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'Pit Bull' aims to tell the story of a maligned breed

Journalist Bronwen Dickey has written a powerful and disturbing book suggesting that fear of pit bulls reflects many broader American anxieties and pathologies surrounding race, class, and poverty.

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Pit Bull:
The Battle over an American Icon
By Bronwen Dickey
Knopf Doubleday
352 pp.

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If the mention of pit bulls makes you picture lunging, snarling beasts inflamed by a lust for blood and combat, you are both utterly misguided and completely normal. Over 850 US communities have at some point banned or heavily regulated pit bulls, and an estimated 750,000 dogs labeled pit bulls are still euthanized in America each year. Less than 20 years ago in San Francisco, it was easier to buy a gun than adopt a pit bull from the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. And until quite recently Ohio made it easier to own and breed exotic pets such as tigers and lions than to keep a pit bull as a pet.

Do these laws and the attitudes that shaped them have any basis in reason and evidence? And if not, how and why has fear of pit bulls morphed into a widespread mass hysteria? Journalist Bronwen Dickey’s brilliant new book, Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon, investigates these questions through a combination of historical research, statistics, expert interviews, and profiles of advocates on both sides of this contested issue. The result of her inquiry is a powerful and disturbing book that shows how the rise of the killer-pit bull narrative reflects many broader American anxieties and pathologies surrounding race, class, and poverty.

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One basic problem with branding pit bulls as vicious monsters is the impossibility of defining the borders of the breed. Basing the category on physical characteristics invariably casts too wide a net, including many mixed-breed dogs that have blocky heads or brindle coats. More than 20 breeds of dogs share some physical traits with pit bulls. Conversely, as genetic tests show, dogs with absolutely no physical resemblance to pit bulls may still descend from them.

But granting that “pit bull” describes some meaningful group, however fuzzy and subjective its boundaries, are such dogs unusually aggressive toward humans or other dogs? Any reliable answer must rely on more than anecdotal evidence. But statistics and studies on dogfights by breed vary widely in the reliability of their methods which, combined with the polarizing nature of debates over pit bulls, generates substantial misinformation and pseudoscience. Because the American media since at least 1970 has given disproportionate coverage to any violent incidents involving pit bulls, academic studies that gather data only from media reports do not measure the violence of pit bulls so much as the American media’s obsession with the topic. These studies are then cited by the media in articles and reports, creating a closed loop that feeds on itself.

While there are some gruesome and endlessly covered cases of pit bulls attacking humans, these do not somehow prove that pits are inherently or genetically prone to aggression. The overwhelming majority of human injuries from dog bites involve dogs who have been mistreated, neglected, starved, abused, or provoked. If media and movies make the small minority of people who abuse dogs more likely to want pit bulls, this reflects nothing intrinsic about the breed.

But as Dickey’s careful analysis shows, there are good reasons to question the assumption that anyone who wants a pit bull must have dubious motives. The word “race” was first used in medieval France to describe castes of dogs grouped by their perceived nobility. The animals belonging to the nobility were considered the highest and most refined, while the commoners’ dogs were ranked lowest. The term “race” was transposed from the realm of dogs to the world of humans during the Enlightenment, but the impulse to imbue dogs with the supposed traits of their owners has persisted for centuries. In Hitler’s Germany it was feared that the pets of Jewish people would pollute the purity of the bloodlines of dogs belonging to “true” Germans. During World War I, Americans mounted a nasty campaign against the “treacherous” breed of dachshunds, which were presented as quintessentially German. And the dogs of the poor have always been branded as lazy, disease-prone, and overly interested in sex, while the canine companions of the upper classes were supposedly refined and elegant.

Roughly 200 years ago, an explosion of selective breeding began generating the extravagant phenotypic diversity in shapes and sizes that we see in today’s global population of dogs. Dog breeds, like baby names and fashion trends, rise and fall in cycles of popularity, and perceived status is a major driver of these trends. Different breeds also cycle through the role of menacing monsters: Dobermans filled the spot in the 1960s, St. Bernard’s in the 1970s, and Rottweilers in the 1990s.

One recent study found that humans are more likely to perceive pit bulls as aggressive when they are standing next to stereotypically “rough” males than when they’re posed beside women or children. We still assume a similarity between owners and their dogs, and it’s easy to be equally superficial in our judgments of both species. Dickey quotes racially charged comments by everyone from journalists to kennel club members to show that pit bulls are considered the dogs of choice for minorities, the disenfranchised, and the urban poor.

These perceptions have life-and-death consequences for both humans and dogs. After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, many shelters welcomed the pets of affluent white families as furry refugees from the storm. Pit bulls, by contrast, were refused spots in many shelters, which led to the deaths of both dogs and the humans who stayed behind to try and protect them from rising waters. The influence of race and class on this episode was painfully clear.

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Dickey’s book is exhaustively and scrupulously researched – she spent seven years traversing the country and conducting hundreds of interviews, and she has unearthed fascinating archival and historical material on her subject. It’s a remarkable study of our capacities for cruelty and compassion toward dogs and other humans, and an eloquent argument for abandoning the fears and prejudices that have made pit bulls in particular the victims of mistreatment.