Pit Bulls in the Penny Press

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Naturally, I was eager to read Tom Junod’s piece in the new Esquire, “The State of the American Dog,” which is about the unfair stigmatizing of pit esquirebulls in America and their subsequent skyrocketing execution rates in animals shelters across the country. And on a prose level, the piece itself doesn’t disappoint: Junod is a strong writer, and some of his larger points ring true to me:

This is the story of an American dog: my dog, Dexter. And because Dexter is a pit bull, this is also a story about the American dog, because pit bulls have changed the way Americans think about dogs in general. Reviled, pit bulls have become representative. There is not other dog that figures as often in the national narrative – no other dog as vilified on the evening news, no other dog as discriminated against, no other dog as promiscuously abandoned, no other dog as likely to end up in an animal shelter, no other dog as likely to be rescued, no other dog as likely to be killed. In a way, the pit bull has become the only American dog, because it is the only American dog that people bother to name. When a cocker spaniel bites, it does so as a member of its species; it is never anything but a dog. When a pit bull bites, american dog 1it does so as a member of its breed. A pit bull is never anything but a pit bull.

Junod expertly tells the story of how a huge surge in the number of pit bulls and pit bull mixes has been spurred by the wrong kind of owners and has resulted in, among other things, a correspondingly huge surge in unwanted, abandoned, and eventually dead dogs:

The demographic shifts that are transforming America’s human population find a mirror in the demographic shifts that are transforming America’s canine one, with the same effect: More and more we become what we somehow can’t abide. We might accept pit bulls personally, but America still doesn’t accept them institutionally, where it counts: indeed, apartment complexes and insurance companies are arrayed in force against them. And so are we: For although we adopt them by the thousands, we abandon them by the millions. The ever-expanding population of dogs considered pit bulls feeds and ever-expanding population of dogs condemned as pit bulls, and we resolve this rising demographic pressure in the way to which we’ve become accustomed: in secret, and in staggering numbers.

Junod talks to animal control people and dog savior ‘angels’ across the country, and he intersperses his exposition with stories of his own pit bulls, his present dog Dexter and his previous dog Carson, both of whom he describes as gentle, loving souls – and that creates a bit of a dissonance problem in the piece.

Junod opens his article with a story about how he was out with Dexter for a walk one day when his dog was attacked by a murderously unstable cocker spaniel (“murderously unstable cocker spaniel” being, as he correctly points out, something of a redundancy). Junod frantically tries to separate the dogs, because he knows what happens to pit bulls who bite other dogs, regardless of who started the fight. In that case he’s lucky enough to convince Dexter to release the cocker spaniel instead of killing the dog. But he also relates an incident with his earlier dog, where Carson is unwisely allowed close enough to a perfectly friendly dog and immediately attacks. Once again, Junod is lucky enough to intervene before the other dog is killed, but while his anecdotes are intended to ‘humanize’ the two pit bulls he’s owned, they inadvertently do some other things as well.

I’ve known plenty of dogs – including plenty of pit bulls – who, if attacked by a murderous cocker spaniel, wouldn’t fight back. They’d go into fight-avoidance mode instead, screaming and surrendering in order to avoid violence (one of my two current dogs, for example, wouldn’t fight another living thing to save her fat, gassy life). But Dexter, once attacked, fought back and would – Junod makes it clear – have very calmly killed the cocker spaniel if the encounter had lasted another minute. And likewise Carson, but on a different point: the fact that an openly aggressive dog was allowed to get close enough to a peaceful animal to allow an attack says little about the pit bull and a lot about the pit bull’s owner (one of my two current dogs, for example, instantly and savagely hates all other dogs – so I don’t ever allow her to amble over to a dog, hoping that this time it’ll be different; I don’t let her get close enough to attack, because I’m an adult and I’ve made my peace with the fact that she will attack).

The article sounds a very much-needed warning bell about the deplorable state of pit bull life in America today. I walk dogs at my local animal shelter, and Junod is entirely right: most of them are pit bulls or pit bull mixes, and all of them have had utterly miserable lives (most of the dogs I walk can’t possibly be adopted out again – they’re basically just waiting to be executed). And more so than most other kinds of dogs, all those pit american dog 2bulls are at the shelter in the first place because some human somewhere was an asshole to them, or about them.

But there’s an element of willful blindness in Junod’s piece that bothered me as I was reading it. In his story about Dexter, he seems to be intentionally turning a blind eye to his dog’s capacity for violence, and in his story about Carson, he seems to be turning an equally blind eye to his own negligence. It’s a tendency that’s even reflected in the stunning photos by Michael Friberg that accompany the piece. Most of those photos are great shots of wide-eyed, friendly pit bulls who are either safely adopted or up for adoption (I can only guess how many adoption offers this article will generate). But one of them is of a pretty female dog named Chica, about whom the caption reads: “Picked up as a stray by an animal control officer … euthanized for medical reasons.” But the actual picture of Chica shows her in mid-growl, a fraction of a second from lunging at the camera. She couldn’t look any different from the other dogs in the article: she’s frightened and angry and utterly unsocialized. So why this business about her being executed for “medical reasons”? I see dogs like her every single week: she wasn’t executed for medical reasons – she was executed because her unschooled aggression made it impossible to adopt her out.

Which makes me wonder why the caption said otherwise, why it invoked something reassuringly neutral like “medical reasons” instead of commenting on what’s visually true in the picture. Was it perhaps to avoid including in the article any examples of pit bulls euthanized for savagery? And if so, does that serve the same interests as the article itself?

Either way, it was a moving piece of writing, and it’s sure to generate a lot of mail to Esquire. And it’s prompted me to make an extra trip to the animal shelter this week, to kiss some extra-wide faces and pray for miracles.

3 Comments to Pit Bulls in the Penny Press

  1. Fran C's Gravatar Fran C
    July 8, 2014 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    What you see in the picture of Chica could very well is in the eye of the beholder and nothing else. I have seen that same “kind” of look and posture in a dog getting ready to play.
    As neither one of us were there, the whole scenario is conjecture. However I am somewhat confident if Chica were euthanized for “behavioural reasons” they might very well have said so as opposed to “medical reasons”.

    I am looking forward to reading the piece in Esquire and making up my own mind.

  2. Cynthia's Gravatar Cynthia
    July 9, 2014 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Interesting comments, but I’d like to point out that the dog in the both incidents was Dexter. Carson was not involved in either of those confrontations; in fact, Junod mentions that Carson had “never hurt anybody or anything”.

    I would also respectfully like to agree with Fran C’s comment above, that Chica’s look could easily be interpreted as play OR pre-attack. And as she says, none of us were there, so we must decide for ourselves.

    On the whole I thought the Esquire article was very well done. I was only disappointed that I could not find it online to share digitally with friends.

  3. Nicole's Gravatar Nicole
    July 10, 2014 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Great post; I’ll pick up this month’s issue to read the article. I’m of two minds about referring to a pit bull breed’s aggressiveness towards other dogs (again, making this assumption without having yet read the article)- I don’t think it’s necessarily a negative for potential owners to understand that a dog might not like other dogs, and to understand that as an owner, it’s a responsibility to stay aware around your dog at all times. I think of it as not setting the dog up for failure.

    I guess I wish more pieces on pit bull breeds wouldn’t focus on defending them against misperception by portraying them as angels, but would rather make it clear that this a dog that needs an owner willing to engage with them a lot. A lot a lot. That their owner doesn’t need to be “strong” or “dominant” but rather, “attentive.” That they’re poor guard dogs, because that’s not a behavior they were bred for. That they need a lot of exercise. Because I think well-meaning people adopt them and don’t really know what they’re getting into when you own an athletic breed (that is, let’s face it, also often emotionally needy), and that makes me as sad (as do people who get them because they want a dog to burnish their own “tough person” self image).

    And that they may not be a dog you can take to a dog park, but then, many, many dogs are not dogs fit for dog parks. I have a Staffordshire mix (adopted from a shelter last year, my first experience with the breed) and she’s delightful (and amazing with my 4-year-old son), but she’s not dog social. Dog tolerant, yes, but not interested in actually playing with other dogs. I take her off leash in the open park during off-leash hours (we don’t have a yard) so I can really exercise her, but it’s my job to make sure she doesn’t end up in a situation where she’s uncomfortable. Most dogs respect her “I’m playing fetch with my person; I don’t want to play with you” body language, but when a dog is aggressive in trying to get her attention and the owner isn’t attentive enough to recognize that (or their dog doesn’t respond to their voice commands), I have to remove my dog from the situation. Just as it’s my responsibility to let her greet well-mannered dogs politely, so she continues to be dog-tolerant (she prefers little dogs, as they don’t scare her like big dogs do). But I had to be attentive enough to figure that out- if she were dog aggressive, it’d be my job to keep her away from other dogs no matter what.

    Maybe the TL:DR version of what I’m trying to say is, I wish articles about pit bull breeds would just say, “They’re great for an attentive, engaged owner, but be prepared to work with them. Every day.” It’s good advice for any dog breed, really, but maybe it would turn the tide against them being so desirable to individuals who shouldn’t own a dog at all, let alone a big, athletic one. Because I love pit bull terriers, but I wish there were fewer of them, so fewer would end up in shelters.

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