In the summer of 2005,I attended my first City Council meeting where the discussion was about pit bulls (I had no idea this would be the first of literally dozens over the next decade). This suburban community was considering placing a ban on "pit bulls" and when questioned about why he was considering it, the city's mayor said that he felt the need to keep "those kinds of people" out of their nice community.
Well. What do you mean by "those people?"
A year later, I was in a different city council meeting, and one of the city leaders at the time was looking to pass restrictions on "pit bulls". When he was pressed about the undue burden this would put on owners of pit bull like dogs, he matter-of-factly responded "Well, we're not going to enforce this on people like you.". What do you mean by that? "You know".
Indeed I did.
Dogs have evolved with humans - they're bred mostly by humans and live with humans. Thus, any conversation in dogs has to naturally include the human element or the entire context of the discussion is lost. And that discussion has to include how some humans feel about other humans that are different from them. The certain type of people perceived to be the owners of certain types of dogs.
And Bronwen Dickey's Book "Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon" dedicates 267 deeply researched and wonderfully composed pages to putting the legend, myth and truth of pit bulls into the proper human context.
Pit Bull dives deep into the history of pit bulls, from the streets of the Five Points District in New York (think "Gangs of New York") to their role as chosen pet for President Teddy Roosevelt. From their role as working farm dog to film star on the Screen with Our Gang. And from the role of dog used for the cruel act of dog fighting, to beloved family pet.. And along the way, the dogs' image represented the people who kept them as pets and companions.
Pit Bull also delves into the frequency throughout history that groups in power used seizing people's pets, people they viewed were "beneath them" as a way to claim power over them -- as was often done by owners of slaves and was done by the Germans in seizing dogs owned by Jews in the 1920s and 30s.
But maybe more importantly, Pit Bull places the rise in fear about pit bulls during the 1980s and 1990s in a social and political context. It discusses the plight of urban cities following the suburban flight of the 70s and 80s -- which led to large increased in abandonment of the urban core. This led to and increase in poverty, and with that poverty came increases in violent crime (violent crime in this country spiked in 1993).
The rise in crime led to an increased need, and desire, for guard dogs in many communities. Pit Bulls, with a tough reputation and affordable access, became a popular go-to type of dog.
Socially this also coincided with the rise of hip hop culture -- which both reflected inner-city society and created it. The 24 hour news cycle that came with the rise of cable tv (and then later the Internet), created a large demand for eyeballs on news. Fear sells eyeballs (and eyeballs sell advertising) and nothing quite created fear like pit bulls. The 24 hour news cycle also played a role in the spread of myths and misinformation -- things that started as inaccurate quotes in newspapers were often spread over hundreds of news outlets that became such "common knowledge" that even research papers reported them as facts. Even today, some still have life.
(I was literally asked about whether pit bulls have locking jaws by a news reporter for a respectable news organization as recently as a month ago, in spite of pit bulls and locking jaws having been a myth that dispelled by science decades ago).
It would be easy to dismiss the negativity surrounding pit bulls as something only created by people seeking to eliminate them. But sadly, some of the most damaging elements of the pit bull reputation came from the people who were in a position to protect them, but often unknowingly or unwittingly also cited the misinformation based on the same fears and stereotypes that led people to fear them in the first place. Much of it still happening by well-meaning proponents of pit bulls today.
And while proponents and opponents have spent the past 30 years debating about the dogs, racial stereotypes and institutional red-lining has escalated the problem for pit bulls in this country (the brief section on the insurance companies alone is worth the purchase price).
But in the end, Pit Bull covers the dramatic increase in knowledge brought on by the increasing scientific literature. It also talks about many of the people that have changed the focus from "the dogs" to the "people and their pets" that are getting to some of the root causes of problems -- poverty, lack of education, discrimination, and fear for their beloved dogs.
I can't stress enough how highly I recommend Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon. I believe it is easily among the three "must read" books for anyone in animal welfare -- or for anyone making policy decisions about animals. It is one of the most thoroughly researched books I've ever read about dogs, and presented in a very readable, entertaining fashion. And whether you are a newcomer to animal welfare, or a relative old-timer, or if you make policy decisions about animal welfare, this book will make you smarter, and make you question many of the things you think you know about dogs -- and the people who own them.
The book hits stores TOMORROW - May 10. So pick one up at your local book-seller or via Amazon. Or, if money is tight, check out your local library. Here locally, the Johnson County Public Library has four copies coming (and a waiting list). The Kansas City, MO Public Library also has four copies.
Editor's Note: In the essence of full disclosure, I was given a free copy of an early version of the book to review. I also have had the pleasure of talking with Bronwen on a few occasions as she researched and wrote the book -- to the point that I would now call her a friend. But that aside, I promised her I'd write an honest review, even if I hated the book. I've read and researched a LOT about dogs, and pit bulls, over the past 11 years--- including reading dozens of research papers, tens of thousands of press articles, dozens of books and written thousands of blog posts on this topic. While I would never claim to know all there is to know on this topic, I think I'm fairly knowledgeable. That said, I learned a LOT from this book. The book is loaded with information that is presented in in a way that was easy and entertaining to digest (which isn't easy to do). And even the information I was familiar with was packaged in a compelling and interesting way. This book deserves all of the praise it receives.
For more reviews:
Editor's Update: Tonight, as a pretty harsh reality that puts an exclamation mark on the book (and this post), my wife just got home from a city council meeting where pit bulls were on the agenda, and the conversation in this small community involved keeping "those people", "white trash" and "gold chains" out of their community. The discrimination is alive and real...and it has nothing to do with the dogs.