The Tragedy of the Pit Bull




HOW DID THE PIT BULL go from America’s dog to America’s nightmare? In Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon (Alfred A. Knopf, May 2016), Bronwen Dickey explores this question. As much as this is the story of a dog, it’s a tale of how fear, ignorance, and racial prejudice can weave into a chilling narrative about a particular animal. Pulling apart the strands of this story — separating the dog from the myths that have grown up around it — is no mean feat, and Dickey does a masterful job.

Dickey takes us back to the early 1900s, when “bull-and-terrier” dogs were considered a quintessentially American pet — sturdy, good natured, and hard working. Military recruitment posters in 1915 featured the American bull terrier wrapped in a flag. Pete the Pup, the canine sidekick in the Our Gang comedy series, was beloved by children across the country. The dogs’ muscular physique even inspired athletes. “At one point or another,” writes Dickey, “captains of sports teams at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Cornell, Wesleyan, and Georgetown all kept some version of the bulldog-terrier in the clubhouse.”

During the 1970s, a media blitz opened the public’s eyes to the brutal world of dogfighting, and unluckily, writes Dickey, “cast the dogs as willing participants in their own abuse.” Dogfighters, drug dealers, and pit bulls were lumped together in the mind of a fearful public. The Los Angeles Times began referring to pit bulls as “killer dogs.” Others claimed the dogs were genetically wired for violence. The nation’s “mascot,” she writes, had morphed into a “monster.”

The tragedy of the pit bull isn’t entirely unique. Dickey walks us through a handful of historic dog “frenzies,” when certain breeds were vilified and destroyed with almost puritanical glee. In the late 1800s, when a doctor surmised that the little white lap dogs known as spitzes could be rabies carriers, untold numbers of these dogs were clubbed to death, shot, and drowned. On the eve of World War I, the dachshund was demonized because of its German heritage. The pit-bull panic would not be far behind.

Dickey interviewed more than 350 people for this book — dog owners and trainers; breeders and behaviorists; law enforcement officers and dog-sport enthusiasts; veterinarians, geneticists, animal-welfare advocates, dog-bite victims, and members of the rescue community. She watched pit bulls perform in obedience and police work, and met dogs that provided vital company for lonely, elderly owners. She worked at community events where people and their dogs stood in line for hours in the freezing cold, waiting for something as small as a free rabies shot.

In covering a subject that evokes strong, deep-seated emotions, Dickey herself refrains from making sweeping judgments about the pit-bull temperament. She neither condemns nor exalts these dogs.

The story of the pit bull is complex, and at times heartbreaking. It’s fraught with cruelty and poverty, but also compassion, generosity, and, occasionally, clear-headed thinking. Somehow, Dickey manages to find hope for the future of this dog and its reputation.

Dickey is also a contributing editor at the Oxford American. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Newsweek, Outside, and many other publications. She’s the daughter of the late poet and novelist James Dickey.

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TUCKER COOMBE: What sparked your fascination with pit bulls?

BRONWEN DICKEY: I grew up in the 1980s — the height of the pit-bull panic — so I had always assumed that these dogs were dangerous. I was very frightened of them. Having a pit bull, I thought, was almost a tacit endorsement of dogfighting.

Some friends of mine had one. And she was a wonderful dog — very intense, sensitive, beautiful, and gentle. She kind of glued herself to me. And I wondered: Is she an outlier, or am I assuming things about these dogs that aren’t necessarily true? I started doing some research on my own.

Then, when my husband Sean and I went to the shelter to get a dog, we got Nola. She’s a pit bull — and easily the best dog I’ve ever had. But everyone had an opinion about her. My mom claimed I had a death wish. Friends said that these dogs have some kind of aggression switch that, once it’s turned on, can’t be turned off. Everyone was weighing in on a myth, a story, about these dogs, one that had nothing to do with me or my actual dog.

You write that in the United States, pit bulls used to be considered “friendly and appealing to the ‘average Joe.’” Later the dogs came to be viewed as “not for people like ‘us.’” What happened to bring about this change?

The easiest and shortest answer is that there have been dog panics that have cycled through cultures for the past couple of hundred years.

The 1980s, which is when the pit-bull panic started, were a hugely tense and socially tumultuous time: we saw the disintegration of the inner city, a huge spike in violence, some scary stories cycling through the media, and a lot of fear-mongering about people of color. Social illswhether it was drug use or violence or the AIDS virus — seemed to portray the breakdown of American society. The pit bull got swept into all that turmoil, and in people’s minds, became glued to the nefarious-drug-dealer stereotype.

When I was researching this book, one of the first things I noticed was how many people who were wary of pit bulls immediately pivoted to talking about “the kind of person who owns them.” And they would talk about thugs and drug dealers and gangbangers. Those are the cultural associations people bring to the table when they talk about these dogs.

You write that the pit bull used to be considered something of an American icon. What qualities of this dog were so lauded?

What’s interesting is that the attributes people really loved early in the 20th century were the same qualities found to be scary and fearsome decades later. In the 1920s the dogs were seen as loyal, tenacious, courageous. They wouldn’t give up. They were kind of unfussy, low-maintenance dogs — not unlike the working-class man in America. But by the 1980s, there was a different view of working-class people. And for the pit bull, “tenacious” became “never lets go,” and “courageous” became “vicious and frenzied.”

The dogs themselves didn’t change. It was the stories we were telling about the dogs that changed.

In the book you talk about how, over the centuries, people have turned against certain types of dogs. Why do dogs become a lightning rod for our fears and hatred?

I think it’s because we’re so invested in dogs. They’re the animals we spend the most time with, the animals we see ourselves in. Dogs have been our closest partners since human evolution, and that closeness sometimes comes at a price — for them and for us. At times we project wonderful qualities onto them, like “man’s best friend” and “eternally loyal,” but by the same token we look at the people we don’t like and project onto their dogs a whole host of qualities that may or may not be true. During World War I and World War II, as an example, it was sometimes said that German dogs were “sneaky” and “treacherous.”

Dogfighting in this country received extensive, even overblown press coverage in the 1970s. What impact did this have?

Some of the saddest parts of the pit-bull story are the unintended consequences of people’s actions. In the 1970s, dogfighting was lessening in scope, but the dogfighting that existed was getting worse in terms of cruelty. And for a variety of reasons it was very hard for investigators to pin down and apprehend the people involved. So, some very well-intended members of the humane movement and law enforcement banded together with the press to create a media blitz about dogfighting. The aim was to show what a terrible crime it was, and to generate public support to help stop it. Unfortunately, some of the stories that came out were so salacious and disturbing that they almost glamorized dogfighting. They also introduced this obscure type of cruelty to millions of people. And for some disturbed people, the take-away was, “Hey, I can make money through dogfighting, and probably not get caught.”

So, the extravagant coverage of dogfighting actually worsened the situation.

That’s kind of the double-edged sword we encounter with coverage of any crime: how much should something — a mass shooting, for example — be publicized?

And what did all this coverage of dogfighting do to the reputation to the pit bull?

I think you could say that the mushroom cloud detonated.

What about the case of Michael Vick, the professional football player who was arrested for running a horrific dogfighting ring?

The first major story to portray pit bulls as victims, and not accomplices in their own torture, was the Michael Vick case. Those dogs weren’t described in the press as useless, aberrant monsters, but as individuals. Each of those dogs had a name, each one had a story, and that was a very, very powerful thing.

What did you learn about the pit bull that really surprised you?

Probably the biggest surprise was how flimsy the scientific research was about these dogs.

There were so many studies out there, in peer-reviewed journals, that were written by people with no professional knowledge of animal behavior or canine biology. I read studies in medical journals that cited Sports Illustrated, the National Geographic channel, or injury-lawyer websites. That really blew my mind. It takes an incredible amount of effort to go through a study that says, “pit bulls are uniquely dangerous” and follow the citations to learn that the claim is sitting on nothing but air. And the average person doesn’t have the time to do that.

I was also surprised by how many people were tired of being told by the media that they should be afraid of these dogs. People were sick of the horror stories. I think the perception that America hates pit bulls isn’t accurate at all.

I was surprised by some of the dog-bite statistics. You write that 38,000 people are killed each year in accidental overdoses in the United States, 36,000 die in car accidents, and about 35 are killed by dogs.

I was awed by how tolerant and resilient dogs are, especially when you think about how many dogs we live with in this country, and how many interactions we have with them on a daily basis. It’s estimated there are between 77 million and 83 million dogs in the United States, and only a tiny, tiny fraction ever hurt anyone. If I were a dog, I would get into trouble very quickly. I wouldn’t take one-millionth of what the average dog puts up with.

You volunteered with an organization that upended some of your own preconceptions about pit-bull owners. Tell me about that.

When I first got interested in pit bulls, the predominant view in the rescue community was something like this: Pit bulls are born to bad people, and it’s up to good people to save them. But an organization I discovered quite by chance — the Coalition to Unchain Dogs — works to invert that paradigm. Instead of finding “better homes” for dogs that are tied out on chains, the organization builds fences in people’s backyards so the dogs can stay in the homes they already have. I spent a lot of time with this group, being invited into people’s homes and learning about some of the pressures they were living under. What I saw was that people weren’t chaining their dogs outside because they were callous and didn’t care: they simply didn’t have the resources to do anything else. And 80 percent of these people had pit bulls, or dogs that would be described as pit bulls, because they’re inexpensive to acquire. Every weekend there were truck beds full of pit-bull puppies at the flea market.

The idea that run-down neighborhoods are rife with cruelty and dogfighting, that pit bulls are unloved, always abandoned, or cast aside — it’s just not true. Many people in these neighborhoods had taken in dogs for neighbors who got sick or went to prison. There was so much generosity, and so much love for these dogs. People really were trying to do the best they could. But the gap in resources was very real, and very damaging.

You write about how, during your childhood, the dogs chained outside the house mirrored the desperation and quiet tragedy inside your home.

I grew up in South Carolina, and my family had resources. My dad was a writer and taught at a university, and we lived in a good neighborhood. And yet, both my parents struggled with very severe addictions — my dad with alcoholism and my mom with substance abuse. Because of that, there was constant turmoil inside the house, and lots of things went by the wayside — whether it was the dogs living on chains, or my parents neglecting to take me to the doctor. It wasn’t that my parents were bad people. It was just that they were struggling with issues that were beyond all of us.

People in the neighborhood saw the dogs on chains and judged us very harshly. And I remember acutely the shame I felt about our dogs.

When I was researching this book, I saw children who seemed to feel that same sense of shame. It definitely brought out something in me. I hope that this book inspires people to look a little deeper before making a judgment — not just about dogs, but about other people.

Some of the tales in this book are heartbreaking. Was there ever a time when this story became so painful that you were tempted to walk away? What kept you at it?

There were many times when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore. I attended a law enforcement seminar that involved watching hours and hours of undercover dogfighting video. There was a point where I had to leave the room because I thought I was going to be sick. I cried that entire night. It was also painful to see situations in which people were trying to keep their dogs and weren’t able to because of ridiculous [breed] laws, or lack of finances, or insurance problems.

What kept me at it, in part, was just stubbornness. Also, the story of the pit bull is a great American story, with a lot of reversals and twists. And whether you love these dogs or hate them, you can’t deny that they’re a big part of who we are as a society. And so I felt a kind of duty to put the story out there. I didn’t know if anyone else would.

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Tucker Coombe writes about nature and education. She lives in Cincinnati. 



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