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 bulls 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, it 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 bulls 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.