that the dogs themselves are not the problem. “Their owners take part in the larger crisis of waste in this country. They are groups long deemed expendable, working- and lower-middle-class citizens, rural whites, or blacks in ghettos. In their different ways, they are deemed economically useless, errant, and destitute, or at least unfit.” Pit bull ownership itself is rarely the crime; the crime is being poor, being black, being a redneck. The punishment for such crimes, as the Hawthorne police brutally demonstrated with regard to Leon Rosby’s dog Max, is the wanton destruction of animals.
This punishment happens not just via law enforcement, but increasingly, as Dayan explores, through the work of PETA and the HSUS — organizations that euthanize dogs under the rubric of “saving” them. That pretense of mercy is key; it is this kind of “moralistic and modifier-laden expressions,” Dayan notes, that “naturally complements the legal sleight of hand that escapes constitutional scrutiny.” To kill a dog that may have been involved in dogfighting — to kill a dog, in other words, in the name of preventing animal cruelty — raises the question that repeatedly emerges here: who gets to kill dogs. PETA and the HSUS are cavalier in their labeling certain animals “beyond saving,” a judgment that can happen only a few hours after their “rescue.” What seems evident here is that, rather than working towards the welfare of animals, what PETA and the HSUS, along with the dogfighters themselves, are asserting is a very specific sovereignty over nature. And in doing so, these competing factions try over and over to reassert that rigid line between human nature, attempting to push dogs back to the far side of the line.
What’s most curious about Dayan’s book is the absence of any discussion of dog maulings. It seems odd that in a book that tries to trouble our concept of “inherently dangerous dogs,” there is no mention, for example, of the death of Diane Whipple, mauled by her neighbors’ Presa Canarios, Bane and Hera — an attack that led ultimately to second-degree murder charges against the dogs’ caretakers. While Dayan does an admirable job in complicating our view of those accused of dogfighting, she makes no mention at all of the dozens of victims of dog attacks each year — at least 31 people were killed by dogs in 2015 alone. Of course, this is nothing compared to the thousands killed by firearms, but it’s more than any other animal save for bees.
More to the point: To argue, as Dayan does, that pit bulls are not inherently dangerous, requires a subsequent admission: that it is we who cultivate danger in some dogs. In her book Dayan repeatedly attempts to enter the mind of a dog, but in a real way this misses the point, since to meditate on the dog is to meditate on the mind of the human.
Diane Whipple’s attack, in an affluent neighborhood in San Francisco, shocked the city, especially once it came out that the dogs were being bred for use in an Aryan Brotherhood dogfighting ring run from prison. The dogs were being cared for by husband-and-wife lawyers Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel, who had just days earlier legally adopted the Brotherhood member who owned the dogs.
Predictably, perhaps necessarily, Bane and Hera were both euthanized after the attack — Bane immediately, Hera almost a year later. The dogs had been abused purposefully so as to build their aggressiveness, and fit the legal definition of “vicious dog” under California statute. But the court case surrounding Whipple’s death, in and of itself, is also less about dogs and more about the humans involved.
“If they had behaved differently, it would have been different,” Terence Hallinan, the District Attorney who charged them told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It wouldn’t have been murder, that’s for sure. We went into that grand jury thinking we had a manslaughter and vicious dog case. The difference was they went into the grand jury and testified. Everyone thought (originally) this was an accident. It was the whole thing, the lack of remorse, the failure to explain adequately what happened.”
Loners, weirdos, cyphers, affiliated with white supremacists, displaying a seeming lack of human compassion or any remorse for Whipple’s death — what damned Noel and Knoller, ultimately, was that they revealed themselves to be existing out at the margins of normal society. Their crime was living at the edge of humanity, out there with the dogs.
Colin Dickey is the author of Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius and Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith.