30 May 2014
“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope” (Angelou, 2013).
In 2013 President Barack Obama stood his ground against breed-specific legislation, laws which target and outlaw specific breeds of dogs, though he had nothing to gain by making this declaration; he doesn’t own a Pit Bull (or Pit Bull mix) whom these law are strategically written for. He owns a “nice” house dog. Still, President Obama’s official statement was, “Research shows that bans on certain types of dogs are largely ineffective and often a waste of public resources […] As an alternative to breed-specific policies, the CDC recommends a community-based approach to prevent dog bites. And ultimately, we think that’s a much more promising way to build stronger communities of pets and pet owners” (Greenwood, 2013). (Emphasis mine) But, perhaps he understood something more … something that few people do: separating dog owners from their community because their breed of dog is undesirable is equal to the segregation laws that were enacted when Jim Crow was around. Perhaps our president understood the “one-drop rule” was only a good benchmark for how American you were, and was never a good measurement for determining how much Black you had in you, or how much Pit your dog was, in order to enforce those restrictions. Perhaps it was something more, though; maybe he understood that owning a Pit Bull didn’t make people into criminals, though breed-specific legislation surely would. Regardless of how often popular culture and our media present Pit Bull owners as scary and deranged, Pit Bull owners are not criminals-in-the-making because of their dogs; Pit Bulls are loving, loyal, family dogs, not criminal manufacturers.
I was never called deviant, nor ever vilified, when I owned my Cocker Spaniel. In fact, it never occurred to me that I would be looked down on by anyone for my breed choice, except, perhaps, by those who thought spending $350 for a dog was incredibly poor judgement. But, I didn’t want a mutt from the shelter… You can’t trust those pound puppies—they’re in for a reason, you know.
The shelter gave me a choice that day; honestly, I don’t know what prompted me to go in. Maybe it was because my Cocker of 13 years had been gone for just over three, but I just wanted to see. Big, brown, almond-shaped eyes stared at me and I thought, “Oh, Lordy, who could say no to that?” Still, I wasn’t convinced; he was a mutt and there’s a lot of risk involved; those dogs usually come with some…baggage. “Take him home for the weekend, and if it doesn’t work out … bring him back,” they said. The promise of a “full refund” clinched the deal. I drove away thinking, “How much ‘damage’ could he have? He’s an 8-week-old ‘Black Lab Mix,’” as stated by all the papers I’d signed. I knew (though not from personal experience) that Labradors are sweet and tolerant to the ends of the ages. They are family dogs. Every media depiction shows how Labs go on family trips, camping, and to the beach; a Lab is what I needed. I had high expectations of personal community approval, with lots of “ooh’s and ahh’s”.
My first experience with our neighborhood’s non-approval, and media-centric “land-shark” mentality happened exactly two hours after bringing this puppy home. It was pretty clear that while he might have some other breeds in him, a Labrador mix
is not what he was. I would never, never, never have rescued a Pit Bull. They’re aggressive—and, according to “everybody” who knows “anything” about these dogs, they will snap, just like rubber bands. One day everything is great and the next … Pitzilla! I had seen plenty of these news stories, too. “Maybe not right this moment,” they said… In their minds this puppy had already become some heinous creature of the night, and I, for adopting him, was taking my children’s lives, their friends’ lives, and even my neighbors’ lives into my own hands. I should, “Choose wisely,” they said, and it was suggested that *every* one of these types of dogs should be put down… to save us all — of course.
I support the idea of making the world a better place, but the assumptions and presumptions underpinning the idea that “we” need to “euthanize” an entire breed of dog in order to preserve and protect ourselves from these beasts of prey, just didn’t add up; there were plenty of negative news reports surrounding Pit Bulls and the low-life neighborhoods they were trained in, but those were nurturing stories, right? We live in a nice neighborhood; we’re nowhere close to Skid Row. Still, our neighborhood issues began that day with “us’s” versus “them’s”— sides were taken and lines were drawn; everyone knows “them’s” never come out of the deal quite as good as “us’s” so it’s best be on the “right side” early. Taking the Bull(dog) by the horns, I decided to find out
if what the media reported was true: Are Pit Bull’s little walking time-bombs? Should I take him back, or keep him crated and watch my children vigilantly? More though, will I become a criminal meth-dealer because of my very close proximity to a Pit Bull? I Googled the term, “Why + Terrible + Pit Bull.”
—I should tell you now, before I go into much more detail, that I am a lady with a dragon tattoo and according to our media’s definition, tattoos and piercings are a part of what defines me as a Pit Bull owner— But that aside, I quickly discovered why I was “endangering” my neighbors.
The first article I found, Scared of Pit Bulls? You’d Better Be!, written by Brian C. Anderson in the spring of 1999, stated my problem clearly: “Bred for violence, these dogs can wreck a neighborhood’s quality of life as surely as prostitutes or drug dealers” (Anderson, 1999). (Emphasis mine) —Honestly, I was impressed, but this little puppy didn’t look all that powerful— Anderson continued his first paragraph about how he has personally watched drug dealers and gang members training these dogs into vicious beasts in the park across from his house. Though he tried to present both sides of the story, citing and quoting Robin Kovary, a dog breeder and Pit Bull lover, he used her quotes to further his own agenda. Kovary stated, according to Anderson, “Once the word got out […] to youths who wanted a tough dog to show off with, the breed passed into less than responsible hands—kids who wanted the dogs to be as aggressive as they could be” (Anderson, 1999). The main takeaway from his article was “criminals own these dogs” or more, “if you want to be a criminal you’ll get this dog.” Pit Bulls weren’t owned by responsible pet owners anywhere in the article. But my neighbors knew me, they knew I was responsible — why then was I suddenly the pariah of our ’hood? I returned to Google with a new search term: “Pit Bull + Family Dog”.
I was pleasantly surprised to find there are family Pit Bulls—famous family dogs, in fact—and the families were not blacklisted, nor criminals! Theodore Roosevelt owned a Pit Bull, while in the White House, named Pete; coincidentally, The Little Rascal’s named their four-legged Pittie Petey; “Sallie” is an immortalized Pit Bull standing guard over a Civil War monument in Pennsylvania; and the U.S. Navy’s loyal mascot was a Pit Bull named Sergeant Stubby. Helen Keller also had a Pit Bull named Stubby and I wondered if it was named after the Navy dog? — Regardless, none of these people were even remotely involved in criminal activity. Comedian Jamie Foxx vowed to find Barack Obama, and his family, a Pit Bull when they were trying to choose a new best friend (Moira, 2008), and he never once considered the criminal potential, I’d bet. Still, Moira, from the Dream Dogs Art site stated succinctly the problem with Pit Bulls as family pets, drawing upon a secondary negative reference I hadn’t considered, politics. “Ummm, yeah…there is no way Michelle is going to get a Pitbull for her two little girls. […] And NOBODY wants the whole Sarah Palin/Pitbull/lipstick/pig meme bubbling back up in the media again” (Moira, 2008). Yeah, the Palin thing. Nobody wants someone who owns a Pit Bull to become as tenacious as a Pit Bull, and that was a very real possibility since Pit Bulls seem to have this mind-altering ability about them. One moment you’re a law-abiding citizen, the next you find yourself wearing red lipstick or heading up a notorious criminal ring.
Maybe to mock “Moira”, I threw on some loud makeup, grabbed my puppy, and headed for the bookstore. I picked up the book Pit Bull Placebo, written in 2007 by Karen Delise; it was exactly the book I needed to read. In fact, it was the book a lot of people should have been reading. While the media portends that you likely to have a criminal lurking inside because you knowingly own a Pit Bull, Delise debunked that myth in pretty short order stating that a lot of times little people with big egos want to appear larger than life by owning one of the world’s scariest dogs, but Pit Bulls are not any scarier than other dogs; it’s a popular media ruse (Delise, 2007).
There is a media driven problem of both owner and dog stereotypes, which in turn become self-fulfilling prophesies. This cartoon, “Beware of Dog” (Epic Snaps, n.d.), is the epitome of both cliches — the Pit Bull, with the spike collar, versus the ego-heavy, brawny- scary owners, or the “Jerks with Masculinity Issues”. The cartoon drives home Delise’s point: these stereotypes of both dogs and owners are wrong, in spite of the notoriety surrounding them both (Delise, 2007).
It can be tricky to navigate through the muddy waters created by the publicity-peddled terrible owners, still, I had to trust Delise, correlation does not equal causation — drug dealers choose these dogs because of their reputation, not because that’s who these dogs make someone into. I would not be starting my own meth-lab, prostitution group, or dogfighting ring simply because I had this dog. And, Cesar Milan agreed.
Cesar Milan, known around the world as The Dog Whisperer, has his own pack of 25 dogs–his favorite is his Pit Bull, Junior (Milan, n.d.). In an article on his website, Milan tells how Pit Bull’s got the “bad rap”, blaming the problem squarely on the two-leggers; we blame the dogs for being bad, and making us bad, but really we are to blame in both cases (Milan, n.d.). Milan, working with the “Homeboy’s” in California, helped their ex-gang members with their dogs’ behavior problems. Though the media would paint all gangsters as Pit Bull owners, they are not. Some, actually, own terrible little dogs. Watching big tough guys owning little, fluffy, ornery dogs makes me laugh. They just don’t seem to …match. There’s that media stereotype for you again; it’s hard to break.
Bucking tradition, media portrayals, and popular culture’s stereotypes even further is Pit Bulls and Parolees (Drachkovitch 2009-2014). This popular show is filled with the people who don’t match with the dogs who should, by all rights and in many cases, hate humans. Tia, the “shelter-mom/rescuer”, sporting a shirt which reads “Racism Is The Pits”, has a full-plate juggling the media’s portrayal of these dogs, which makes them less than adoptable to regular families (like mine), and the full-house of Pit Bulls she currently has (Drachkovitch 2009-2014). She, like the Homeboy’s of California, believes in second chances for both people and for Pitties. She has the unenviable job of trying to break criminal-adopter stereotypes; she adopts to “normal looking” people, though her family has all the tattoos—the hard exterior shells—you’d expect to find in the owners of this infamous breed. She lives her life trying to teach people not to fear the Pittie, or their tattooed owners, making guest appearances across the country on her “‘P’ Word” tour… and working with a lot of Pit Bulls. I couldn’t have been more surprised to learn that according to temperament testing, Pit Bull’s rank right behind Labrador’s, though certainly our culture wouldn’t tell you that. I began to wonder, “If they’re wrong about what a Pit Bull is, are they also wrong about the humans who own them?” They are.
Tia advocates for Pit Bull owners, against breed-specific legislation, for second chance homes for Pit Bulls through her television program, and against social bias. Working with her to end stereotype biases are the second chance parolees; the group you’d think would own these dogs. Tia makes it her job to hire those she can, helping break not only dog, but people discriminations (Drachkovitch 2009-2014). Not surprisingly, after watching this show filmed in the city of second chances, New Orleans, I believed I had the bravery, wisdom, and strength to be a good second chance owner.
To be a Pit Bull owner I must bravely fight against the idea that only criminals want these family dogs and that by owning one I am dragging the criminal element into the neighborhood. I must also understand that people are frightened by what they don’t know. Scared people are defensive; I must have the wisdom to know the difference between bad laws and bad people. And, Pit Bull owners must be “better” than every other dog owner—we must exhibit the antithesis of everything the media portrays us as, all the while standing to make people understand that racism, however it looks, is wrong; Pit owners are decent human beings, not gang members or drug dealers, regardless of how many tattoos, piercings, or Pits we might have.
Character enables you to face yourself in the mirror and like who you see; I am taking a page from my dog’s book and loyally standing strong in the face of adversity, still loving people no matter what they’ve put me through. I encourage others to follow my lead and stop bowing to peer pressure, blindly accepting bans on specific breeds of dogs because it’s the easy thing to do, especially when these bans hurt not only dogs, but the communities of families who love them — even more since these bans are about a misperception and misrepresentation of who the people are who own the dogs—law abiding citizens—and not because the dogs themselves create hostile neighborhoods. I hope, should you read nothing but this paragraph, this is what you take away: My neighbors were wrong: Pit Bull’s do not make people into criminals; nothing could be further from the truth. Loving a Pit Bull just might, however, make you into a better human being
—I know mine did.
(Bode through the years)
Anderson, B. (1999). Scared of pit bulls? You’d better be!. Retrieved from http://www.city-journal.org/html/9_2_scared_of_pit.html
Angelou, M. (2013). No fences. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/MayaAngelou/posts/10151418853254796
Epic Snaps. (n.d.). Beware of dog. Retrieved from http://epicsnaps.com/77222/Beware-
Delise, K. (2007). The pit bull placebo: The media, myths and politics of canine aggression. United States: Anubis Publishing.
Drachkovitch, R. (Executive producer). (2009-2014). Pit bulls and parolees [Television series]. Agua Dulce, CA: 44 Blue Productions.
Fox news. (2013, February 6). Pit bulls wrongly blamed for dog attacks. Retrieved from http://fox2now.com/2013/02/06/fox-files-pit-bulls-wrongly-blamed-for-dog-attacks
Greenwood, A. (2013, August 20). Obama comes out against dog breed-specific legislation, joins the fight for Pit Bulls. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/20/obama-breed-specific-legislation_n_3785911.html
Milan, C. (n.d.). How did pit bulls get a bad rap? Retrieved from http://www.cesarsway.com/dogbehavior/basics/How-Did-Pit-Bulls-Get-a-Bad-Rap
Milan, C. (n.d.). Who is Cesar Millan? Retrieved from http://www.cesarsway.com/dog-whisperer-tv/aboutcesar
Moira. (2008). Dream dogs art. Retrieved from http://dreamdogsart.typepad.com/the_
Scheller, A. (2013). Why it’s ridiculous people still think pit bulls are inherently mean (infographic). Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/24/pit-bulls-_n_4151562.html?1382625997&ncid=edlinkushpmg00000008