By Duncan Strauss
At the moment, it’s hard to think of an animal that’s more polarizing than the pit bull. For one of those two camps, the dog tends to provoke an intense, often irrational fear.
Think that last part might be overstated?
Try this simple experiment, geared for the summer season. Head to your most popular local beach, walk to the center of a random throng of folks on towels and chairs, and yell “SHARK!”
Observe the reaction.
The next day, return to that beach, perhaps selecting a different throng, and yell “PIT BULL!”
Observe how, compared to the day before, far more people scramble across the sand in a panicked state.
On the third day, when–as the result of your field work–you’ve become incarcerated or consigned to the loony bin, crack open a copy of Bronwen Dickey’s Pit Bull: The Battle For An American Icon to arrive at a sophisticated understanding of what exactly happened on that beach.
By the final pages, you’ll also achieve a nuanced appreciation of the long, complicated, fascinating history of pit bull dogs.
Bronwen Dickey & Ken Foster in a reading at New York City’s Strand Bookstore, for Ms. Dickey’s new book, Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon. Ms. Dickey, contributing editor at the Oxford American, turns her award-winning journalistic eye to the contentious history of an American icon: the alternately beloved and brutalized Pit Bull. From film sets to the White House, down into underground rings and black-market notoriety, she investigates the conflicting images and impulses that, even when she brought home a pit pup, rose to the surface in her perception as well as others’.
A contributing editor at Oxford American whose work has appeared in The New York Times and Slate, Dickey has constructed something remarkable with Pit Bull.
Before the book was even published, one critic wrote that “Pit Bull is a towering journalistic achievement of shoe-leather reporting, dogged (sorry) research and eloquent writing.”
Okay, that was me, promoting her May 11 interview on Talking Animals.
But in the ensuing weeks, raves of all stripes poured in, from good old-fashioned newspapers The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The San Francisco Chronicle, from online publications, from dog blogs, from animal experts, and from others.
Part of what accounts for this unanimous thumbs-up is that Dickey has not just burrowed down and gone exceptionally deep in her exploration of the universe of pit bull dogs, but she’s also gone impressively wide.
She spent seven years working on the book, interviewing some 350 people, researching with the tenacity of a—well, you know.
The ground she covers in Pit Bull feels like it should amount to a two-volume set, yet she delivers the information with such tight, polished writing that it’s just 352 pages, including index, bibliography and extensive footnotes.
From AnimalPlanetTV, the myth and the reality about the American Pit Bull
I asked Dickey about the book’s sweeping scope, and to what extent she envisioned it when she began the project.
“I knew there was a lot I wanted to touch on,” she said in the Talking Animals interview.
“I knew I wanted there to be three main threads to the book: I wanted there to be a historical thread, where we follow the evolution of the dogs over time.
“I wanted there to be a scientific thread, where we look at the intricacies of canine behavioral genetics and how we sometimes misinterpret those, or misrepresent the old nature/nurture debate.
“I also wanted there to be a social thread, about how our own perceptions of each other have affected how we’ve seen these dogs over time.
While that sounds like a carefully-designed gambit, and it was, the execution of it during the research phase widened out considerably–wide enough that she wondered more than once how she would get her arms around the ever-expanding information heap.
“There were many of those moments,” she recalled. “I pretty much felt like that every day.
“Because every time I found some new piece of information, it led me to five, 10, 15, a hundred other pieces of information that I found equally interesting.
“And in the end, there was so much I still had to leave out. So that was really a challenge, wrangling it all together. Making it a cohesive story. Making it readable. And making it an enjoyable adventure for people to come along with.”
The elevator pitch version of how Dickey came to write Pit Bull is that she and her husband adopted a pit bull, Nola, who turned out to be an exceptionally sweet dog—which got her wondering how to reconcile the bad rap of pit bulls as snarling, biting, attack machines with the always-gentle, sweet pooch cuddled up on her lap.
As with any elevator pitch, there’s a good deal more substance and intricacy to the full story.
“The original idea stuck in my head even before we got Nola,“ Dickey explained. “It actually started back in 2008. I had always grown up being afraid of pit bulls.
“I didn’t know anything about them, other than to stay away from them. I knew so little that I had always assumed that if you had a pit bull, it was some kind of tacit endorsement of dog fighting. That was how little I knew.
“Then some good friends of mine introduced me to their dog, and she was wonderful. She really upended all these expectations I had about what a pit bull was, how it should be and how it should behave.
“And so I wondered, just out of my own curiosity, ‘Is she an outlier, or is there a little bit more to this story?’ And then I started digging into the scientific literature, the history and just keeping in mind all the commentary around the dog.
“I realized this was enormous firestorm, where you had animal experts saying ‘This is hype. This is not true. Dogs of any breed can become dangerous. You need to look at human-dog interaction, and that’s where the useful information is going to come from.’
“And so, by the time we adopted Nola, I had already started doing some of that research, but then having a connection to a particular dog, and living with one, and seeing other people’s reactions to her, really kind of solidified it for me. I thought, ‘Wow, there’s so much here to talk about it, with critical thinking and skepticism.’“
As a guy who feels like he knows a fair amount about the pit bull realm, and who’s devoted numerous episodes of Talking Animals to various facets of that realm over the years, I’m pleased to acknowledge I learned a great deal from Pit Bull.
One of the things I found most surprising, bordering on revelation, was the significant role that race has played in the pit bull saga. I asked Dickey to speak to that, particularly from a historical perspective.
“That was something I became interested in right away,” she said.
“Part of what I did, and I’m sure I annoyed lots of strangers”—she laughs—“but everywhere I went in the early months of reporting the book, and pretty much throughout the process, I would just ask a random stranger that I would come across: ‘What do you think of pit bulls?’ If I was in a restaurant, I would ask the server, ‘What is your opinion on pit bulls? What is your experience?’
“I just did that over and over and over again, just to get a sense of how the guy on the street, or the woman on the street, feels.
“And what I noticed is that even the people who had pretty strong negative feelings about the dogs, there were fewer of those, actually, than I expected.
“They often would pivot directly to the person they perceived as being behind the dog, and that was the source of their real animosity. After a while, I kept hearing coded racial language, like thug, gangster, dealer—that kind of thing.
“When you hear it enough times, you realize: ‘There’s something going on here. We’re using these dogs as a proxy to talk about this kind of culture war.’
“That became a very important theme in the book, but I saw that over history, that’s always something simmering under dog culture in America, even if you go back to the Civil War, or before that.
“George Washington wrote in a letter to someone that the only reason that ‘negroes’ kept dogs was to aid them in robberies. It was just terrible stuff.
‘Slaves were banned from having dogs. It was this simmering undercurrent of racism even in American dog culture. So I really wanted to address that.
“There were a lot of people who asked me not to, because it was too sticky and too scary and too controversial for a lot of people. But I felt if I kept seeing it everywhere and I didn’t say anything, that would be a real social injustice.”
Clearly, Dickey (the daughter, incidentally, of poet-novelist James Dickey, perhaps best known for writing Deliverance) is not one to shy away from the scary and the controversial, whether it’s her fiercely intelligent approach to writing Pit Bull, or the fiercely ugly response she’s faced by anti-pit agitators while promoting the book.
We’ll circle back to some specifics of that latter part—which is truly hair-raising, with at least one instance where her personal safety appeared in jeopardy—in a moment.
But, on a related note, another eye-opening element of Pit Bull is that, provided a broad enough perspective, we see that the history of the pit bull reflects a number of cycles, where the dogs are embraced and loved, then villainized, then viewed quite warmly, then demonized again.
“I was actually surprised by that, [too],” Dickey said. “I think, because the condensed view of the dogs is that they were once beloved and then they were feared.
“And, yet, if you go back to the first mention of the word ‘bulldog” in 1609, even that far back, the dogs were always controversial. They were always seen as—because they were working class dogs—there were always people who thought they were savage.
“But most of that perception had to do with the people who owned them—they’ve always been this lightning rod for cultural tension. “
How Pit Bulls Became Demonized, from wochit News. Bronwen Dickey believes the more recent stigma against pit bulls is an issue of race and cultural stereotypes. Dickey said, ‘When I did more research about what had actually happened in the ‘70s and 80s, and saw how much race-baiting there was in the media coverage of pit bulls, I thought it was really something I had to pay attention to.’
And, boy, there’s certainly been no shortage of that cultural tension in recent years.
Indeed, we seem to be in a “demonized” cycle right now, where anti-pit bull sentiment often crosses into hysteria, sometimes fueled by shoddy reporting that results in a Dog Bites Man (or Woman or Child) story automatically becoming a Pit Bull Bites Man (or Woman or Child) story.
Dickey documents how even highly-regarded publications like The New York Times and Sports Illustrated have been guilty of reportorial blunders of varying degree, which in turn get re-reported, and contributes to the flawed statistics about how dangerous the dogs are.
This often operatic scenario can be vastly exacerbated by the severe difficulty of identifying what sort of dog actually is a pit bull.
In the conversation with Dickey, I recount attending a conference presentation some years ago delivered by Stacey Coleman, executive director of the Animal Farm Foundation, which describes its mission as chiefly concerned with “securing equal treatment and opportunity for ‘pit bull’ dogs.”
One portion of the presentation involved projecting slides of a series of dogs on a screen, inviting audience members to guess which animals were pit bull dogs.
As I reported to Dickey, there were a number of surprising results, including one of the final images—a smiling yellow lab that strongly resembled the one we have at home, which, Coleman announced, had more genetic material of a pit than the textbook-looking pit bull dogs that had appeared on the previous slides.
This dovetails with the challenge people feel when they’re trying to identify what sort of dog they’ve had an encounter with, what sort of dog bit them, what sort of dog attacked them—they’re very hard-pressed to do so.
But the shorthand becomes, Well, it was a pit bull.
“Right,” she agreed. “And we know there have been multiple studies now that have confirmed that no two people can agree on what a ‘pit bull’ looks like.
“So, one, the category is so broad to begin with—we always talk about the dogs as though they’re a distinct breed from a closed gene pool of pedigree breeds.
“There are at least four pedigree breeds in that category, and an enormous number of dogs who may or may not have one or more of those pedigree breeds in their genetic make-up.
“So when pit bull becomes ‘dog not otherwise specified,’ then you’re going to have a huge problem with breed identification, and it really nullifies the validity of things like bite statistics. “
This constitutes an example of the sort of statement that infuriates the anti-pit bull contingent: observing that it’s immensely difficult to identify a pit with any certainty, and that the statistics that function as hand grenades steadily lobbed against the dogs turn out to be duds.
Of course, damn near everything seems to infuriate the anti-pit bull contingent. These are people who firmly believe the dogs are dangerous, will attack a human (or another dog) given half a chance. Some believe they’re cold-blooded killers
Back to the polarizing paradigm we noted at the outset, these people reject the notion that pit bulls can be sweet, cuddly family dogs. They dismiss the idea that pit bulls can be gentle and effective therapy dogs, whether working with a hospitalized child or a military veteran contending with PTSD.
And they’re certainly upset by what Dickey has fashioned in Pit Bull, so adeptly researched and reported, so evenhanded, so carefully sourced that it’s rock solid and bulletproof.
The very qualities that have earned the book an ongoing string of rave reviews and other plaudits have managed to make the anti-pit crew positively rabid.
And, boy, have they been coming after Dickey. Any time a review of Pit Bull, or an article about Dickey is posted online, the comments are plentiful and plenty vitriolic.
Everything, apparently, is fair game: name-calling, profanity, insults not only directed at Dickey, but also sometimes directed at her late father.
Sometimes, the ugliness doesn’t bear the distance of Internet troll action. Dickey launched an extensive book tour the day Pit Bull was published, with signings and readings at a string of bookstores.
At The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, NC (Dickey’s hometown), one anti-pit insurgent interrupted the session with a series of aggressive questions.
None of Dickey’s answers seemed to appease him, and things became tense enough that the police were called and escorted her out through the back door. Yikes.
Some of these combatants—having dealt with many on the radio show over the years, I liken them to climate-change deniers, but far more virulent and far less interested in facts—reflect no sense of boundaries.
One of them, James, evidently in the guise of a twisted Facebook friend request, sent this message to Dickey: “good god are you a stupid fucking bitch…spreading lies about pitbulls…i hope every death from here on out haunts you…but since you are pit loving cunt ..you won’t…I hope you get mauled by a bear”
To which Dickey replied—and you have to love her grit and humor here—“I’m not sure what bears have to do with this, Joseph.”
I couldn’t help think back to the portion of our conversation addressing the cyclical nature of how pit bulls have been perceived, when I asked Dickey how she would characterize the current phase
She said, “I think it’s definitely turning more toward the positive.”
“We know so much more about animal behavior now than we ever have,” she said. “We know how important it is to examine the dog within the context of their human environment. And I think people, especially in an information age, are a little wary of being told to be afraid of everything.”
About the Author: Combining his passions for animals, radio, journalism, music and comedy, Duncan Strauss launched Talking Animals at KUCI in California in 2003. Since late 2005 the show has aired on Tampa’s WMNF. Producer-host Strauss lives in Jupiter Farms, FL, with his family, including four cats, two horses and one dog. He spends each day talking to those animals, and maintains they talk right back to him, a claim as yet unverified by credible sources.